Last week I exhorted women to stop worrying about treading in men’s space and just go and claim what they want. Long ago, I wrote about how all of us, men and women, should think of ourselves as equally entitled – not more, not less, but equally.
I think it’s all of a piece – if we humans all believe we’re entitled to claim our little part of the world, then we wouldn’t second-guess ourselves and stop to ask whether it’s OK to do a certain job, or walk into a swank hotel, or demand to be treated decently in public, regardless of financial status, gender, or race. But, often, women and girls aren’t taught this. Instead we’re taught to be pleasing.
As children, we are always on the lookout for cues about what’s expected of us. I internalized the message that as a female person, I was expected to be, in this order: pretty; nice; book smart (but not so smart that I might think too highly of myself because if I were to think too highly of myself I would violate the requirement to be nice).
I also internalized the message that if I could swing pretty/nice/smart (but not too smart) just right I would secure the approval of practically everyone on earth. This seemed like the most intoxicating narcotic imaginable. Because I’m smart (ironically enough), I eventually figured out how to do this, and got a lot of approval.
It was then I discovered the secret. The world’s approval ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sure, approval is wonderful when it comes from people I admire and love. But, the landscaper who drops his flirty banter the minute I (politely) insist he actually complete the work I paid him for? The guy at the oil change place who’s all friendliness and smiles until I point out that the $80 “engine clean” is a scam and ask him to please give up recommending it to me and just change my oil? The mountain biker who is thrilled to see a group of women in the woods until we stand our ground and refuse to let him mow us down on our climb just because he feels like going fast and we’re occupying the trail?
What, exactly, is the benefit of their approval? What do I get in exchange for giving up the yardwork, time, or trail I’m perfectly entitled to? Approval and …? See, there is no “and” because the approval’s supposed to be all we need. It’s not enough – not for me anyway. Because at the same time I was internalizing the message that I needed to be pleasing, I was also dreaming big about the life I was going to have – full of adventure, and interesting jobs, and enough money to live as I please. What I discovered was that to have the big life, you have to give up a lot of the approval. I’m OK with that, but I wish I hadn’t wasted time chasing approval to begin with.
This week Sheryl Sandberg launched the “Ban Bossy” campaign. I see her point – that when we use the “bossy” label to quell girls who are simply being assertive, we encourage them to limit themselves in a way that we don’t typically do with boys. I like that she’s discussing this, but I will go her one better. Ban the social conditioning that tells girls that approval is all they’ll ever need. Tell girls that their own power is a million times more valuable than anyone’s approval. Tell them that, and the “b” word will roll right off their backs.
Thanks to my friend Alice for suggesting this post.
Jennifer I like your thoughts but as I work with the 20 somethings of today I would argue that there is a fine line between assertiveness and arrogance. I fear that the trophy kid generation may have gotten a better message than what we did as kids but the mutation will not serve them well either.
Sarah, good insight. I don’t see too much of it with my younger classmates, but I do see some of the arrogance, and yeah, it’s annoying and so not productive. Maybe the answer is to teach kids to think highly of their hard work and accomplishments, not just think they’re great by default. Or at least teach boys and girls the same level of approval seeking.
Aha! Yes. I agree with you. I don’t agree with Sheryl, however, except on the most basic level. I am around four-year-olds a lot these days. There is a big difference between assertive and bossy.
I lament the times I see little girls trying to please their peers (often other girls) rather than stand up for themselves. If I am approached with “So-and-so did this to me!” I almost always tell the kid: “Go tell him/her you don’t like that and that you don’t want him/her to do it anymore”, hoping that they will learn to do that without my instruction (unless it’s something that requires adult intervention for safety reasons). This happens with children of both genders, but I know that as girls get older, bossy and assertive can get mixed up.
However, a little girl who barks orders at everyone on the playground and then tries to manipulate people who refuse to follow the orders is *not* showing leadership skills. She is bossy. And I think we are doing all kids a disservice if we ignore that kind of behavior from either gender. I’ve heard boys called bossy, but more often they seem to try to get their way physically, and that gets labeled “aggressive”. It is aggressive. And bossy is bossy.
I guess my problem is that I keep running into kids (or, more often, they run into me) that are not taught that respect for others is extremely important. They do not respect the rights of others, the bodily autonomy of others, or the rights of others to have their needs met. If we start teaching little girls OR little boys that they can and should control others, there will be a lot more kids mowing down toddlers on the bouncy slide.
All kids misbehave sometimes, and act like jerks or barbarians. It’s part of learning what is appropriate. I wish I could say that I thought banning “bossy” would result in a generation of self-assured and confident teenage girls who are comfortable in their own skin. I think it might lead to more people thinking that their shit is more important than everybody else’s and acting accordingly.
Darbi, I would love to see all kids taught that they are entitled to autonomy and respect, but taught equally that others’ autonomy is just as important. I have seen parents who extend their own narcissism to their kids and fail to teach that second part. Not sure how to fix that because it starts with the prior generations. And, I don’t like banning bossy, because it’s a symptom (of various types of social malaise) not the root. But, that said, I don’t think Sandberg meant to encourage kids to think they can control others, I think she means to encourage girls to be OK with taking a decisive role, without worrying about being liked. And that is something more girls/women could use. Hell, it took me decades to figure it out.