Goodbye good girl – on the benefits of being “bad”

I wrote this feature, based on a book, a long time back.  When I recently re-read it, I thought it was hopelessly dated.  Surely women don’t need to be told to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  But then I reflected that, although the language might sound odd, the points the book makes are still, sadly, very valid.  Women are still often people pleasers, desperately trying to conform to old stereotypes – so I brushed it down and have put it up here.  See what you think.

Are you a “good girl” or a “bad girl”? Are you striving to please the world or intent on pleasing yourself?  Eileen Clegg and Susan Swartz, authors of the book Goodbye Good Girl say that women are still forcing themselves into stereotypical roles, despite all these years of feminism and supposed “equal opportunity”. Even when society stops laying down the rules, it seems we simply turn round and lay them on ourselves.
Good girls, they say, are humble to the point of self-deprecating, cautious to the point of timidity, caretaking to the point of martyrdom. They try to conform to the media image of the ideal woman – young, thin, perfectly made-up, living in a dream home with a storybook marriage and angelic children.
“Constantly trying to conform to others’ expectations eventually saps all your energy until you’re limp as a doormat and not exactly in the position to exert a positive influence on the world,” they warn. Being a “good girl” all the time stops us from cultivating the real us, because we are horribly afraid of disapproval.

On the other hand, being a “bad girl” simply means taking the opportunity to discover our real selves, our authentic, unbounded, joyful selves. It doesn’t make us bad mothers, bad wives, bad children – it simply allows us to be ourselves. Equally, say the authors, “it’s not about transforming ourselves into raging feminist man-haters – it’s about taking the best of being a woman without losing ourselves in the process.”

Follow their ten point plan for transforming yourself into a liberated “Bad” girl.


GOOD GIRLS: listen and sympathize but don’t get to moan in return. They give up their place in the queue. They take the yellow fruit pastilles and let you have the black and red ones. Of course it’s great to be unselfish but the problem comes when you find yourself always saying “I’m OK” when you’re feeling utterly ill; when you always end up at the back of the queue; when you’re always listening, never talking.

BAD GIRLS: practice give and take. They feel free to moan when life gets them down. They don’t feel guilty about dumping on other people – and they will only take so much dumping in return. It has to be a fair exchange. When they don’t feel good, they say so. Bad girls delegate. They ask for help when they need it – they would never turn themselves into martyrs, alone in the kitchen doing the dishes having cooked Sunday lunch. They would have arranged a clean-up patrol and be sitting with their feet up enjoying a well-deserved coffee.


GOOD GIRLS: live with the vague but constant sense that “they” are hovering around us – invisible but ever-present judges watching with a device that can tell if we don’t measure up to the standards. They are caught in the “should” trap – doing what they feel they ought to do; what society expects; rather than what they want. They learned the lesson young, that there are rules, that this is the way things are done – even if it goes against every instinct and every bone in your body.

BAD GIRLS: learn to name the rules that dominated them as children. They learn to understand them, take charge of them and refuse to be dominated by them. They do what they want, not what everybody else wants them to do. They send thank-you notes because they’re truly grateful, not because they feel beholden. They have people over to dinner because they enjoy their company, not because it’s “their” turn to host the party. There’s nothing wrong with being “nice” – providing it reflects how you feel inside.


GOOD GIRLS: are frightened by their own shadows. Everything and anything frightens them: the dark, other people, making a fool of themselves, being too loud and too brash. It is this fear which prevents many women from moving on. Unlike boys who are taught to be strong and tough; many girls are brought up believing it’s natural to be timid and frightened. It’s feminine to hold back and falter.

BAD GIRLS: have a healthy relationship with fear. Fear is a biological protection – the instinct works to keep us safe. Fear itself is not a weakness: letting it rule you is. Bad girls aren’t foolhardy; they don’t take undue risks. But they won’t let fear stand in their way. They push through their irrational fears – take a deep breath and make themselves do the scary thing: walk out in the dark; make that speech; join that class; learn to swim or parachute. Bad girls go on holiday on their own if they don’t have anyone to go with – and they have a whale of a time. Shirley Valentine was a typical bad girl!


GOOD GIRLS: would never dream of putting their own needs first. They are self-effacing martyrs who live on a diet of self-denial and restriction. Everyone else must have their fun but the good girl rarely gets to join in – unless her needs dove-tail precisely with the rest of her family, friends, colleagues. She’d never dream of wasting money on anything frivolous or unnecessary.

BAD GIRLS: spend money on themselves, pamper themselves, enjoy themselves. They know that they are important, that they matter, that they deserve treats both small and large. Bad girls take a day off work and book themselves in for a day at a spa; they park the kids with a babysitter and meet a friend for a boozy, indulgent lunch. They take off with a group of similarly minded bad girls for an outrageous holiday abroad – free from all ties and responsibilities for a week or two. Bad girls treat themselves in whatever way that means – whether it’s a healthy smoothie, a Pilates class, a new book, a night off from all responsibility.


GOOD GIRLS: don’t like to play sports. They are still suffering from the old gym days when their teacher made fun of them for not being coordinated, or when they were the last to be picked for the team. Or they are caught in the mentality that said it wasn’t necessary for girls to be physical, or sporty. If they do play sports, they rarely win because it’s not polite and right to be pushy and competitive. It’s just not feminine. Sometimes you’ll find good girls down the gym, delicately moving around the machines – refusing to do free weights or CrossFit because they’re ‘scared of bulking up’.

