“well-behaved women seldom make history”: redefining what it means to be bad

 

 

I posed topless for a female photographer who specializes in boudoir. I’m lying on the bed in a man’s velvet smoking jacket, hair blown across my face. I look at the camera. It’s a beautiful portrait (the photographer is very talented) and I’m proud of it. It reminds me slightly of Manet’s Olympia. That painting caused a scandal at the time (1863) — not because the subject was nude — but because of how she stares at the viewer instead of looking away demurely.

It’s that act of shameless eye contact that makes her – according to the moral dictates of the era — truly “bad”.

I once said to someone, “I don’t know if I’m a good girl with a bad streak, or a bad girl with a good streak.” But I was being ironic. My real point was that, like any other woman (or man), I am both and neither.

In fact, it’s kind of amazing to me that the good girl/bad girl dichotomy still exists. It came up again when movie star Reese Witherspoon accepted an award on television and took her speech as an opportunity to slam other, younger women for being “bad”.

“I understand that it’s cool to be bad, I get it,” she said, in that tone of false camaraderie women sometimes use before they slip in the knife. “But it’s possible to make it in Hollywood without being on a reality show….And when I was coming up, a sex tape was something you hid under your bed…And when you take naked pictures of yourself, you hide your face! Hide your face!” She finished off by declaring that she was going to try to make it “cool” to be a “good girl”.

But imagine this:

Instead of criticizing the same young women for the same things that everybody else is already criticizing them for, she could have slammed reality shows for their misogynist (and monotonous) depiction of women.

She could have criticized the kind of media that turns a girl like Paris Hilton into a celebrity in the first place.

She could have pointed out how advertising – which is so very everywhere that we no longer notice it as we’re breathing it in – co-opts rebellion and sells it back to girls in the “you’ve come a long way, baby” pseudo-liberation supposedly found in a package of cigarettes.

She could have criticized a culture that trains girls to define themselves by their sexual appeal only to punish them for it.

She could have echoed Laurel Ulrich’s famous comment that “well-behaved women seldom make history” and pointed out that ‘bad’ doesn’t have to mean shallow and self-destructive. It can mean cutting against the traditional good-girl dictates of passive and pretty and pleasing and quiet. It can mean speaking up against the status quo, the double standard, the beauty myth. It can mean rejecting the idea that your moral nature depends not on what you do, but on what you don’t do (have sex).

It can mean revolution not rebellion.

She could have said: If you’re going to be ‘bad’, make it MEAN SOMETHING…other than self-sabotage.

Recently I was struck by two different dialogues on Facebook. One was about Charlie Sheen. The other was about Britney Spears. A man posted a status update about going to Sheen’s show, and the thread discussed how smart and funny and talented Sheen is and that despite the controversy and general hubbub, “he’s fine, he’s okay” and “a brilliant marketer” and “totally knows what he’s doing”.

Meanwhile, I’d posted a link to a Britney Spears video on my own Facebook page, partly because I’m fascinated by the way people react to her.

Britney immediately came under fire for being “a poor role model” to young girls everywhere.

No “brilliant marketer” comments for her.

Both Sheen and Spears have a noted history of drug use. Both are sexy and openly sexual. Both are, or have been, at the top of their professions. Both have undergone episodes of bizarre, even tragic behavior that is suggestive of addiction and mental illness.

Yet in the buzz around Charlie Sheen at the height of his notoriety, what I didn’t hear was anything about how he serves as a poor role model for boys.

This is interesting to me, because – unlike Britney, at least to my knowledge – Sheen has a documented history of domestic abuse.

As in: he hits women.

As in: he once shot a woman in the arm.

Let me repeat that: he freaking shot the woman.

But this is no big deal. It gets glossed over. Whenever I brought it up – in person or online – people would lift their virtual shoulders in a virtual shrug and move on.

(Possibly because the women involved were so easily characterized as ‘bad’ girls.

Which in the end comes down to this: slut.

Which means: vile and disposable.)

In comparison to Sheen, Britney did reveal her belly button at a young age.

And that, of course, is a threat to civilization as we know it.

Spears is held up as a “poor role model” because we can perceive her as trashy and slutty and “asking for it”. Once you reduce a girl to her sexuality – and god knows that never ever happens in this culture – she becomes less than human, so you no longer have to treat her as a human. Which means the Charlie Sheens of the world – rich, powerful, white – can do with them as they please. If the girls get, you know, a little bit shot — well, it’s their own damn fault. That’s the message that some boys are absorbing from Sheen’s treatment of women and our celebration of him. That attitude, I suspect, will prove more dangerous to girls than any of Britney’s outfits or dance moves or little-girl singing voice.

There’s some irony in the fact that, like Britney, Reese Witherspoon got pregnant at a young age – but unlike Britney, who was married, Reese conceived out of wedlock and had a shotgun wedding.

Also, she said “motherfucker” on stage.

Also, she is still young — and divorced.

Also, she’s an actress (which used to be synonymous with prostitute).

Not so long ago, these things would have pegged her as morally defective. She wouldn’t technically qualify as a “good girl” (which means she’s probably “cooler” than she gives herself credit for).

But what Witherspoon seemed to be getting at in her declaration of herself as a “good girl” has to do with the idea of exposure. Whether it’s a reality TV show or an unfortunate cell phone picture, a good girl does not show herself to the world in this way — or if she does, she “hides her face”.

She guards her shame.

She never makes eye contact.

A “good” girl is not only virginal – and thus qualifies as morally sound, even if, like Jessica Wakefield in the Sweet Valley High novels, she’s kind of a sociopath – but modest and quiet. She covers up. She is seen – without being seen. She talks in a nice voice and smiles a lot. She’s the angel of the house, and stays in the house, which was the historical point of this exercise in the first place.

She’s not loud or opinionated, she doesn’t rock the boat, and she doesn’t draw attention to herself.

All of this is convenient for others. The funny thing about silence is how it tends to favor the dominating person or group. The dominating narrative, the ruling point of view, becomes a sort of truth by default: what we as a culture assume when we’re given no reason to assume otherwise.

