I was in Kinokuniya (a large bookshop in Bangkok) yesterday, choosing book gifts for Betsy’s teachers to say thank you for the encouragement and help they’ve given her. I wanted the choices to be perfect. They needed to be amusing but not shallow; original yet of personal relevance; challenging but not inaccessible; and most importantly approved of by Betsy. Meeting this criteria was a challenge. Also, I knew I was once again, over-parenting (when will I learn?) and that Betsy would probably want to choose the books herself. However, it was a window of shopping opportunity and I forged ahead!
I made a few purchases, and when I got home had a look at what I’d bought. This is the weird thing though, amongst the books was 'Brave, not Perfect' by Reshma Saujani, the Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. I do not remember choosing this book, nor taking it to the cashier - yet somehow, I had bought it.
I’m thinking it must have been an act of fate as it is completely relevant to me as a teacher, mum and daughter and also a great book for both my daughters to read (once they've both finished their exams-there's a certain irony there!). In a nutshell, Saujani says: don’t try to be perfect, and don't let anyone else make you behave in a certain manner, instead take risks as it is better to be brave than to adhere to an outmoded of being perfect.
The first half of the book explores how girls are conditioned into striving for perfection, and illustrates how this can be at great personal cost. It then changes focus a little bit with more self-help emphasis on ‘girl power’. It has shorter chapters which provide a kind of check list of things we can do to feel empowered to take risks.
So, as mentioned a main thread of the book is how individual women should aim to worry less about being perfect in their own domain, be it the work place, family or with friends, and how they should essentially take risks and please themselves, not others. In addtion, the text also touches on how in wider society there is a sense that women are becoming less ‘pleasers’, as we speak out more about institutionalised sexism and inequality. It was written as the #MeToo movement was at its peak and addresses how the public sphere for women is changing. It is not a sign of imperfection to speak up for what is right, it is the brave thing to do.
I raced through the text and agreed with, pretty much, everything Saujani says, though it doesn’t always make easy reading. I know I am, frequently, a people pleaser and that I care lots about the mistakes that I make. However, I am also aware of this, and know that I need to be braver and care less about these errors (defined by the perfection ideal) that make me ‘imperfect’. Oddly enough, by caring about my mistakes I remain in ‘the girl trying to be perfect’ box, and thus perpetuate the ‘damsel in distress’ sexism that exists within society-I am rescuable and I let myself be rescued. Does that make sense? It does to me - nearly! It's disheartening. Even more disheartening is that I know that I have encouraged the same traits in my own children and probably also the students I’ve taught. Yikes! This is bad, not good.
My imperfections at instilling in others an institutionalised desire to be perfect are many! I bet in the classroom, I’ve probably crushed assertive girls’ voices more than those of boys. That sounds and is terrible, but haven’t you ever found yourself laughing at cheeky chappies – "boys will be boys" - whereas you’d reprimand a similarly cheeky girl?
It’s not just in admonishments where genders are treated differently. I wonder if you have ever been a bit harsh with an assertive girl and then because you've felt guilty you have gone on to spend ages coaxing her back to feeling ok. Perhaps? I also wonder if you’d have left an admonished chappy to ‘get over it’ and done less of the making up. Saujani doesn’t say much at all about boys, but does imply, I think, that they are left to be resilient when criticised, and expected to not be 'overly' sensitive, which apparently gives them better skills at managing failure and not striving for perfection.
If you get chance do have a read of the book. I’d say it is essential for educators (Saujani draws heavily on Professor Carol Dweck if that might lure you in), it’s insightful for parents, and kind of freeing to read; it's conversational, brave, honest and thought provoking. However, just to play devil’s advocate a little bit, Saujani states, quite critically, that young girls feel they can be assertive, but have to do so nicely, and that they then can go for what they want, so long as it doesn’t step on anyone’s toes. I wonder - is that so bad? In addition to encouraging girls to be ‘brave not perfect’, shouldn’t we also be encouraging boys to be nice, sensitive, and caring? Softness isn’t a sin and not all characteristics associated with aiming for perfection, as critically presented in the book, are weaknesses.
Gosh, I just took a break from writing (I'm in a coffee shop in a shoppign mall and popped into Zara. Lo and behold ‘Perfect to Me' by Anne-Marie was playing. What an inspiring song and video. This exploration of ‘perfection’ really is fate!
Last word - if this was a TV Show, not a blog, then this 'deleted' sentence would be in the blooper section:
"So in my quest to not worry about not being perfect, I am also trying not to worry about perpetuating the perfidary myth of perfection through this post!"
What a blooming nonsensical tongue twister. But hey, no one's perfect!