It’s a line I heard time and time again, not only as a child but well into my early twenties. I never realized how much of my identity this simple phrase would take away.
When I sang loudly in our church’s Primary chorus, when I brought home straight A’s: “What a good girl!”
When I turned down R-rated movies and parties that might have involved alcohol, or signed up for five AP classes Junior year of high school: “I never worry about you because you’re such a good girl.”
Parents, church leaders, distant relatives, teachers. The parade of adults in my life wishing me to be “good” didn’t mean any harm. They were expressing their approval of my life choices and trying to build a healthy confidence in my future. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that these voices started to shift and I recognized a more dangerous undertone.
I’m writing this post because I overheard a family friend telling another parent “what a good girl” her daughter was, and I wondered. I wondered if this innocent passing comment would end up having the same profound impact on the shy ten-year old hiding behind her mother that it still has on me today.
I grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, “Mormon” for short. Latter Day Saints consider themselves part of a Christian church that promotes very traditional values. Anyone who grew up in a conservative household can probably relate; obedience to authority, performance in school, and modesty are good. Alcohol, swearing, and sex are bad. Life is black and white. I internalized these values deeply, and soon my sense of self-worth was tied to how well I toed this thin, invisible line.
Both of my parents attended a private Mormon university, but my love of fencing led to a scholarship at the University of California, San Diego. I quickly built a tight-knit community of teammates, a full roster of classes, and a healthy relationship with the beach. It was the first time in my life I’d been separated from my strict religious community.
This distance created a deep conflict. My team, the sport I excelled at, and my newfound independence gave me so much fulfillment. At the same time, in my mind, life in San Diego wearing tank tops and skipping church to go to competitions and farmers markets was the height of worldly pleasure.
So I gave it up. I put my degree on hold for the eighteen months allotted to women who wish to serve, and left to preach the gospel in a foreign country. I traded my ambitions and recently discovered self-confidence for words I hadn’t heard in so long and secretly craved. Words young women in our church are raised on.
“You’re such a good girl.” I heard it from my bishop as he praised me for sacrificing what seemed good for what would actually make me happy in the long run.
I heard it from extended family who had themselves experienced the honor of a child serving a faithful mission.
And I heard it from my community and church leaders who praised me for going the extra mile. (Women aren’t required to serve missions in the LDS church. Only men.) Little did they know, I wasn’t so much going the extra mile as trying to atone for my ‘reckless living’. (I know, I know, I’m laughing too. At this point I’d never touched alcohol or coffee and still flinched when I said the word “damn”.)
I desperately wanted to be the good girl I had been growing up. The girl who sang loudest in Primary, who always showed up to activities, who read her scriptures and prayed faithfully, who urged her family to attend church every week even when it was early in the morning. The girl who never stayed out too late and never spoke too loud. The girl willing to leave everything for God.
But after my stint in California, I wasn’t the same. I couldn’t go back to pretending I didn’t enjoy speaking my mind or stepping outside my comfort zone. “Good girl” felt less like praise and more like a carefully crafted web I didn’t know how to unstick from. I started wondering if maybe quiet, submissive, and obedient didn’t equate to a full life. My skepticism started to build.
The night before I left on my mission, I cried to my mom in the car for two hours straight because I didn’t think I could stomach teaching the Church’s “Law of Chastity”, part of which prohibited gay marriage. I didn’t believe it. “I know you’ll make the right decision; you’re a good girl.”
Halfway through my mission, I tried to come out to our Mission President, the man in charge of all missionaries inside our boundaries. “I don’t believe that for a second. You’re such a good girl, you’re just confused.”
But the spell had broken. I was confused, just not about my sexuality. I was confused because I’d given up all aspects of my identity; my education, my sport, my friends, and any chance at an honest relationship; expecting to find a new and truer identity underneath it all. I was looking for the “good” adults had praised my entire life, an ideal I’d worked my ass off for.
As it turns out, “good” is not a personality trait. My skin crawls when I think of how desperate I was to fill a mold that only benefited an outdated, patriarchal structure. I wonder how many other woman can see themselves in my childhood.
Eight-year-old me, sweaty hands clenched in my lap, trying to sit straight in a stiff white dress as an older man interviewed me to determine if I was worthy to be baptized and have God’s Spirit with me.
Twelve-year-old me, same position, different office, a different man’s face. I memorized geometric patterns in the speckled purple carpet and my cheeks burned as I reaffirmed that I was, and would stay, sexually pure.
Fifteen-year-old me, in a constant cycle of forcing my hand into the air on Sunday when the disquiet became too much… and then quickly acknowledging that my opinions were born of pride, my questions irrelevant, and that I would stay steadfast no matter what.
Please don’t misunderstand: this isn’t meant to be a dig at religion. My experiences are framed by my faith because that’s the environment I grew up in. I’m sure there are women in a variety of circumstances and religious backgrounds who can relate to having self-worth assigned to them by men in authority at a young age.
As a society, we are already doing better at teaching young women confidence, diversity, and curiosity towards the world around them. My sister is only eight years younger than me, and she’s growing up in a drastically different world than I did! But still, I’m writing because I know there will be people who relate with at least some part of my experience. And I want to open a conversation.
I’m still finding an identity outside the values assigned to me as a young girl. It’s fun and exciting! What are your experiences finding worth outside another person/group/institution? What parts of your identity do you pride yourself on now?
(I’m sure there’s a male perspective on this as well; I can’t write to it as it isn’t mine. So for any men reading, feel free to comment from your perspective if any of this rings true for you as well.)