How to break the 'girl code'

"I can’t recall the exact moment I began to feel like everything I did wasn’t good enough (or at least, I wasn’t supposed to take any pride in it or myself) but I think it was probably around 8 or 9."

"I can’t recall the exact moment I began to feel like everything I did wasn’t good enough (or at least, I wasn’t supposed to take any pride in it or myself) but I think it was probably around 8 or 9." Photo: Getty

For the last week or so, I have been visiting my gentleman friend's family in New Zealand. He has a six-year-old niece who delights me with her joie de vivre.

She draws pictures constantly, carefully selecting the best colours for a ballerina’s skirt (fluorescent pink) or choosing frames from her Tin-Tin books to re-imagine. She loves to dance and sing, popping on her toes to mimic the Let It Go sequence from Frozen. She freely believes that she is in control of the card tricks I perform for her, the magic spewing forth from her handmade wand. And she knows how to take a compliment.

I noticed this first when I was talking with her mother and we were both watching her draw. “That’s a good ferris wheel!” her mother said. “I know,” the child replied. “You’re a good drawer!” I piped in. “I know,” she said again, in a matter-of-fact way. She repeated the same sentiment whenever I threw a compliment her way.

You’re very good at dancing, Frankie.

I know.

Your hair looks nice today, Frankie.

I know.

Frankie’s self-confidence shocked me not because it was audacious, but because I’m so unused to hearing girls or women accept praise without complaint. I can’t recall the exact moment I began to feel like everything I did wasn’t good enough (or at least, I wasn’t supposed to take any pride in it or myself) but I think it was probably around 8 or 9.

Prior to this, there are home videos of me mugging for the camera, singing along boisterously to the soundtrack of The Little Mermaid, my chubby little body un-selfconsciously tucked into lycra bike shorts and T-shirts that were not designed to hide my rotund tummy.

With the onset of puberty came self-doubt. My T-shirts grew tent-like, chosen for their ability to conceal. I began picking out flaws in the mirror, comparing myself with my peers and finding myself significantly lacking. Compliments were brushed off, partially because I no longer believed them, but mostly because girls weren’t (and still aren’t) supposed to accept praise for anything.

Graciously accepting a compliment meant you were "up yourself", a stuck-up bitch who thought she was "so good". Girls like that were dangerous. They didn’t know their place, and everyone hated them for it. Instead, it was expected that you reject any positive comment outright.

You’re very good at dancing.

No, I’m terrible at it. I can’t do it properly.

Your hair looks very nice today.

No, it looks shit because I’m so fugly it’s not funny.

The unspoken rules of girl-on-girl warfare meant that it was our peers who largely policed this self hatred. Together, we kept each other’s self esteem in check, the call-and-response activity designed to test our loyalties to the Girl Code. 

You’re so pretty. I wish I was pretty.

No, I’m not! I’m disgusting! YOU’RE the pretty one. You’re so thin. I wish I was thin like you.

No, I’m so fat it’s disgusting.

I spent much of my 14th birthday party engaged in an activity like this. My friend Kate (who was and still is a marvellous human being) and I, in penance for having eaten too many M&Ms, lay in self-imposed disgrace on the sofa bed while we categorised our individual failings.

We were both decidedly more repulsive than the other, each protesting our own behemoth size in contrast with the other’s sleek and svelte frame. So comprehensive was our comparison that at one point we ran to fetch a tape measure so we could settle the argument of who had the fattest feet. Feet.

The unfair and unfounded fear of fatness in high-school girls is a travesty that has lasting impact. So what if one girl is fatter than the other? Why is this one of the benchmarks by which we judge our worthiness, as if our right to feel valued (and valid) decreases with every inch further that our bellies protrude?

So many hours consumed writing checklists of all the things wrong with us. At 32, I still find myself deflecting compliments with self-deprecating humour.

When I was congratulated for being drafted to a home team in my roller derby league, I found myself joking that it was probably because they were desperate for numbers. When people ask me what kind of writing I do, I sometimes say that I “just” write for a women’s website.

How much different would we all be if we hadn’t had the self confidence we felt at 6 beaten out of us by society and each other? Imagine responding to compliments about work we’re proud of by saying, “I know”.

Somewhere inside us all, there’s a six-year-old who wants to dance unselfconsciously to show tunes. We’d probably be very good at it indeed.