It’s the winners who get to write history, after all. The others are silent or silenced.

Which is not my way of saying that appearing on reality TV isn’t a form of evil in its own right, or that a girl should take provocative pictures of herself and post them on the ‘Net. Neither is power so much as a mistaken idea about power (and perhaps too many shots of tequila): when the culture seems to be urging you in one direction (“it’s cool to be ‘bad'”) and you haven’t had time or experience to learn otherwise.

But there does seem to be a link between sexual expression and self-expression, in that a ‘good’ girl is not in full possession of either. Her body doesn’t belong to her: it ‘belongs’ to her father, to her future husband, to the government that decides if she can have an abortion or the religion that decides if she can use birth control.

Her voice doesn’t fully belong to her either: she has to be careful what she says, and how she says it, and who she might offend.

‘Goodness’, then, seems to involve an amputation of the self. You make yourself ‘good’ to be loved and accepted, and in the process sacrifice your authenticity. You give yourself away until you no longer know who you are – assuming you ever did.

I’m not sure what you actually get for this, in the end.

Fitting in, as the wonderful Brene Brown so astutely points out, is not the same as being accepted for who you are – in fact, the one renders the other impossible. Being trained to please and serve leaves you ripe for exploitation; the inability to assert your boundaries makes you easy to abuse in large and small ways.

“Raising a girl to be ‘nice’,” a therapist – a woman in her sixties, married and with daughters — once remarked to me, “is like sending her out into the world with one hand tied behind her back.” She should know. Many of these women turn up in her Beverly Hills office twenty years later: divorced, discarded, aging, with no ability to support themselves and no sense of who they are at core.

So honestly, in the year 2011, these are a girl’s options? She can be ‘bad’ (and disposable) or ‘good’ (and turned in on herself)?

I would like to think that there’s another option.

Not ‘bad’, maybe, but badass.

As in: you get to declare yourself. You get to express your sexuality any way you choose, whether it’s indulging or abstaining, and you’re responsible about it and willing to risk the emotional consequences. When you want or need to speak up — you speak up. You write or blog or paint or dance or study or put on puppet shows or raise your kids or start up your own company or nonprofit or do some combination thereof. You stand for what you believe in. You know what you believe in – and what you don’t. You own your life. You find your tribe. You look out for yourself (ie: you are ‘selfish’). And when you offend people, as anyone with an opinion is bound to do at some point — when people step into your space just to tell you that you suck — you shrug it off and move on, because you know disapproval won’t kill you.

You nurture the fire at your core.

I’m reading the book GAME FRAME, about the rise of social gaming, and came across the idea of “the magic circle”. The circle is the arena in which the game takes place. You step over some kind of threshold and into another world. You participate in a conflict that you recognize as artificial but, for a space of time, accept as reality. You willingly suspend your disbelief.

It struck me that we move in and out of different kinds of magic circles. There are games, yes, but also movies and theater and television and books. There are relationships that become their own world of intimacy. They form a private reality between you and your partner, in which you might ignore your actual experience to buy into an entrancement (“we are soulmates”) or belief system (“he is better and always right, and I am lesser and always wrong”).

And then there’s a magic circle that has to do with language and perception, with how we create our shared reality. The good girl/bad girl labeling strikes me as one of those. Instead of recognizing a woman as a complex and multi-dimensional being, instead of allowing her the flaws, mistakes and happy accidents that come with the trial-and-error process known as the human condition, we stomp her into a cartoon. We accept an artificial conflict (good girl vs bad girl) and make it important. We place her on a pedestal or in the dirt (or on the pedestal so we can knock her off later). We accept this as real instead of a game we can choose not to play.

You could say, instead: We’re all doing the best we can. We all do stupid things from time to time. But we won’t be distracted by this game of blaming and shaming each other. We’ll look to larger forces.

I like this video by Jeffrey Wright, in which he transfers the “willing suspension of disbelief” from the theater to the developing world, from acting to entrepreneurialism and social change.

With the power of your convictions, he says, with the ability to suspend your disbelief and act in the face of uncertainty, you have the chance to reshape reality.

Like Olympia staring out at the viewer — like Manet breaking the rules to paint her — you can reject the game and make a new one.

You can invent a new truth.

Olympia has come down to us through the ages. She refuses to “hide her face”. She is shamelessly comfortable in her own skin. She exudes a badass presence.

Her critics, now, are dust.

If you like this post, please share. I’d appreciate it!

Jun 10, 2011
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59 comments · Add Yours

Justine: Thank you for your depth. Thank you for challenging my worldviews and turning them on their head. Thank you for making me THINK. Thank you for not being afraid to speak up.

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This is incredibly well worded. We owe it to ourselves to just that…ourselves. Thanks for putting it so well :)

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thank you so much for saying

:)

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Thoroughly enjoy your blog. Thank you!

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I love everything about this post. Wanted to add something to the Olympia painting. I think the fact that she’s wearing shoes is also interesting — has always been interesting to me. It suggests mobility, that despite her nudity, she could get up and walk out at any time. There’s a kind of freedom and power in that.

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@A fan Ditto.
JulieB

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So funny you mentioned Sweet Valley High. I remember my friends reading the books. I was reading Stephen King and John Saul. Strange, maybe, but I didn’t care then (or now) and I was blessed with good friends who didn’t care either. I didn’t realize how important it was to be allowed to be different until I had daughters. It is a constant but worthwhile task to give them options and freedom to explore in a society that would prefer they fit a mold. They are beautiful, yes, but so much more than that.

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There’s a difference between Charlie Sheen and Britney Spears — Charlie Sheen was never marketed as “virginal” or a “good guy.” Britney Spears (at the start of her career) was marketed as the good girl.

Rihanna’s done worse than Spears and she doesn’t have any of the backlash (besides the usual pop star backlash).

I’m not saying you’re wrong… but I think Spears backlash increased because there was a lack of honesty/authenticity out of the gates.