BAD GIRLS: play hard and play to win. They don’t care if they aren’t any good at the game – they enjoy the physical exercise and the fun of the sport. They know that physical exercise gives them a sense of confidence and boosts their feelgood chemicals. They try all manner of different sports until they find one they like – often something miles away from schoolgirl netball, tennis or hockey. They test out football and rugby; have a go at canoeing or polo; train for marathons or triathlons. They sweat hard and breathe hard; they mess up their hair and scrape their knees.


GOOD GIRLS: have a mental ticker-tape running in their heads, chanting “I’m too fat, I’m too fat, I’m too fat.” They have grown up being taught – by their parents, by their peers, by the media – that slim is good, and thin is better. They spend their lives dieting or thinking about dieting – starving themselves for approval, living in misery for the sake of a size ten dress. They pounce on every latest celebrity diet, turn themselves squeaky clean with colonics and jump on the scales after every mouthful of food.

BAD GIRLS: drop the mantra, eat sensibly, exercise well and let their weight settle to its natural, healthy level. They ignore the glossies with those tragically anorexic models and feel pity when they see an ad for yet another diet, yet another weight loss class or wonder slimming product. They have come to accept their bodies just as they are and have learned to live with them. Bad girls enjoy the odd chocolate bar, revel in a few cocktails and tuck into pizza with relish. They know that a little of what you like doesn’t do you any harm. And, curiously enough, they don’t seem to put on weight.


GOOD GIRLS: will do anything and everything to try to turn back the clock. They have bought into the myth that the only good woman is a young woman. So they agonise over every wrinkle, every grey hair, every passing year. Good girls try to keep themselves looking young, beautiful and fragrant – any way they can. They invest a fortune in age-defying cosmetics; live at the hairdressers; even put themselves under the surgeon’s knife. They not infrequently start to drop ever-increasing years off their “official” age.

BAD GIRLS: know that beauty is not about long blonde hair, perky breasts and a wide-awake stare. They relish the experience and confidence that comes with age and never hanker after the past – they are far too busy enjoying the present. They wouldn’t dream of wasting money on ridiculously expensive potions and they couldn’t envisage spending a fortune on cosmetic surgery: they’d book a great holiday instead. Bad girls believe in themselves – whatever their age, whatever their looks. They have the confidence to demand to be taken for themselves – not just for their youthful looks.


GOOD GIRLS: try to play the boys at their own game; they try to mold their round selves into angular square holes. They fit in; they follow the rules; they do things the way they have always been done. They desperately try to slide into the Old Boys’ Network; to be big and strong and tough – but rarely feel comfortable in that role. Or they simply give up the game and settle far lower down the corporate ladder than they deserve. They trade less power for more peace of mind.

BAD GIRLS: throw out the rule book. They follow their own instincts and work in their own ways. They aren’t scared of adopting different practices, of managing in novel ways. They use their intuition, common sense and communication skills to get the best out of people. They don’t get hung up on who’s got the biggest office, the largest chair; the prettiest secretary. They are firm, polite and stick to their guns. Bad girls make innovative, creative, highly successful managers and superb employees. If they need to be tough, they are. But they don’t bluster – they simply speak their truth clearly and firmly.


GOOD GIRLS: keep out of the limelight and stick to the shadows. They are background people, grey people who merge into the crowd. They never draw attention to themselves; they never make a fuss; they don’t rock the boat. They grew up learning not to be loud – “sshhh! Someone might hear you” was drummed into them at an early age. So they keep their thoughts to themselves, stifle their feelings and tone down their dress sense. You’ll always find them in the kitchen at parties.

BAD GIRLS: head for the spotlights. They have the nerve to wear that outrageous dress; those ridiculous shoes; that crazy make-up (or no make-up at all). They find themselves dancing centre-stage; holding the floor; having a ball. Bad girls speak up for themselves, they say what they think; they don’t hide their feelings. They know they have a right to be heard, a right to be seen and they enjoy the attention.


GOOD GIRLS: believe in fairy-tale weddings, in Prince Charming waking his Snow White, in cowboys with white hats, in superheroes sweeping them off their feet into married bliss. Good girls believe in the myth of the perfect man – rich, handsome, strong but kind. And they see their role as the perfect wife: loving, beautiful, creating the perfect home with the perfect children, cooking perfect meals. They feel they have failed if they don’t have a man and a ring on their finger. Good girls usually end up disillusioned and disappointed.

BAD GIRLS: know that Prince Charming has spots and that cowboys have smelly feet.  Bad girls might marry but if they do it’s on their terms and they go in with their eyes wide open, not hidden behind rose-tinted specs. Or they might go it alone, reveling in their independence. Whatever they do, their relationships are authentic, fair and equal. They have children when they feel it’s right – not because they feel they ought to. They enjoy sex but feel free to say “not tonight, Joe”. Their partners might not fit the stereotype of the ideal man but then they know there is no such thing as the ideal man – just as there is no such thing as the ideal woman. They are honest in love – and in life.

Goodbye Good Girl by Eileen M Clegg and Susan Swartz (New Harbinger Publications).  Click on the image below for more details


Photo by Marta Boixo on Unsplash

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