Church Girls Gone…Mild?

Church Girls Gone…Mild?
Paul Coughlin,
Oregon author of No More Christian Nice Girls

No book on the Christian Nice Girl problem would be complete without looking at how the church socializes girls and women.  Rather than trying to resolve every “hot button” doctrinal issue related to gender, such as whether women should serve as pastors, here’s a simple observation that rings true for many female believers: the “sugar and spice” expectations and pressures that women face are often even worse inside than outside the church’s walls.  Some churches don’t allow women to be involved in any form of leadership, unless it’s singing on the worship team or teaching children.  This means that the important insights and contributions available from women’s God-given, intuitive, empathetic minds are under-valued, unheard, and unheeded.  In other churches, when women are encouraged to be more assertive and expressive, it’s often highly compartmentalized.  Being animated and spirited is okay—but only during worship.  It’s good to be courageous—when sharing the gospel.  It’s right to be firm—when disciplining your children.

And when women are allowed to lead, some are trained that when it comes to a disagreement, men win by virtue of gender, not accuracy.  I (Paul) experienced this one evening as my wife and I joined three other couples in a quaint courtyard.  One of the women and I began debating a theological issue.  For about twenty minutes, we were the only ones talking at the table, two people passionately defending their opinions.  My wife, Sandy, kicked me numerous times under the table to let it go.

But before I could concede that we would have to agree to disagree on the topic (Sandy’s pointy shoes really hurt after a while), I was astonished by how the woman ended the debate.

“I disagree, but you’re a man so you’re probably right.”

“What?” I said, in quiet bewilderment.  “That’s…that’s an excuse, not a reason.”

I felt sorry for this bright and anxious woman.  Just because I’m a man doesn’t mean I’m automatically right in discussions, even if I am a published author on spiritual matters.  However, that’s what her church had socialized her into believing: she was supposed to bow to any man who disagreed with her regarding theological matters, even when she believed that his opinion was dead wrong.  She ended up trying to please me instead of remaining true to her understanding of God and his Word.

This is what many women are socialized to do in church: please people, not God.  They come to church experiencing ongoing pressure from the world to be plastic Nice Girls, and the church, instead of freeing women to emulate the 360-degree Jesus, influences them to become even more of a smiley-face doormat, by teaching them that this is what god expects from women: quiet, sweet, unrelenting compliance.

But God’s purpose in creating the average woman with empathy and connection skills is not to produce perpetually nice, hyper-compliant, non-boat-rocking women—it can’t be since Jesus (as you saw in chapter 1) was not particularly nice or compliant, and he definitely made waves.  God wants women to reflect all 360 degrees of Christ’s image which means that truly good Christian women won’t look as sweet and unassuming as their church may expect.

A woman who doesn’t meet her church’s “sugar and spice” expectations will find a frustrating force working against her: the “selective perception” that some church leaders and churchgoers unknowingly practice.  They see or hear only the Bible verses or sermons that support what they already believe: that God expects women to be Christian Nice Girls.  Scripture or sermons that support female (and male) believers in embracing the full sweet and salty personality of Jesus simply don’t register, even when they are presented.

There’s a final, powerful, social force shaping girls to be sugar and spice: other girls.  Sociologists have discovered that as early as elementary school, girls have established in their minds what an ideal female should act and look like.  They model their behavior accordingly and then bestow popularity on girls who most closely match this imaginary paragon of woman hood.  Now, who do you think their idealized female is more like—Condoleeza Rice or Paris Hilton?  It’s not the former Secretary of State.  Research indicates that even young girls know that their status comes from physical attractiveness, clothing, social skills, romantic success with boys, their parents’ higher socioeconomic status (and the resulting expensive clothing, material possessions, and lifestyle), their parents’ permissive parenting style (less parental supervision means more freedom), and (last on the list, sadly) academic performance.  Girls, having been socialized previously by adults to be compliant and over-focused on outward appearances, socialize other girls in turn, and create a culture of “compliance and conformity,” wherein girls closely follow social roles and rules, and enforce them on other girls.

In a nutshell, countless studies have shown that gender socialization gives girls “roots” and boys “wings,” meaning that girls are shaped by their culture to become interdependent while boys are shaped for autonomy and independence.  Being interdependent or connected through relationships is not a bad thing.  The problem arises when that’s your only option, when independence, assertiveness, and speaking the truth are not options.  Take those out of the mix, and you’ve got a sure-fire recipe for cattiness.