I think people are more accepting if you’re honest about who you are from the start. If the public catches you in a lie, they’ll crucify you for it, regardless of gender (though there is a tendency to be a lot harder on women).

Bottom line — people who try to please people never accomplish anything major.

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Wow! Is this the same Justine Musk who writes about authoring and marketing? What a rant! A great rant. A long rant. A passionate rant. An exposed rant. An angry rant. And a deeper part of Justine I wish would flash more often and light the skies. Who hurt you?

But I’ll tell ya. I know you’re talking about women TO women. Men don’t have it easy either. We just pretend we do. Men shake inside. Men get socially attacked by other men, and women. Men make horrible and foolish mistakes they will forever regret. Men are manipulated by women, and continually ask for it. Men are cowards. Men are cruel. Men do evil things, and they need women to make that all happen. It’s a dance of learning, the hard way. And it never ends.

Yet some men, and women, step off the merry-go-round to be kind and to love and to learn and teach and guide.

I always felt like I didn’t fit in. And I didn’t. And I married a woman who didn’t fit in, but didn’t notice. And after many years of learning to become adults we now know why we didn’t fit in. We didn’t want to. And maybe you don’t either, Justine. But please don’t be angry. Be hard headed. Be a hard headed woman. When Cat Stevens sung those words, that’s what I wished for. That’s what t I got. What did she get? A hard headed man. And we meet in the middle.

Irv

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Hi Justine, I wanted to tell you a story that is related to your post.

You’ve all heard of the SlutWalks that began in Canada after a police officer addressing university students said “If you don’t want to get raped, don’t dress like a slut”? As women across the UK felt compelled to take to the streets brandishing signage and wearing whatever they wanted (or whatever the weather would permit), a British news organisation decided to ask the “what do you think?” question on their Facebook page. The response was very interesting.

All of the men who posted suggested various degrees of ‘If you don’t want the attention, don’t dress provocatively’ – a more polite (and British) way of saying exactly what the Canadian police officer had said.

The female response was quite tepid – rolled eyes and tuts and in many cases, outright agreement with the dominant view. Then I and another women (who I don’t know) posted basically the same argument:

Essentially, this is about the way men see women and not what women are wearing.

I ventured the point that society at large – family, the education system, the media – has a duty to raise men to be more empathetic and respectful creatures; that big change is needed.

The men posting on this thread went ape-shit.

I was called a hypocrite for “not acknowledging what men want”, for using “hateful language”. One poster said ‘it’s women like you’ that had caused so many other women from disengaging from feminism – as if a body of academic thought is all this is about.

The parting shot was the most interesting: “Given that women have raised men for thousands of years, don’t you think you should get your house in order?”, which I think is, outright, the most misogynistic thing any man has ever said to me and there has been plenty to choose from over the years.

So, the two women who were prepared to crystalise the point in a simple and non-judgmental way were shouted down in spectacular fashion. Not one of the other women on that thread joined us. I’m surprised they didn’t just call us both whores and be done with it.

All of this left me feeling that of all the groups on earth, women are still the most stereotyped; by ourselves as well as others. A recognition that we are so much more than they say we are has never been so necessary. It starts with us.

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Justine, THIS WAS AWESOME!!! Thank you for writing it.

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@Marie-Paule Graham

I am appalled at the reaction to your comments, Marie-Paule.

“Essentially, this is about the way men see women and not what women are wearing.
I ventured the point that society at large – family, the education system, the media – has a duty to raise men to be more empathetic and respectful creatures; that big change is needed.”

Yes, yes, and yes! My husband and I (parents of 2 teenage boys) have a relationship based on mutual respect, love, and equality. It is my fervent hope that we have been able to model something for our children that they will practice in their adult lives.

We also pick apart media’s representation of men and women, and its warped portrayal of power and sexuality. I can only imagine what some outsider would think of us by studying those representations alone.

Please know, that despite your experience on that thread, you are not alone.

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PS–thank you, Justine, for another incredible post. You rock!

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Thank you for not being “well-behaved.” :)

This tweet (linking to this post) caught my eye originally as a week or so ago while in Alaska I saw a shirt at a Fish Pirate themed bar & grill that had that exact quote from the title. The only thing keeping me from buying it for my wife is that she rarely wears t-shirts. Usually only when camping.

I did enjoy the thought-provoking read. It reminded me of the women I have historically found interesting. Back in school it started with Joan Jett. You can’t get much further away from “well behaved” (at least in a healthy way) than that. I remember telling a friend once, “No matter what flavor of badass you want to be, own up to that shit.” I supposed that was the 20-something version of “to thine own self be true.” ;)

Thanks again.

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Brilliant – thank you for this.

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holy shit, this reads like my personal manifesto:

As in: you get to declare yourself. You get to express your sexuality any way you choose, whether it’s indulging or abstaining, and you’re responsible about it and willing to risk the emotional consequences. When you want or need to speak up — you speak up. You write or blog or paint or dance or study or put on puppet shows or raise your kids or start up your own company or nonprofit or do some combination thereof. You stand for what you believe in. You know what you believe in – and what you don’t. You own your life. You find your tribe. You look out for yourself (ie: you are ‘selfish’). And when you offend people, as anyone with an opinion is bound to do at some point — when people step into your space just to tell you that you suck — you shrug it off and move on, because you know disapproval won’t kill you.

So in my Scottish parlance, HELL to the OCH AYE!!!

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Wow, this really speaks to me, about me, for me, and for all other women who were the good-girl for so long, and got hurt, abused and taken advantage of. For the women who are still in it, or were in it for longer then me I hope that they can finally see one day that they are WORTH everything and anything that they are, that they can be anything that they want to be. Amazing post!

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@Marie-Paule Graham Dear Marie, your following sentence hit me: “Essentially, this is about the way men see women and not what women are wearing.” I wish I could agree with you. I really do, because the world would be a better place if it were true. Unfortunately, the way I see it, you get a YES and a NO. Men DO see woman as sexual objects, at least at first, that’s for sure. We’re hard wired that way and it takes a mature man to get past that. But women DO in fact understand men’s wiring and dress for it accordingly, expressing sexuality or masking it.

