“Being good hurts so much,” one of my Body Image class student shares and around the room she is met with nods.
We are discussing a chapter from Courtney Martin’s book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters. In it, Martin talks about how a generation ago, women needed to be good to meet society’s expectations, but good is no longer good enough. Now, girls need to be perfect.
And so we are talking about good and perfect and the pressure that comes with trying to achieve both of them, and I am struck with how particularly easy it is for me to empathize with my students right now, to remember exactly how it is they feel, because of how the timing of this discussion has intersected with my life.
Just days before we started breaking apart good in class, I was cleaning out the attic and came across some mix tapes I had made (clearly years ago). One of them was the mix tape I put together (and shared with my best friend) when we discovered my boyfriend had cheated on me.
What exactly does one put on an early 1990s heartbreak mix tape, I wondered, before shoving the tape into my car’s tape deck. I guessed Walk on the Ocean by Toad the Wet Sprocket, Inside My Head by The Connells, Baby Can I Hold You by Tracy Chapman, More Than Words by Extreme, Never Say Goodbye by Bon Jovi.
Funny, I thought, that this tape that was likely the accompaniment to tears 20+ years ago would now be a laugh track to me. And, yet, when I finally heard the tape, it wasn’t quite so simple.
Side One definitely had some wallowing to it, but Side Two was something markedly different. It was much more “I have more important things to worry about; this too shall pass; whatever, dude, I’ll be just fine.” And once I got over my initial surprise of hearing “Shiny Happy People” on what I thought was going to be a total heartbreak tape, I remember how incredibly conflicted I had been about who I was and how I though I needed to be in the world at that time of my life. The music reflected that tension.
When I discovered the cheating, it was a defining moment, and, for my definition, I chose what I always had when it came to being in relation to someone else: calm, rational, good, nice, and forgiving. If I broke up with him, I reasoned, then I would simply be allowing the situation to make me a different person- a vengeful, jealous person, maybe, and that’s not who I was. So I called the girl and said I wouldn’t make things awkward, the issue was between me and him. At school, I walked past her with my head high, said hello like I always had because to vilify her over him in this matter was contrary to my sense of justice. I listened to his teary pleas, challenged him some, said it would be hard for him to earn my trust again but we could try.
Needless to say, it kept happening. He’d kiss a girl here, another there. It’s what he did. What I did was figure out how to appear firm while still being nice. Meanwhile, I was the friend that my friends came to with their troubles. I was a good listener, and I was always clear.
“You deserve more,” I would tell these women that I loved. And I meant it. I wanted to see them honor their right to be fully cared for—by themselves and by whomever they let into their heart.
“We teach people how to treat us,” I would insist, and, yet, it took months for those words to ring true in my own ears. There was a disconnect between the girl who championed others and the girl who couldn’t champion herself. It wasn’t enough, though, to believe in the worth and dignity and rights of everyone else. After almost a year of choosing what seemed like good, I realized that it didn’t feel good. I had to offer myself the same justice I insisted on for others. I called him, one spring night, and ended it.
My friends were relieved. Over time, they had grown mortified by what he was doing. By then, I was only mortified by what I had done to myself. Somehow, sometime I had bought the bag of goods about what being “good” meant. The reality, though, was that the societal messages I received about what good girls did, how they acted, were getting in the way of my truth.
That spring night, I went out and danced until the moon was high over the sky calling to me with its lightness. I returned home in the still of that early spring morning, mesmerized by my empowerment and committed to never staying again in something that didn’t fit.
As I looked at my Body Image students on Friday, I found myself wanting to find the words to empower them to give up good for the sake of good, to refuse to fit into boxes that they didn’t even choose for them, to realize that goodness is not what they think it is. And I thought of forty-year-old me, doubling over in both laughter and tearful tenderness as For Just a Moment came over my car speakers while I drove the country roads of my town, listening to this time capsule of such a distinct moment in my history.
It may have taken me a long time to learn but, with sweet relief, I know what I am now trying to teach my students. Being good isn’t about being pleasing. Being good is about being just to others while also being true to your self.