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.