I have a sixteen year old niece in Germany. When it comes to beauty and brains she scores a ten on both charts. She’s a straight A student and a sexy Lolita at the same time. She puts in hours of studying at night and an hour of makeup in the morning. She turns heads where ever she goes and impresses her teachers with high marks.

As her mentor uncle, I have told her numerous times to drop the makeup and her hug-the-body shells and mini skirts. She nods and then adjusts her push-up bra. Her boyfriend is a twenty-two year old engineering college student, her parents are wealthy and this young lady has traveled all over the world. And yet, she’s unhappy, competitive and needs constant validation, including sexual attention. Why? I don’t know. But I do know she knows how to use the psychology of our society to her advantage. Or what she THINKS is her advantage.

I believe the trend of women dressing for attention, for establishing a stand-out identity, or its reverse, isolation, is a psychological condition that comes out of personal insecurities for various and complex reasons. Generalizing this behavior is misleading, because many women do not buy into the dynamic. The ones that do, both women and men, get all our attention, because that’s the way it’s supposed to work. And I don’t think it can be denied. Some women want to be noticed, and they dress to make that happen. I wish more men would do that. We’re such a sloppy culture, we Americans!

Irv

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Thank you Justine. You seem to have channeled my childhood and first marriage. Fortunately, I ‘broke free’ and have discovered my identity. It’s never too late. Your posts are right on the cutting edge for me. Thank you again.

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Irv, I don’t care if your niece is running around naked — she still deserves to be treated like a human being (for the simple reason that she is one) and she does NOT deserve to be verbally or physically attacked.

Which is why it *is* about the way men perceive their right to perceive women. Of course women dress to appeal to men sexually (some more than others). Of course men are going to objectify women (and women will do that to men, and sometimes to each other).

It’s human nature to notice each other from the vantage point of desire (hell, that’s half the fun).

What disturbs — and pisses me off — about the line of reasoning that seems to be in operation here is the idea that overt female sexuality is inherently *degrading*, and that once a man becomes sexually aware of a woman — if a woman deliberately provokes that kind of attention — it’s okay to harass + abuse her. THIS IS WRONG, and every time a man comes along and says, “well, women shouldn’t dress to provoke us” or “it’s all about the way women dress”, that whole conflation of sexuality with abuse gets reinforced.

Being looked at, admired, even objectified — what gets lost in this kind of discussion is the whole idea that that can actually be a lot of fun. And of course it can be validating.

(The problem is when the woman confuses her sexual appeal, her image, with her very identity. Hotness can be a lot like that great little sportscar you sometimes get the urge to take out for a spin — you just have to remember that no matter how much you enjoy the sportscar, YOU ARE NOT ACTUALLY THE CAR, which can be hard to keep in mind when society keeps bombarding you with the message that you *are* and so will be judged accordingly.)

There seems to be this underlying attitude that it is okay to conflate female sexuality with abuse + disrespect. That female sexuality in and of itself is worthless, garbage, and turns the woman herself into garbage — that the woman’s worth is solely tied up with how ‘pure’ she is.

Maybe she’s asking for attention — or begging for attention — but that *does not mean abuse*. That does not mean violence in any way (be it verbal or physical). Looking is one thing — hopefully done with some element of basic courtesy — but anything beyond that (without the woman’s permission)? Give me a break.

Besides, a lot of the time that kind of abuse isn’t actually about sexual desire so much as power and the will to dominate and the ability to get away with it. Look, I could go out to dinner in a provocative dress — and I have — but I am protected by markers of class and status. I will get looked at, and yet I still get treated with respect. The men in my vicinity don’t turn into uncontrollable sexual beasts just because of a short hemline and mild flirtation. Because they know that would be stupid — and that there would be some humiliating, painful, or expensive consequences. In other words, there are things they *do* respect enough not to mess around with, if you know what I mean. Not even the most hardcore rapist is going to rape the ‘trashiest’ (note that word TRASH) woman if a police officer is standing right beside her. So this idea that a woman is ever — ever — responsible for a man’s abuse or violence toward her? Absolute bullshit.

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re: reply to Irv

Justine, I think you and Irv are dancing around a delicate point. While in my personal opinion it is unacceptable to perceive women solely as sexual objects, regardless of their mode of dress, it is a sad fact of human society and biology that this is how men and women usually perceive each other (at least initially). Add on top of that the degree of importance our society places on appearance combined with the backward, puritanical double-standards Western culture tends to promote, and you get the disgusting situation we find ourselves in: women are taught from an early age that it is important to be attractive to men to get anywhere in life AND being too attractive and drawing the wrong sort of attention makes you a “bad girl” and you deserve whatever happens to you. I think it’s the conflict between these two ideas that cause most of the problems women experience, both from the internal conflict it can create if an individual woman can’t resolve the problem in a workable manner, and in the expectations it creates in men, who, never having to deal directly with the painful dichotomy this creates for women, blunder through relations with women until their own misconceptions bite them in the ass.

I hate to say this out loud, but having seen the contortions I’ve seen women put themselves through in trying to adhere to both of these ideas, as well as the backlash they suffer from society at large when they chuck the whole idiot mess, makes me glad to be male. At least I only have to deal with it at one remove. Women have to deal with it in their dealings with men, as they get treated either as an object on the spectrum from office furniture to blow-up doll if they buy into the mess, or as an object of scorn and confusion as they break out of the expected role. There’s also the internal competition between women, as those who still buy into the dichotomy scheme amongst themselves for the “choicest mates” and heap scorn on the women outside the role, while women outside the role seem to have an easier time with each other, but occasionally heap a little scorn back on the women inside the role for not seeing their way out of it.

(Good lord, that’s a mouthful.)

In any event, as I see it, while women have been pressed into this twisted mold by society at large, some of them have found a way to grow beyond it, while others are so comfortable, or desperate to fit in, that they use the weapons the mold gives them to get what they want. Men get forced into a mold of their own. It’s not as constrained as the women’s mold, but that just makes it harder to get out of. It also makes men more vulnerable to the weapons the still-molded women use to get their own way. And let’s be honest: at some point, every woman, whether in the mold or not, will use those weapons. They’re just too damned effective, and when there’s no other option, what else can you do?

