While I was an RA last year, bright faces peeking through my door asking if we could talk was a common occurrence. I loved the girls on my floor, and was so inspired as I watched them stretch, struggle, and grow… and they helped me grow so very much as well. (If you are a Riser and you’re reading this… hi! I love you. 😉 ) As the semester wore on, I began to notice a recurring phrase running in the vocabulary of how many of the girls talked about various situations (family troubles, pushy boyfriends, tense friendships):
“I don’t want to seem mean…pushy…needy…judgmental.”
Here were some examples.
“I feel really uncomfortable with how he is acting… but, I don’t want to seem mean.”
“I feel very mistreated, but I don’t want to seem needy.”
‘I think what they are doing is really wrong and could hurt them, but I don’t want to seem high and mighty.”
And as I began to notice this trend, I began to notice similar tensions in myself. I began to see that lingering in the back of many girls minds, whether consciously or not, is the idea that we ought to be what I like to call “Nice little girls.” We admire girls who are “kind,” “sweet,” and “nice.” Negative reactions to people—feeling pushed, hurt, indignant, doubtful—are often perceived to be “bad feelings”– feelings we ought to suppress and pray about because we are not “thinking the best of others.” I think perhaps the line between honest and mean is much thinner for girls than boys. There is something of a pleasant passivity expected of girls; be honest, but not too honest. Have you experienced this?
I think this is further compounded by some of the most popular ideas of what biblical femininity ought to look like. I’ve heard many well meaning sunday school teachers admonishing girls towards “gentle and quiet spirits,” without regard to the other necessary and admirable facets of womanhood. What about the quality of Wisdom, personified as a women, thoroughly rebuking the fool? Does that fit into a framework of gentleness and quietness? It is good, noble, commanded, and desirable to have a gentle and quiet spirit– something I want and need to grow in– but, what do we mean by “gentle and quiet”? In the absence of a robust and Biblical understanding of these words, we resort to lauding a shallower version of woman: “the nice little girl.”
And it is in this that I find myself and many other young girls faced with a tension of two strong forces pulling for mastery over our actions: Image Management and Self Management.
To be nice or not to be nice, that is the question. Whether tis nobler to do the right thing or to look like you’re being really nice…
The problem with the idea of “the nice little girl” is that it is based primarily in perceptions rather than reality. When the worry is “I don’t want to seem mean,” the focus is shifted away from acting in a way that shows integrity, affirms self value, demonstrates a developed sense of moral culpability, corresponds with reality, and has the best in mind for all parties. This causes young women to worry more about being perceived as agreeable than actually being a mature and godly person. This quite ironically contradicts the idea of the verse that it is supposedly supported by, in which Peter admonishes the women to cultivate “the hidden person of the heart,” a reality which exists apart from outward perceptions. It does not matter how you are perceived if you have not developed a true “hidden person” to begin with.
And image management has devastating effects.
Because of the belief that they should always hold to a standard of “nice-ness” have seen girls submit to pushy men because they felt like they were “overreacting” by telling them they were going too far. I have seen people stay in hurtful relationships in which they were enabling ungodly behavior because they didn’t want to be mean by standing up for themselves or others. I have seen people do things they regret because they felt like they would be perceived as judgmental to stand up for what they believed.
I think, with some evaluation, it is obvious that these are warped ideas of womanhood, but they are prevalent and powerful, and they have got to stop.
Once, while meeting with a mentor, I told her about some tensions with a friend I was struggling to navigate with integrity. Was I doing the right thing? Will I seem mean? Will I seem judgmental? What do I do? It was an issue we had talked about before, and I was going in cirles: I knew what was right, but hated to be cast in the light of the “bad guy.”
“Joy, you are trying to manage your image; it won’t work. You must seek God, seek the wisdom of others, and do what seems best. You cannot control what other people will think of you, you must trust your integrity to God.”
Her words that day have stuck with me ever since. A sometimes frustrating reality of life is that you cannot control the actions, feelings, or perceptions of other people. You can, however, manage your own actions, feelings, and perceptions. I say manage, rather than control, because human beings are complicated, even, and sometimes especially to ourselves. Instead of trying to constantly be in control, we must learn to submit ourselves to God and others in a way that helps to strategically manage our sinful selves.
This doesn’t mean recklessly embracing an attitude of ungracious candor, but learning to understand our emotions, manage our reactions, and act in a way that has integrity. But how do we begin to transition to living a life of self management rather than image management.
As I consider how I want to mature as a woman, I want to live in pursuit of gentleness, godliness, wisdom, and love, in my “inner person” rather than in my self as perceived by other. I think of it as an exercise in being. I want to be wise, by surrounding myself by wise people, investing in scripture and books, learning from my past mistakes. I want to be discerning, by growing in understanding of myself, pushing beyond the feelings I have into the causes for them. I want to be kind, learning to value people, seeking to know their story, asking God to shape my heart with love, practicing real kindness based in integrity rather than image management. With each experience, morning devotional, conversation, and book I read, I hope that I am developing a framework of how to act and react, a wealth of wisdom to draw from, and a heart practiced in responding in love.
Nice is not enough.
When we tell ourselves to be “nice” we are only allowing for shadow of the women we could be. After watching the girls on my floor grow and flourish this year, I have been thoroughly convinced of the beauty and power God has in mind for the fully developed heart of a woman he loves. We must redefine our understanding of what it is to be gentle and feminine in search of God’s true and magnificent design. I hope that we as woman are constantly reminding ourselves of that fullness, and never settling for a smaller, weaker image.
“She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue.”