53 comments

  • My boyfriend says things to me like "I love you so much you know?" and I answer "No you don't". He says "You really are very pretty. Every time I look at you, I think that" and I answer "No you don't". He says "I wish there would be one time when you just say 'Thankyou Baby, I love you too' after I say something nice to you" and I think to myself "What is this self deprecating crap doing to my otherwise successful relationship?". The denial of compliments doesn't stay inside girl-code, but bleeds out into everything: "Nice work today" they say, "Oh, it wasn't really me, anyone could have done it" you say. "You're so clever, Im going to ask for your advice all the time" they say, "God, me? I don't know anything. I just lucked out with those words of wisdom" you say. Its a very hard pattern to break and its always a little bit heartbreaking when you have to acknowledge it in yourself. To the six-year-old in all of us, may she yell from the rooftops!!!

    Commenter
    caroline
    Date and time
    January 31, 2014, 5:02AM
    • My husband says lovely but blatantly untrue things like "You're the most beautiful woman in the world". This was traditionally is met with a self-consciously raised eyebrow from me, so he now adjusts it with "... you are, to me". Which nets a kiss. I've learned to accept a compliment - even an exaggerated one - gracefully, so long as it's not total nonsense. But, it did take a long time to get there. I hope you get there too and find out how nice it can be.

      But seriously - I don't think any of us should respond like Frankie. It's cute and rather charming when a three year old responds "I know!" to any compliment, but by age 6 it starts to sound like bragging overconfidence, probably symptomatic of parents who tell the child they are just fabulous at absolutely everything. IMHO it speaks a lot more to a child's secure sense of self-confidence when they can respond to a compliment with a smile and a "thank you".

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      January 31, 2014, 9:27AM
    • My husband says lovely but blatantly untrue things like "You're the most beautiful woman in the world". This was traditionally is met with a self-consciously raised eyebrow from me, so he now adjusts it with "... you are, to me". Which nets a kiss. I've learned to accept a compliment - even an exaggerated one - gracefully, so long as it's not total nonsense. But, it did take a long time to get there. I hope you get there too and find out how nice it can be.

      But seriously - I don't think any of us should respond like Frankie. It's cute and rather charming when a three year old responds "I know!" to any compliment, but by age 6 it starts to sound like bragging overconfidence, probably symptomatic of parents who tell the child they are just fabulous at absolutely everything. IMHO it speaks a lot more to a child's secure sense of self-confidence when they can respond to a compliment with a smile and a "thank you".

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      January 31, 2014, 9:27AM
    • My husband says lovely but blatantly untrue things like "You're the most beautiful woman in the world". This was traditionally is met with a self-consciously raised eyebrow from me, so he now adjusts it with "... you are, to me". Which nets a kiss. I've learned to accept a compliment - even an exaggerated one - gracefully, so long as it's not total nonsense. But, it did take a long time to get there. I hope you get there too and find out how nice it can be.

      But seriously - I don't think any of us should respond like Frankie. It's cute and rather charming when a three year old responds "I know!" to any compliment, but by age 6 it starts to sound like bragging overconfidence, probably symptomatic of parents who tell the child they are just fabulous at absolutely everything. IMHO it speaks a lot more to a child's secure sense of self-confidence when they can respond to a compliment with a smile and a "thank you".

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      January 31, 2014, 9:30AM
    • you know what Red Pony? I think you and me should hang out some time. Also, I'm finding the distinct lack of "you women complain about everything" comments a nice respite.

      Commenter
      caroline
      Date and time
      January 31, 2014, 10:04AM
    • I agree with Red Pony,
      I don't think answering "i know" to compliments constantly is a good thing at all.

      Commenter
      Freddie Frog
      Date and time
      January 31, 2014, 10:24AM
    • Wow - my comment was so awesome they posted it three times ;)

      But hey caroline - would love to hang out!

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      January 31, 2014, 10:44AM
    • My boyfriend always says to me "You are the most beautiful woman I've ever seen." To which I normally reply with a jokey "No, I'm not." Because, come on.

      I think he actually believes that, the poor bastard.

      Commenter
      Feeling the love
      Date and time
      January 31, 2014, 11:32AM
    • Red Pony, I absolutely agree with you. Humility goes a long way and children should learn it too. Nothing worse than arrogant spoilt children who think they're the top of the world. Saying thank you to a compliment is not being "up yourself" but saying "I know" all the time definitely is (unless said as a joke)

      Commenter
      Black Fox
      Date and time
      January 31, 2014, 11:47AM
    • Cannot stress how bleedingly tedious that is. It's bad enough having to walk around on eggshells where anything you say will be interpreted negatively ("You're looking nice today" "Was I looking bad yesterday? You're so mean!") but to be rebuffed when you offer a genuine compliment just means it's more effort than it's worth and you give up (with obvious consequences). Perhaps if women developed a maturity beyond that of a hormonal pubescent teenager things would be better. It's not "society" that teaches you this (there is no "society school"). That's a straw-man argument.

      Commenter
      Bender
      Date and time
      January 31, 2014, 11:47AM

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