It’s a tough problem, and frankly, while I support the idea of SlutWalks and applaud the women who participate (violence against women is crap, however they’re dressed), I don’t know how much they’re going to address the actual problem. I think we have a long way to go, and much work on the part of both men and women, before we see the end of it.

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A few points come to mind:

1. The role model concept. How true that women are more often expected to be “role models” than men are. And yet, I can think of African-American male celebrities who, when they err, are accused of being bad role models. So I wonder if there’s something about being in a minority position in a society that sets up this expectation. In this view, minorities are presumed to need role models because we have to prove that we’re good enough, we have to watch what we say and how we dress, we have to live up to the expectations of whoever is setting the social standards.

2. Provocative dressing. Whenever people say (or, more often, imply) that a woman was assaulted because she was wearing the wrong thing or walking in the wrong part of town or out at the wrong time of day, I always muse on how sexual assault is the only crime I can think of with such rampant victim-blaming. Nobody tells the robbery victim that he must have been handling his wallet in a manner that suggested he wanted it snatched from him. Nobody accuses the arson victim of having property that’s “too flammable.”

3. “I don’t know exactly what a feminist is. I only know that I am called one whenever I say something that distinguishes me from a doormat.” — Rebecca West

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Liam — thanks (and thanks Irv!) for your perspective.

Quite frankly?

Give a woman financial independence, financial power, and the whole game changes.

I don’t think the problem is one of sex or sexual desire so much as power. Men have more of it than women, and part of the reason for that is because women are quick to give it up to them. I’ve done it myself.

I’ve witnessed firsthand what a severely unequal power relationship can do to a marriage, and so it’s not difficult to extrapolate that to a more general view of the relationship between the genders.

When a woman is financially independent, and has her own goals, her own sense of identity, she answers to herself. She sets her own terms and defines her own reality. Within that context, you think she gives a damn whether she’s a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ girl? Women are trained to care so much about what men think because their survival (and that of their offspring) so often depends upon it.

Which is why — you’re right — slutwalks won’t accomplish anything other than creating a sense of female camaraderie and support that might empower the woman to go to the next level of some kind of personal or political action.

Things will only change when men assume their fair share of domestic responsibilities — housecare and childcare — and *that* will only happen when a) women insist on it and b) have the power of a paycheck to give them the required leverage.

And *that* will only happen when girls are taught to regard the fairy tale, prince charming, rescue fantasy thing as the total bullshit that it is.

Or when they realize that the only power our society is so quick and happy to give them — sexual power — is transitory and fleeting at best (and at worst actually serves to undercut you). Much better when it comes bundled up with other kinds of power — intellectual, financial, political, emotional. I don’t think the problem is so much an overemphasis on looks so much as an underemphasis on other things — as well as some of the cultural mythology built up around weddings, marriage, motherhood.

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Reese is a Republican. Kind of says it all.

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Hot damn. I don’t have a whole lot to add, but both the post & the comments are great reading, and I’m glad you wrote this!

Dave:

“Rihanna’s done worse than Spears and she doesn’t have any of the backlash (besides the usual pop star backlash).”

I saw a lot of backlash around Rihanna, especially after the Chris Brown incident. I saw people making racist, sexist remarks (she has a Jamaican temper, she was probably asking for it, etc.) and I saw people shaming her afterwards for any way she decided to dress, act, or speak that didn’t fit their mold of “I’m a poor downtrodden domestic violence victim”. Gods forbid we acknowledge that the woman has autonomy.

“… but I think Spears backlash increased because there was a lack of honesty/authenticity out of the gates.”

Was there? How old was she when she made it big again? 16? Do you really think that SHE had much, if any, choice in how she was portrayed? I mean, maybe that was a small part of the backlash, but I’m just not seeing it as the main cause.

Justine:

“Not even the most hardcore rapist is going to rape the ‘trashiest’ (note that word TRASH) woman if a police officer is standing right beside her. ”

Unless, of course, the rapist IS the police officer. Which happens, too.

Re: the Charlie Sheen thing – so frustrating – especially the shrugs and blank stares you get when mentioning the, you know, whole *shooting a woman* thing.

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@Jenn Hubbard

Re: role models — yeah, when you come from a minority, the one seems to stand in for the whole. Whereas the dominant group is the ‘norm’, and the normal standard doesn’t have to be “represented” because it’s so, uh, normal.

or something

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@justine Justine, a don’t disagree with a single point your present. And Liam, I certainly agree with your assessment as well. We’re dealing with a very complex and varied phenomenon, and it goes even deeper than female sex appeal and horrid abuses by men. Underlying fashionistas and the psychosis of male domination, is the universal male/female yearning to be significant, to matter, to combat uncertainty, and to somehow make a difference. I know it’s along stretch from bullying a woman to wanting to matter, but warped behavior starts with fear. Fear of not being good enough, of having no significance. And everything I delve into human psychology I arrive at the same building blocks of human motivation.

Ultimately we all hope to have helpers and lovers and friends and we do what it takes to bring that security into our lives. As both you and Liam pointed out, this whole process of drawing attention to ourselves (ultimately for protection) get whacked out of shape and goes potentially dangerous. My niece wants to appear sexy, but really isn’t, and runs from physical advances, which she should. Hopefully when she grows older, she’ll drop the costume, because it’s not her. As Liam pointed out, she is probably conforming to an image of status. This is what I was trying to express. For me, bold women are exciting and interesting, as long they’re “real.” That’s why I married “T”. And of course, dehumanizing women into sexual objects is a disgrace to the human race.

That said, I find pockets of sanity everywhere. What a meaningful conversation.

Irv

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‘Costume’ sounds like a good word for it, and for what it’s worth she probably will drop it eventually.

