On Being Real

Where I come from, if you bully someone you’d better expect a fight.

No “inside feelings” allowed. That is not what we teach the girls here at GLI, but it is a very real part of my experience. So I’m confronted with this question: although I consider myself a Real Girl, am I the Real Girl we want the campers to emulate?

Last week, for the first time since 8th grade, I felt bullied. It was something small, but I felt so challenged by it that my first reaction was to cock my head back, roll my neck, and verbally attack my aggressor. I was ready for a fight. So much so that when I was denied the opportunity for confrontation, I was embarrassed that I had not defended myself properly. That, however, is my inside feeling. And that feeling will never make it beyond this page.

As I write this, there is a part of me that is ashamed that I would question the tactics –however unconventional- that have helped me survive socially, both in my community and in the world. Nevertheless, being at GLI this summer and learning about Good Girl culture has caused me to realize that there are different cultural implications for rejecting the Good Girl and embracing the Real Girl. They are important to consider.

One of the first lessons taught to older campers at GLI is the concept of the Good Girl (how society expects girls to look and act). The first step in rejecting the limits of the Good Girl model is to recognize her qualities. Our campers describe the Good Girl as pretty, thin, high achieving, a pleaser, and good with adults in the classroom and on the athletic field. These ideals are perpetuated and reinforced by popular media.

Yet these qualities manifest differently from community to community, from home to home. I grew up thinking I had to be the really smart, religious girl who wore the clothes with (literally) the biggest brand name labels on them and could go toe to toe with anyone who threatened me.

At GLI, we teach the girls to reject what the media attempts to put upon them and ask themselves who they want to be instead. As a black woman, it is decidedly easier for me to reject the popular physical expression of the Good Girl (the blond, long haired white woman). In doing so, however, have I also rejected the Good Girl image purported at home; the true essence of the Good Girl in all its manifestations? Should I?

My Real Girl isn’t a product of a summer at GLI or a workshop with Rachel Simmons. However, I have learned to identify and express my Inside Feelings. I have learned to judge when it’s important to be assertive without being overly aggressive. Most importantly, I have learned to examine how I am pressured by society and peer relationships, and how to determine the person I want to be in concert with and in rejection of those pressures.

For me, it took a lot of trial and error, different life experiences, and time to come this far. What is awesome about GLI is that these girls explore these ideas early and acquire the skills to reflect on who they want to become. I don’t consider my reaction to being bullied unhealthy. I don’t want the girls to start practicing their bob weave technique, either. I want them to stand up for themselves in a way that falls in line with their personal integrity, even if it does not please everyone.

That is the Real Girl I want them to be.

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