Why Girls Don't Feel Awesome

On self esteem and the proverbial pissing match. 

I'm glad that issues many feminists have been discussing for decades have found their way into the mainstream. However, I'm starting to resent the fact that almost all of these conversations are disproportionately placing the burden of fixing workplace inequality and other symptoms of everyday sexism on me. The most recent example being Claire Shipman and Katty Kay's declaration that women suffer from a "confidence gap" which stifles their professional development and hinders their ability to rise to the top of their respective professions. It's an ironic cacophony that ultimately reaches the same conclusion: Ladies, you need to fix yourselves. 

Amidst the consistent exhortation for a self-help remedy, I came upon this discussion by Nancy Lyons:

Girls by Gisella Klein on Flickr

Girls by Gisella Klein on Flickr

It dawned on me that in all these conversations we're having about the challenges of claiming our own voice and standing firm on our feet as strong women, what we're really trying to do is fix something that broke inside of us a long time ago. And it's still broken...

Studies have shown that a little girl's confidence peaks somewhere around age nineNine. I can't remember age nine, can you? If true, this means that millions of women have little to no recollection of a time in their lives when they felt truly confident in themselves or their abilities. And, according to Lyons, it haunts us to this day. 

If our own self-esteem didn't crack and crumble as young girls, we wouldn't have to be healing those pieces now....

This realization hit Lyons as she observed a group of middle school boys taking turns "reinforc[ing] each others awesomeness: one-upping but also validating as they went." The girls, by contrast, "sat quietly listening to the conversation unfold with slight grimaces on their faces." When asked if they too were "awesome," the first girl responded in the negative, while the other conceded that she was at least "amazing."

This troubled me. A lot. I was troubled by their hesitancy in participating in what, on the surface, looks like a silly conversation. Because it wasn't silly. The conversation actually conveyed a serious and important message about, and reality for, these young women: they don't think they're awesome. They don't feel awesome. And boys do. 

Of course girls don't feel awesome. How could they? Soraya Chemaly says it best:

We socialize girls to doubt the importance of their words and actions, and then, oddly, turn around and ask why they lack confidence. From the moment they can talk, we expect girls to be quieter, more cooperative, and polite...Gendered politeness norms teach girls to be subservient and boys to be dominant. 

Those girls weren't participating in the boys' proverbial pissing match because they were taught from an early age to sit and be quiet. Girls are not praised for bringing that type of attention to themselves in the way that boys are. Boys can be rowdy, rambunctious and assertive while girls, by and large, cannot. Have you ever heard anyone say in response to a bunch of little girls making a wild raucous, "girls will be girls"? 

We don't teach girls to brag about themselves, we teach them focus on the feelings of others. We don't let girls sit around trying to "one-up" one another because that's not "nice" and girls should be "nice." We don't teach girls to support and challenge each other in healthy environments like the boys observed by Lyons. Instead, we teach them to compete with each other for the attention of the boys. Even Beyonce knows this. 

We don't teach girls to view themselves as independent and capable individuals, we teach them to gauge their value based upon what others think of them. We fret more about their looks than their minds, and girls know this. We knew it. So of course a girl isn't going to tell you she's awesome. She's been socialized to think that she is only awesome when someone tells her she's awesome. And her "awesomeness" as perceived by others is primarily dependent on almost everything but her intelligence. 

Case in point. When David Perry attended the pre-school graduations of his children, he noted that even though these children were only four years old, they both recognized and yearned for the public rewards that come with conforming to the traditional gender stereotypes they had already internalized. 

A few years ago at my son's preschool camp award ceremony, I sat silently as well-meaning counselors called each child forward. Girls: best hair, best clothes, best friend, best helper and best artist. Boys: best runner, best climber, best builder and best thrower. My son won best soccer player. In general, girls received awards for their personalities and appearance and boys for their actions and physical attributes.

It was similar at my daughter's ceremony, where the teacher told us that all the children were so excited to see what award they would receive; it had obviously been built up as a big deal. The gender disparity was subtle but present.