Here’s the thing about sexy dressing — men will assume it’s all about them, but that’s often not the case (especially if your niece is running away from advances). Girls will dress that kind of part to be cool, fashionable, daring, edgy; to rebel; to imitate a pop culture figure they admire; to play a kind of character they’ve invented in their heads, or cater to some kind of fantasy aspirational vision of themselves; to seem older + more sophisticated.

I like clothes — and liked them more when I was younger — and for me it was always about the clean lines, the mood, the creation of an outfit, the edge of sensual drama. There was also an element of friendly competition with a couple of creative, stylish girlfriends. And there’s a self-discovery element to figuring out your style (which happens over years) and learning what works on you. With many mistakes made along the way.

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Justine, that’s exactly right about men assuming it’s about them. A few years back I had a guy say to me, “I hate push up bras, they’re so deceiving.” To which I responded, “Why on earth do you think it’s about you?”

It’s interesting how self-centered (I’m not saying that in a bad way, most people live inside their own heads and rarely come out) some people are, both men and women. I think the point is to be comfortable in your own skin, no matter how you dress AND to view others in that same light- not to frown down or judge, or for a minute think their dress or actions are a reflection of you.

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@Michelle —

I wasn’t referring to the Chris Brown incident, but rather the naked pictures. Most of the people were like “Oh, cool, not really unexpected.” Ironically, the people that were the quickest to label her a slut were women. I’ve found that true in real life too — women are more likely to attack other women than men are.

As for Britney, yeah, she was 16, but there’s always a choice. Whether she’d have the intelligence/maturity at 16 or 17 to realize that is another matter entirely. And I think how she was portrayed (initially) was definitely a contributing factor. Justine did a blog about Kate Moss a while back that mentioned this — she didn’t hide who she was, so the backlash wasn’t as great when she did do something “bad.”

Plus people in general just like to see successful people fall off the top of the mountain, for some reason.

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@justine I agree that financial independence is a major factor for breaking women out of the standard patriarchal mold, but I don’t think it’s the central concern. Women have been holding well-paying jobs for a few decades now, and the problem continues to exist. While financial independence is certainly a tool to break the mold, it does not automatically happen. Until women ditch the ridiculous double-standard that society forces on them, force men to acknowledge the double-standard’s demise, and cease inflicting the same double-standard on their children (particularly girls), the problem will continue to exist. There are plenty of middle and upper class women who continue to inculcate this twisted view in their children that places the burdens of sex squarely on the shoulders of women, rather than spreading the load equally.

Sadly, money does not actually solve social problems, it just makes you a little more comfortable while you deal with them.

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Liam — women in middle- and upper-class situations can still be in very retro arrangements (ie: it’s the man who holds the economic — and thus decision-making — power) especially when so many of them give up all or part of their own income to stay home with the kids.

If anything, the higher up the social ladder you go, the greater the power/economic imbalance within the marriage.

And the fact that *some* women hold well-paying jobs hardly means anything more than — well, than that, even though television makes it seem like we’re all lawyers and district attorneys and forensic scientists now.

Interesting how you put the responsibility of this on the shoulders of *women*. If women could ditch the ridiculous double standard all by themselves, trust me, it would have happened decades ago.

Money doesn’t solve social problems — what it does do is change the negotiating positions of both parties. Marriage is, among other things, a business contract and a power relationship (as unromantic as that sounds). When a woman is not financially dependent on the man, she is in a much better position to negotiate the general terms of day-to-day domestic life — and also less likely to be abused.

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@LJCohen, Thanks for your words and good luck with your boys. It has to start when they are young.

@Irving. When you challenge someone on an issue, it’s helpful if you get their name right; getting it wrong is sloppy. I get a yes and a no? Finally, I get to have my cake and can eat it, although, I wasn’t aware I was asking for anything. I moved to Germany a few months ago and was startled by the difference in the young women here to, say Britain, or what I know of the U.S. They are much less sexualised, particularly in the east where I am because there is much less advertising and the media in general is less aggressive, so these kids are exposed to less of the noise and imagery that intoxicates the western atmosphere. They’re growing up to be a little more robust. Your niece sounds smart. I’m not surprised she’s competitive if she comes from a wealthy family. Competition is necessary in wealth and power gathering, so she’s the product of her environment, as we all are. If she’s only 16, she’s discovering the boundaries for herself; something every woman needs to do while going through the process of defining her own life.

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@Lisa–Seriously? Isn’t this post about the insidiousness of social stereotypes? You might as well have said, “She’s blonde. That explains it.” Except you’re blonde.

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@Justine Musk To a degree, the burden *is* on women. No oppressed group ever achieved equal status by waiting around for the dominant culture to give it to them. They had to actively pursue equality and force a significant subset of the dominant culture to respect their basic humanity. It’s not fair, and it’s not right, but that’s the way it generally works. In this case, women who have seen through the bullcrap fed to them by American culture need to both open the eyes of the rest of their gender, and convince a significant proportion of men to support them. I think getting support from men will be relatively easy, but I can’t say for sure. There’s a lot of cultural baggage that men cart around that is inherently demeaning of women. I also don’t think that simply evening up the economic scales is going to do it. This is a struggle that is going to take at least a generation or two (at best). Overcoming an ingrained societal standard is not something that happens overnight. Just ask anyone who isn’t white. However, I do completely agree that more control over their personal finances would give women a much better bargaining position inside of marriage. At the very least, it’s a good first step.

It’s actually refreshing to talk to someone who sees marriage much the same way I do: a financial and mutual support contract between two consenting adults. Of course, my rogue libertarian streak demands that restrictions on the number and gender of parties to the contract are beyond the bounds of government control. ;)

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Justine, I believe you thoroughly explained the psychology behind women and fashion. I now understand. Thank you.

Irv

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@Marie-Paule Graham Dear Marie-Paule,

Sorry about the name mistake. I didn’t understand the hyphen and what it meant.

