ENTITY discusses the issues with how we treat the Nice Girl.

When I walked into class sophomore year of college, having just changed my major, my heart leapt into my throat. I had gone through the whole “starting over” thing the year before, moving across the country for university with no hometown pals to sit with in orientation.

I wasn’t crazy about the idea of doing it all again. First impressions have always haunted me. The fear that I will somehow portray myself in a way that repels people immediately terrifies me. I would much rather repel them after they get to know me. Or, you know, never repel them and live merrily amongst a human race, filled with love for one another. But, whatever.

So, as I stepped towards my new peers, I decided the best thing I could do was forget about the others learning about me, and devote myself to learning about the them. I made it my mission to care for and understand everyone in the room.

The Compassion Crusade

Empathy has always been a  priority of mine, and I practiced being empathetic every chance I got, asking genuinely about people’s well being, listening actively to everything that came out of their mouths and constantly cheerleading everyone’s individual successes. I figured if I could really make everyone in the room feel cared for and protected, they would see that empathy mattered to me. Thus, they would get to know me through my actions instead of my three-minute elevator pitch.

People seemed to take notice. However, their reactions didn’t exactly measure up to the impression I had hoped to make.

During the fourth or fifth week of the program, one of our teachers led us through a team building exercise, in which partners sit across from each other and list the positive qualities they have noticed about the other thus far. Overwhelmingly, the adjective I received from partners was “nice.”

At first, I didn’t mind being the Nice Girl. People seemed to like the Nice Girl overall. And there are worse labels.

But as time went on, I found myself struggling to fit inside the personality box that seemed to be laid out for me. Quickly, I discovered the limitations and abusive treatment that came along with my given identity.

The Rules of the High Road

For instance, the Nice Girl shouldn’t be angry. Any time a little steam started to seep from my ears, I was quickly isolated. Seeing the Nice Girl upset was like seeing a teacher in the grocery store–nobody seemed to know how to respond to my higher emotional states.

Moreover, the Nice Girl wasn’t permitted to be funny. Cracking jokes seemed to not be in my lane. It felt like any behavior that brought any kind of attention was out of range. The wide eyes and “woah’s” that popped up if I said anything less than holy pushed me back into my shell. I was becoming quiet and reserved, two qualities that had never really been on my radar before. Because I was so focused on letting others voice their experiences, I forgot how to talk about myself. I felt like my peers didn’t really see me, but rather were picturing a sort of Martha Stewart hologram in my place.

To clarify, the problem at hand wasn’t ever the niceness itself. I did, and still do, enjoy expressing empathy and think it the most powerful quality a human can possess. To deeply care about and attempt to understand someone is to access the true magic of life. The problem, in fact, is what happens when we restrict people’s (particularly women’s) capacities by squeezing them into the Nice Person frame.

The problem is how we treat Nice Girls.

The Big, Ugly Picture

The people in my class were not necessarily the ones responsible for this personality crime. If we think about the Nice Girls we have seen on television, in movies or in the news, we can clearly see a pattern. Take our pal Sandra Dee, for instance, from “Grease.” As a Nice Girl, she was depicted as a square, a sort of life experience-deficient cheerleader with a pretty smile. She was ridiculed and pressured until, finally, she started smoking and wearing leather, at which point everyone decided she was cool enough to sing with, and the hunky Danny Zuko deemed her worthy of his time.

And yet, this is supposedly a family-friendly film that kids sing along to across the world. Nice Girl Sandy was boring and considered weak. People don’t dress up as Nice Girl Sandy for Halloween parties, they dress up as Leather Sandy. The problem here is our inability to allow kinder characters to possess any sort of dimensions.

While the world of storytelling seems to be trying to correct this ever since the release of “Grease,” I can’t help but notice reality’s failure to do the same. I find that people continue to create Sandra Dee characters out of real, life-size humans in front of them. They create outlines in their minds for what the Nice Girl’s story should be, and they become uncomfortable when she wanders off of that track. For others, they may wish to break the Nice Girl, prodding her spirit and testing her ability to give until she cracks, and then abandoning the remains. Regardless, the Nice Girl tag contains dangerous assumptions and restrictions.

The Route to Reconcilliation

Some women are working to reclaim the Nice Girl title, turning a label used to demean into one that demands positive recognition. This is difficult and brave, and something I hope I am able to achieve someday. Right now, for me, I want to question people who continue to describe the women in their lives as “nice.”

I wonder what exactly someone implies by this. Do you mean she is deeply sensitive to the emotions of others? Perhaps you see her genuine willingness to listen and care for others? Or, unfortunately, do you use the word “nice” because you don’t want to see her in her full, 3D glory? Do you throw “nice” out there to tame her powerfully generous spirit?

I want to break open the Nice Girl complex and tear it to shreds. Call me kind and call me empathetic, because those feel like superpowers. But don’t call me “nice” because it’s easy or because it’s comfortable.

Allow women everywhere to exist as the fascinating, multi-faceted creatures we are. Give us room to explore and experiment. Notice our generosity without viewing us as human apple trees available solely for your own nourishment. We are whole forests, packed with adventure, wisdom and mystery.

Send this to a friend