“Sugar and spice and everything nice. That’s what little girls are made of.” Have you heard this rhyme before? It’s an oldie, but one that is still repeated. It’s probably fair to say that everyone likes sugar and spicy food is pretty popular these days, but the idea that girls are still meant to be “nice” at their very core is clearly different from the message about what boys are made of (“snips and snails and puppy-dog tails”).
How this translates into contemporary life is that girls still carry the burden of always feeling like they need to please others, a habit that can then carry over into adulthood and keep girls from fully realizing their potential. Another offshoot of this is the intense pressure of trying to be “perfect” – an impossible task. Pleasing others means avoiding conflict; pleasing others means making your own needs second to what someone who you might not even care that much about wants; and pleasing others means means diminishing your individuality to fit a model of sweetness that denies you have a right to feel anger, to own your choices, and to speak up about what’s bugging you.
What many people don’t realize is that always pleasing others and not prioritizing your own needs has long-term repercussions for self-esteem and for leadership skills. If you are taught that it’s more important to put others’ needs first and to be liked how will you learn what you really want? And feel that it’s valued? How will you run a big corporation one day as CEO if you’re worried about making a decision that might cause others to dislike you? It’s impossible to do both – and that’s where girls suffer from contradictory tensions that can’t be resolved without breaking the model of what girls “should be” — people who put others’ needs first.
It’s time for a new rhyme – one that lets girls realize that their own voices need to be heard, and while meanness is never a positive value, recognizes that anger, respectfully expressed, is okay. By figuring out what your own individual needs are, and speaking up about them, rather than pushing them down in order to please others, you are tapping into an inner power that can reframe the picture of how girls are “supposed” to be in our society. Not being “nice” doesn’t mean being unkind – sometimes, it just means being your honest self – and allowing your individual needs to be heard and seen.
The next time you hear yourself going along with what someone else wants, despite feeling a wave of discomfort in your stomach (or anywhere else in your body) because you know it’s not what you want, try speaking up. You can be friendly and you can be kind, but be honest. You might be surprised by how good it feels to put your needs first and how glad a friend or family member is to really hear what you want. Take a deep breath and focus in on what you really want and then say it without apology. Start small and remember this feeling of asserting yourself. Think about how your mom or another woman you know says “no” when something else is clearly more important. Being involved in your school’s debate team is another way to practice debating and even have fun while learning the art of arguing well. Pick a cause that means something to you and work on its campaign. Expressing your passion about this cause to others is a great way to speak up for something you believe it, then translate that to your own personal needs. Remember every time you say “no” to some one else it also means there’s a “yes” saved for your own priorities.