I think you’re right about Germany’s eastern parts. My German family lived in Chemnitz for a while and although that town has a Toys-R-US in their local mall, the clothing boutiques are more tame than in Berlin, where my niece lives now. She also is constantly plugged into the internet and texts her friends 24/7. Her family has cable, naturally, and she watches world news reports. She’s a very fortunate “planetary child” who speaks three languages, and I expect this is why she’s exposed to so much trendy advertising.

Justine’s explanation of how young ladies find their identity through clothes helped me to understand more about this subject. All your comments are very important to me.

Thank you, Marie-Paule.

Irv

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Justine, perfect timing for me! I wish I could say more, but I want to post this article and the changes I am making in my life are not yet public knowledge! Wouldn’t want family/friends to read this and find out here! lol
I want you to know your words make an impact, I am printing this and keeping it for future rereads.
THANK YOU!!!

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Thank you so much for this article! In my part of the world we have a saying “a girls reputation is like a pane of glass, once it is slightly cracked it can never be restored” I think you see how long a way is ahead of us and I hope we can make it one day!
Thank you again :)

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This is so beautiful, so true.

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wow. Really powerful, Justine, such an important reminder. I often feel all we did in the 70’s in the women’s movement is missed by younger generations. you sure got it and thank you for keeping it crisp and relevant. As I watched PBS last night : women in Syria who are risking being imprisioned to have the right to drive a car, to go somewhere without the written permission of a man, to get an education without a man’s permission. We think we are so far from this, yeah, not so, just not as obivous, its there.
“Women living in their skin”. Yes to that.

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Thanks Justine (and so many of you who commented) for all the food for thought.

There was so much I wanted to say that it ended up being way too long for a comment, so I’ve decided to devote a blog post to it instead and link back to your article: http://thewomancondition.blogspot.com/2011/06/about-good-girls-bad-girls-and-why-we.html

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Great piece Justine!

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Fantastic article, really well stated.

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Awesomely badass post!

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Brilliant post with such a thought-filled message. I couldn’t agree more with all that you said, and have thoroughly enjoyed the discussion in the comments. Thanks for setting the world straight.

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There is so much I’d like to say but I will just thank you for being you. xxox

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Well written.

It seems such an ‘obvious’ thing and I know many have said the same in different forums but I am going to repeat anyway – this whole thing about a woman’s provocative dressing being the cause of rape would hold water if not for the fact that – 1) a ‘conservatively’ dressed woman, covered from head to toe in thick, layered clothing is probably being raped/sexually molested somewhere even as I type this; 2) a 1 year old girl, wearing a diaper, is probably being raped/sexually molested somewhere even as I type this…you get the picture.

So then, how do such inane arguments come to be – just another sign of a misogynistic world – designed for and by men for their gratification.

A rapist rapes because he/she exults in the ‘power’ rush, gets an ‘instant fix’ and, most importantly, because he/she can get away with it.

The vast differences in the circumstances of every rape ever carried out – the vast differences in the victims’ age, nationality, income, social status, clothes, height, weight, ethnicity – is testimony to the fact that rape does not occur only when a woman dresses ‘provocatively’.

Rather, ‘provocatively dressed’ women are raped, TOO.

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Guys are held to the same ridiculous double-standard you girls are. And at least you have a way out – guys basically HAVE to be “bad” (and not just “badass”) to be considered appealing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been falsely accused of being a “boring person” just because I don’t drink and party.

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You know, you proved yourself wrong in a couple of ways during your argument, not very clearly, but your poor circular logic was your arguments eventual downfall. I am a man, and I was raised by my grandmother, an english teacher, a poet, and one of the original contemporary american feminists, and she passed all of it on to me. That said, don’t get me wrong, but, you’re completely wrong about almost everything you said here. Men are held to a double standard, just like women, sheen and brittney were always marketed differently, and they are also perceived and understood differently, for example, a person might like sheen for no other reason than he is a crazy asshole, the negative climax of what not to become so to say. Maybe he’s a role model of what not to become, because that is equally as important as the positive. And, brittney, she was marketed as a good girl, always, and turned into the image of the slut for business, so, she’s not actually a slut, she get’s paid, so id rather not use such words, but if anything she’s no slut, she’s a whore.

What you have put together here, is basically propaganda. YES, women need to be confident! Women need to be strong and self-reliant! Women need to think and make their decisions for themselves, and your right, they need to accept that responsibility, meaning, society is probably right about whether you’re a slut or not, so put up with it, because you are a strong, confident, and emotionally responsible woman. Your article dribbles with sentiments that really don’t line up at all.

You have successfully chocked yourself into another stereotype, feminazi with no real understanding, respect, or regard for what really goes on around her, a woman who has to make herself feel more like a man because she herself in fact feels inadequate, shamed, and/or “slutty,” because of the EXACT same things she’s preaching about.

I believe men and women are not the same, and I sure hope you agree, we are quite different, and society builds up these dichotomies (the ones women AND MEN deal with) because we are so different. Men and women will ALWAYS have to face different stereotypes like you’re complaining about because we so different, but it doesn’t mean were not EQUAL!!! Equal doesn’t have to mean the same, and fortunately it rarely does in this context.

If you want to be a model for change, like your blog suggests, stop being good, stop being bad, stop being a badass, stop being a dumbass, and start being the change, rather than creating more of the same damn stereotypes with different words and endings.

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My favorite part:

‘Goodness’, then, seems to involve an amputation of the self. You make yourself ‘good’ to be loved and accepted, and in the process sacrifice your authenticity. You give yourself away until you no longer know who you are – assuming you ever did.
I’m not sure what you actually get for this, in the end.

— Very well done piece with one coherent and convincing line of thought about a subject that should, quite frankly, trigger comments such as “duh” from readers but for some reason still remains a mild controversy.

