Monday, February 21, 2011

On Girls and Self-Esteem -- Particularly Where Jealousy Rears Its Ugly Head

Jealousy is dastardly lover.  I know.  We were together for a long time.  We met when I was around 10 or 11 years old.  Prior to that, like most children, I could easily forgive and forget.  I didn't hold grudges.  I wasn't even all that jealous of a person.  Though I often longed for experiences outside of my own reality, I did not hold any malice towards the people already living the lives I coveted.

But something happens to girls -- yes, particularly to girls -- around 10 or 11 years old.

It is at this age that girls begin to realize that we are not supposed to be what we are.  Mary Pipher, in her book Reviving Ophelia, attributes this attack on the adolescent female psyche to three factors: 
  • "Everything is changing -- body shape, hormones, skin, and hair.  Calmness is replaced by anxiety... Far below the surface they are struggling with the most basic of human questions: What is my place in the universe, what is my meaning?"
  • "American culture has always smacked girls on the head in early adolescence.  This is when they move into broader culture that is rife with girl-hurting 'isms,' such as sexism, capitalism and lookism, which is the evaluation of a person solely on the basis of appearance."
  • "American girls are expected to distance from parents just at the time when they most need their support." (pp. 22-23, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls)
I would add to this list that adolescents in general in North America are consistently placed into competitive roles, further marred by arbitrary evaluation.  When babies are born, we compare their weights, how well they sleep, then when they speak and walk and potty train.  That my daughters are taller than many of their peers is rarely passed up as a topic of conversation -- as if this has anything to do with their contributions to the world.  The most common questions we parents hear regarding our children, usually in front of our children, look like, "So, is X _______ing yet?" "Is she reading yet?"  "Is he riding his bike on two wheels yet?"  Can she multiply double digits yet?"   The catch is that our response is always scrutinized.  If she isn't reading yet, there must be some deficiency requiring repair.  If she is reading, it is best not to sound too proud, not to brag.  

At the core of each of these factors is a self-image that perpetuates jealousy and bitterness.  When a girl is pondering her role in her world while being bombarded by messages that tell her what is expected of her,  how she is to perform, how she should portray herself publicly, and who she should have as role models and confidants, it is nearly impossible to come out the other end with a feeling of satisfaction.  Instead, we are fairly certain that the "others" -- for there can only be "others" when we are pegged against one another  -- have it better than we do.

Would that we could all raise our daughters on Wonder Woman's all-female Paradise Island.

Of course, if that were possible or even desirable (I, for one, would miss the men in my life), we'd have to inhabit the island with newborn girls and girls who grew up isolated from all that modern society has delivered in terms of competition, expectations, and contradictions.

So, barring the opportunity to move to such an island, I am compiling an admittedly incomplete list of helpful approaches that might serve to balance the messages adolescent girls receive:  

  1. Model the self-esteem you hope your daughters will develop.  It cannot be overstated just how much our daughters absorb from our own self-images.
  2. Admit honest mistakes and struggles.  Our girls need to see us struggling with real emotions and working through real conflicts.  They need to know that we are fallible.  Consider this -- if we act as though we do not make mistakes (#2) but then also speak poorly of ourselves (#1), our daughters will internalize this contradiction:  I am perfect and do not make mistakes (#2), yet I am ugly/fat/stupid (#1)."  This leaves a girl with nowhere to go, no goal that is attainable, no self-portrait that is realistic. 
  3. Work through your own bitterness and jealousy.  I have learned to dispense of jealousy (usually) by reminding myself that no amount of it is going to change my own situation.  Trust me.  I have tried.  Despite my best efforts, all my jealousy over people who have perfect abs has not once given me perfect abs.   Our daughters need to see us showing genuine gratitude for the gifts that other receive.  Which bring me to...
  4. Show gratitude for the gifts in your own life.  When our daughters know that we appreciate the simple gifts that life has to offer, they too will appreciate their own gifts.
  5. Laugh at yourself.  If we are able to laugh at our own foibles, our daughters will learn to take themselves less seriously as well.
You'll notice that I did not list any suggestions that attempt to directly conform a girl's self-esteem.   First of all, I don't know your daughters so I couldn't claim to know what is most beneficial for their self-esteem.  Secondly, this really isn't our job.  The very heart of self-esteem is that it evolves individually and internally.  We can, however, model a more healthy perception of our own self-worth to our daughters in hopes that they will ultimately cling to their relationships with us over their relationships with peer pressure, the media, competitions, and other contradictory messages.

That said, the one suggestion I can confidently make that will positively impact our daughters' self-esteem is simply this:  love them up, way up.

I would appreciate hearing other suggestions that more seasoned parents might offer.


3 comments:

Motherhood and More said...

Awesome post! Especially love the #1 and #2 juxtaposition in your tips. So true.

Maria said...

Awesome post! This may sound silly but you know how you as a woman just want to vent to your husbands and then they want to fix your problem but all you want really is for them is just to listen? Same goes for our daughters, too many times I am trying to jump in and fix things for them, they just want to cry and vent and let it out and then they feel better. Let them talk and just listen, no matter how bad your heart is breaking for them.

Jill Urbach said...

Love the picture you ended the post with!
This was a timely read, as I just returned home from an audition, to which I brought my girls, which didn't go so well. My oldest one read the text I sent my husband where I wrote that I "sucked." Fine to gripe to my husband, but will my daughter understand this? No, things didn't go the way I hoped, but they weren't quite as bad as I represented. Guess I should further discuss my true feelings about the evening with her.

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