It’s been more than 40 years since Helen Reddy rallied a generation of feminists with her declaration “I am woman, hear me roar.” Yet despite the enormous strides women have made in the workforce and politics, it appears that many of us are still plagued by our little kitten voices that wish we were thinner, younger and prettier. According to psychologist Dr. Patricia O’Gorman, these so-called “girly thoughts” disrupt a woman’s ability to access her personal power, setting the stage for her to feel victimized by others. Such is the basis of O’Gorman’s book, “Out Your Girly Thoughts and Embrace Your Strength,” which comes out in April. I recently sat down with Dr. O'Gorman for a chat about her latest endeavor.
What inspired you to write the book?
Having been seeing women in therapy for many years, I wanted to create a term to help women get their heads around what they do to themselves that robs them of power. “Girly thoughts” best described all this energy that goes into how we look and how we act. It’s how we respond to idealized messages about how to be a good girl — the notion of “she’s pretty, she’s quiet and she doesn’t make anymore uncomfortable.” It’s something so subtle that we all do it everyday without thinking about it. My goal is to raise this to a level of visibility so we can see what we are doing to ourselves. Maybe we can laugh at it, identify as a “girly thought” and move it out of our way. What are some examples of girly thoughts and how do they affect us?
“My husband had an affair because I’m too fat." Or “I’m too aggressive at work and that’s why nobody likes me.” When I give talks, I inevitably have women come up to me telling how they were late for meetings because they had to do their hair. Men don’t struggle with this kind of thinking, but it diminishes our power, confidence and skills.
Where do girly thoughts come from?
They come from number of sources — from our mothers, who teach us to be safe. The media also plays a huge role, especially now with social media. We are so concerned with our image and compare ourselves to photos of women that have all been photo-shopped so we don’t even see how they really look. The level of perfection and photo-shopping is oppressive to the average woman.
Just to give you an example, after one of my talks, a professional model told me she’s plagued with the girly thought that she doesn’t look as good as she does in pictures when she wakes up in the morning. It’s not just the average woman who feels disempowered, but the models themselves. We’re holding ourselves back and feeling like a failure all the time.
How much of girly thoughts are related to appearance?
A lot, but we also have thoughts about being smart and assertive. A woman will worry about appearing too smart. A woman will wait a year longer than a man to ask for a raise because she feels like she has to prove herself. It’s that kind of pulling back that stops us from embracing our power.
Is it strange to think this is still happening so many years after women’s liberation?
It’s still very insidious. Women continue to be vulnerable around power, unlike men, who are vulnerable about being vulnerable.
What does resilience have to do with girly thoughts?
With women, we tend to take our resilience for granted. We don’t walk around thinking we’re strong, and acknowledge our innate ability to cultivate relationships – which makes us naturally resilient. When we focus on girly thoughts, we don’t focus on how strong we are. If you walk around thinking you have skills, you walk around with confidence rather than thinking that your hair doesn’t look good.
So what you’re really saying is that we are overly focused on external concerns and need to pay more attention to our internal strengths?
Yes, but it’s really about finding balance. It’s OK to take care our appearance so long as we aren’t being held hostage by girly thoughts that keep us in the house, shrinking from ourselves, or remaining silent in a meeting. When that happens, we’re losing out on what women can contribute on all levels of society.
How can men respond to women and their girly thoughts?
They can tell the women in their lives that they love and accept them for who they are.
In "Born to Receive: 7 Powerful Steps Women Can Take Today to Reclaim Their Half of the Universe" Amanda Owen challenges women to get comfortable being on the receiving end of life's gifts, though they may be more comfortable giving to the point of exhaustion. "Receiving is a skill that can be learned, developed, and strengthened," she writes.