As for the concerned American who graces us with his disrespectful and harsh comment, a couple of points:
1. Being raised by a feminist doesn’t make you a feminist. Begin with respectful language. A wise man (yes, they exist) once taught me that a good critique begins with a recognition of the positive attributes of a piece and then moves to constructive criticism. Your comment offers little of either.
2. Brittany Spears has been marketed as a good-girl-gone-bad since the beginning. I happen to have followed her career closely and can argue this with 100% certainty. The sexual content and presentation of her brand was a calculated move made by her management and label, and stems from the exact appeal of a dichotomy which was so well described by Justine.
3. Feminazi or not (I won’t even get into the connotations this term brings up for groups that have been oppressed throughout history, not to mention feminists), you haven’t fallen far from the aggressive and bitter tree you are blaming Justine for. You chose to call the female example a whore and not the male, you use demeaning language and take the discussion on a personal level–something Justine never did, but could. You continuously support the gender dichotomy as well as the good/bad dichotomy instead of following your own suggestion and challenging them.

I understand where you are coming from though I do not know your background. Members of all genders have adverse reactions to these kinds of articles because they feel somehow attacked or challenged. Perhaps they feel that we’ve moved past these kind of issues and it’s no longer time to complain and waste other people’s time. The fact here is — your comment makes a societal problem into the psychological flaw of an individual woman. I don’t think you can truly argue that negative differentiation based on gender no longer exists. You aren’t obligated to side with the author here, but you aren’t obligated to defend a sexist society either.

And yes, when I say sexist I mean negative and very real consequences for men and women in our society. Consequences that choke, disable, and insult us all. We could very easily turn to each other and build a growing community of supportive individuals who rather see a different reality.

And final note–in blaming Justine for feeling slutty and inadequate and therefore somehow aligned with the Nazi movement, you have alienated all of the readers who felt comforted or supported by her article above, including me. I only wish you as much tolerance and understanding from other commenters as you did NOT show Justine.

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@A Concerned American I don’t believe that it’s not the same stereotypes but rather trying to break away from a mold that I feel is returning. I am 24 years old and you have no idea how many times, I’ve been told that I shouldn’t aspire to an ambitious job; that my focus because I’m getting married should be to maintaining a home. This is coming from both men and women alike (this does not include my fiance).

Yes, I believe that our mothers and grandmothers faired better than my generation in terms of respect and trying to gain freedom. And this more than anything has brought such sadness and even anger ’cause instead of moving forward, we are moving backwards towards equality.

So yes, I commend Justine for such a passionate post, her opinions and honesty. I believe there needs to be more of this because that’s what change is all about.

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I came across this article when I Googled the quote, “well-behaved women seldom make history, and I am so pleased that I found it! What an amazing article! Not only is it very well-written, but the message is so fantastic. We all (women and men alike) need to take ownership of ourselves, and how we want our lives to be. The time for women to be demure, quiet, and obedient has passed – unless of course that is how you are happy as an individual. My favorite part of the piece is “‘Goodness’, then, seems to involve an amputation of the self. You make yourself ‘good’ to be loved and accepted, and in the process sacrifice your authenticity. You give yourself away until you no longer know who you are – assuming you ever did.” I agree that to be “good” we should not need to conform to an archaic standard where women are supposed to spend their lives in the kitchen, raising a family, and cleaning the house. I have a dear friend who has chosen that particular lifestyle and is very happy, but the key here is that she CHOSE it for herself.
On the other hand, I have chosen a path that is not quite as traditional, and in order to follow the path that makes me happy I made some difficult decisions about what was most important to me. I have been a volunteer firefighter and EMT (emergency medical technician) since I was 19, which is not an extremely common activity for a woman, but it is what I love. When I was 22 I married a man who said he understood how important serving my community was to me. Six months into our marriage, my then-husband gave me an ultimatum – either leave the fire department, or he was leaving. Ultimately, I chose the fire department and my ex-husband filed for divorce. While it was a difficult decision to make, and many people thought it was a bit drastic on my part to choose the fire department over my marriage. Ultimately though, my decision wasn’t just about which was more important – the fire department or my marriage – but it really came down to who am I? What kind of person do I want to be? Will I do what I know in my heart is right, or will I bow down and obey societal standards? Over the years, there have been other times where I have had to fight against the “norm” and had to stand a little stronger than my colleagues in order to show I am up for the job, but I have never once regretted the path I have chosen. However, had I withered away and done what was expected of me, I am sure I would not be nearly as happy in life as I am now. I would encourage everyone to find out what makes them happy, and stand up for your right to live a life that you love – even if that means breaking the mold!

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This is the most fantastic thing I have read all year.

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Thank you so much for this. I needed it.

xx

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I haven’t heard anyone use the expression ” bad girl” in…many many years. I can’t imagine any of my coworkers saying “I thought that new secretary on the third floor was a good girl, but after last Friday I now think she’s a bad girl. Nor do I even think of bad girl/good girl. More often men classify women as crazy or not.

As for Britney and Charlie – at least Charlie does not cause kids to thrust their genitals and lip synch to ” Hit me baby” in the 4th grade talent show.

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No, they don’t use the words bad girl, they use whore or slut or, yes, crazy — or make the exact kind of comments you did about britney, implying that asserting her sexuality is worse than physically abusing and even shooting another human being. You kind of made my point for me.

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i am very excited that you posted a fresh perspective.

having dealt with my own issues of the uber successful life partner, who did xyz… and having my most successful moments across the board independently. sometimes i wonder why we tend to ignore the gift we all have – intuition. we all know intuitively how to play to our level and also when the moment strikes exceed expectation.

having had great success in certain areas and coming from a small fishing/beach town in the maritimes i wonder.

women have successfully protected their children since the inception of humanity. that is more powerful than any mental cartesian or material construct.

when i look at my track record, i suspect those times when i just listened and trusted my training – i was much closer to the “truth.”

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Terrific post and it spoke to the bad girl in me that I’ve mostly let shine most of life, but often wondered if life would have been easier if I hadn’t. The art of fitting in and pleasing people sure can get a woman a long way…
Here’s my observation about sexiness without being overtly provocative or cheap: take a lesson from French women.They’s a great read about this “What French Women Know,” by Debra Ollivier. In short, sexiness is not all about a great bod and display, it’s that complex mixture of intelligence, wit, inner and outer beauty and panache that improves with age. Unfortunately, men in America may not have have the maturity and sophistication to appreciate it!

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