“Catty, that’s just how girls are.  You can’t trust them, “says fifteen-year-old Amber, sitting rigidly with her fists clenched as she relays the painful story of her former best friend’s betrayal.  “She said she didn’t like by boyfriend, but then people told me she made out with him at a party.  Then she started telling people that he wanted to dump me because I was a slut!”  Amber’s anger suddenly dissolves into tears of hurt.  “She’s been my best friend since second grade!  How could she do this to me?”

Amber’s all-too-familiar story illustrates the relational aggression (spreading rumors about someone, teasing, threatening to exclude someone, shunning) that girls commit against one another.  Girls use primarily these behaviors to bully other girls.  Physical punches may not be thrown, but the emotional pain is devastating, and over time, can lead girls and women to believe that females, by nature, are untrustworthy, devious, and manipulative—in a word, catty.  But is this really true?  Are females born catty?

Girls learn cattiness from sitting at the knee of the Nice Girl culture, in and outside of church.  You’ve already seen that God’s original design was to hardwire most women for empathy, intuition, and connectedness.  He gave them greater skills with language and emotions.  Physiologically speaking, the majority of women are primed to highly value relationships and find disconnection from others very painful.  Then women are socialized from infancy to believe that if they want to keep their relationships, they must behave like Nice Girls: unrelentingly helpful, pleasant, quiet, self-effacing, noncompetitive, and compliant—no matter the situation.

As they move into the upper grades of elementary school, they also experience increasingly unrealistic cultural expectations for beauty, as well as behavior.  This is a lot of pressure on nine and ten-year-olds, and it makes them anxious because who can match up to these ridiculous standards?  Answer: No one.  But that’s not what magazines and television and yes, sometimes even parents and the church, tell them, and so girls begin to experience shame over their inability to meet impossible cultural standards that are actually cruel to all but a chosen few.  And shame, anxiety, and jealousy give birth to cattiness.  Lyn Mikel Brown explains

Girls take out their anxieties and fears about matching up to or resisting ideals of feminine beauty and behavior on each other.  They fight—exclude, tease, reject, and torment—other girls over things the dominant culture makes out to be very important, but in the grand scheme of things shouldn’t matter that much—that is, how perfectly nice, thin, or pleasing a girl is.

Adding to their shame and fear of not measuring up, girls learn from their culture that anger, open and expressed, is forbidden for Nice Girls.  Christian Nice Girls get the double whammy:  Anger is not just wrong for women, it’s sinful.  From all directions, girls learn “don’t speak up, don’t speak the truth, don’t get angry, preserve your relationships at all costs,” so they learn to avoid confrontation and to use hidden ways of getting what they want.  Tragically, by not being honest and straightforward with others as Christ modeled, Christian girls sabotage the very relationships they are trying to preserve.  (We’ll discuss this further in chapters 5-7.)

Because they are human, girls do get angry.  They fight, disagree, and compete, but since they’ve learned that adults disapprove of girls expressing these feelings, they take their angry feelings underground or out of the sight of adults.

Brown adds

Girls learn early to use covert tactics like threatening to damage or control a girl’s relationships with others or to ignore or exclude someone they are angry with…The ultimate threat when a young girl feels the wrath of another girl is not being yelled at or hit, but excluded: “You can’t come to my birthday party.”  In this way, adults’ expectations that girls be nice and cooperative and avoid loud conflicts…set the stage for a more opaque, but no less aggressive, form of girlfighting.

And so the Nice Girl culture, instead of producing girls who are honest, kind, strong, brave—the kind of truly good women who can change the world—actually produces the opposite—catty girls who believe their only option is to use relational aggression to both get what they want and to protect themselves from the shame of not measuring up to their culture’s unrealistic standards.  Girls learn to lie to each other, not because females are born untrustworthy or devious, but because it just seems too risky to speak the truth.  Sow this poisonous seed over a lifetime and you will reap, as many Christian Nice Girls do, a harvest of superficial, unsatisfying relationships—relationships where “everybody signs their letters with love or dots their I’s with hearts—even when they don’t feel like it.”

Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous Faith, No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the values-based and faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for public schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals who want to diminish child-based bullying.

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