A boy received best engineer. A girl got best friend. Another girl was the best helper, and another most compassionate. A boy received best break dancer. A girl was named most athletic, and the teacher told us how when all the class raced around the track this girl "beat everyone! Even the boys!" And then my daughter got her certificate, showing her in a funky orange sweater, tight pants, and holding a bowling ball. Her award -- best dressed.

I agree with Lyons when she says that no amount of leaning in or what have you on the part of adult women will have any long-term impact if we don't help our girls.

Maybe we can save the next generation from struggling to fix something broken if we put effort into making sure - now- that it never breaks in the first place. This is what I imagine can happen if we talk to our daughters and the young women around us, and include them in the conversations we're having. It doesn't matter how far we get in conversations about us - and the balance we deserve or are seeking - if we don't change how it happens for little girls. 

However, I disagree, to some extent, with Lyons' belief that "victimization, more than anything, is what we need to eradicate." (emphasis mine)

I worry that as we talk about all of this - our power, our opportunities - that we're talking in ways that suggest it's not up to us whether we GET to live our full potential. The power to realize our complete selves is entirely within us - it's not some magic talisman bestowed upon us by an external force. No one else gets to decide.

Girl by Daska on Flickr

Girl by Daska on Flickr

Actually, others sometimes do  get to decide, and that's part of the problem. While I agree that women don't always have the power to control outside forces, and that they can control their reactions to those forces, that only goes so far. Because the reality is those outside forces are kind of a big deal. Whether it's a hiring manager or boss, a potential professional or academic mentor, a client, etc., what they think about me as a woman, and by extension, what they think about women in general, matters. No amount of self-actualization is going to change that. 

Does this mean that all women are victims who should just resign themselves to a lifetime of oppression and inferiority? Absolutely not. I don't think that awareness of institutional sexism and widely proven barriers to women in the workplace and beyond constitutes "victimization" in the way that Lyons does. Jessica Valenti, in refuting the confidence gap said, "[t]he 'confidence gap' is not a personal defect as much as it is a reflection of a culture that gives women no reason to feel self-assured."

The truth is, if you're not insecure, you're not paying attention. Women's lack of confidence could actually just be a keen understanding of just how little American society values them.

Which brings me back to those little girls Lyons observed. Their response to her question about whether they too were awesome, illustrates just such an understanding of this society and their place in it.  

So, no, girls don't feel awesome. And they haven't for a long time. As long as we continue to raise girls in an environment that socializes them to look to others for validation of their intelligence and self-worth, to care more about the feelings of others rather than their own, to be quiet and to sit still, to be small, nothing will change. As long as we continue to reward boys for behavior we punish and criticize in girls, nothing will change. 

So what can we do?

The list of things we need to change to solve some of these problems is too long for this post. But like Lyons, I think including girls, when appropriate, in conversations about leaning in and the like is a good start. I would go further, however, and include little boys in these conversations as well. Girls aren't the only ones who need to be able to identify gender bias in order to eliminate it. Just think what a difference it would make if we didn't have to spend so much time and energy trying to convince people of the existence of gender bias in the first place!

Further, if we can't completely eradicate the fact that little girls gauge their self-worth based upon how they are perceived by others (read: boys), then the least we can do is try to change how the boys perceive the girls. Little boys need to see and hear female characters that are just as strong and just as powerful as male characters. We need more books, films, and television shows that don't include story lines filled with damsels in distress who need saving by their (male) heroes. And for the love of all that is Holy, please stop segregating toys into "girl" toys and "boy" toys, especially when the "girl" toys consist primarily of (PINK) cooking, cleaning, and homemaking paraphernalia. 

Which brings me to my last point. Let's not repeat the mistake of previous generations by having the courage to raise our daughters more like our sons, but failing to raise our sons more like our daughters. We have succeeded in raising little girls who aspire to have both careers and families, but we've yet to do the same with little boys. Little boys should grow up expecting to do their fair share of the household chores and child-rearing. Are we making progress? Absolutely. But we've still got a long way to go.