If I let my guard down too much and revert back to my less-educated ways of thinking, the term “self-esteem” kind of makes me feel like I’m sitting in the guidance counselor’s office in the 8th grade because I got caught smoking cigarettes in the bathroom. Or perhaps I am sitting around with my girlfriends after school making fun of the after-school special about poor Sally who feels chubby and outcast. The fact that the term can still conjure up images like that for me, despite the months (years?) I have put into researching the topic, is more than a little frustrating. The fact that self-esteem, as a term and as a notion, has been relegated to the domain of clichédom is a complete disservice to the importance and relevance of the concept. But the truth of the matter is, as long as self-esteem is viewed as largely irrelevant and “dorky” by teens they will always largely dismiss it, despite the best-laid plans of parents and educators.
I first become aware of this phenomenon not too long ago, during my own stint as a teenage girl. Like any developmentally average adolescent, I was egocentric, selfish and lived by the mantra “It won’t happen to me.” These traits, although typical of American teens, are also unfortunately the antithesis to any kind of self-esteem programming. This is because the essence of pro-woman self-esteem programming is focused on devaluing popular culture and undermining the insidious influences of male-centered teenage social life. It is extremely difficult to get the average teenager to criticize teen magazines, TV, movies and a focus on boys – the main events of many adolescent lives. Though some teens are able to take on these challenges, the majority, my teen self included, do not have the emotional or intellectual maturity to do so.
Before eliciting a teenage riot, I should say that my aforementioned conclusions are not directed at everyone, nor are they designed to discredit the potential and intelligence of America’s youth. Through the course of my research I have been amazed at the initiative and activism of adolescent girls whose stories and works I have encountered. Teens all over the nation are taking initiatives to start alternative magazines, pen new, relevant fiction and start effective teen activist groups. All I mean to say is that there are certain developmental issues that many teenagers encounter that are necessary to address when contemplating the state of the self-esteem of youth. There are several angles for addressing these issues and making self-esteem more acceptable and appealing to teens.
One of the best tools for helping females with self-esteem is to start early. Pre-teens have yet to become entrenched in adolescent culture and as such are easier to influence. Ideally, self-esteem and self-acceptance should be promoted from the moment your daughter is born, but specific messages about body image and the role of women in society become more relevant at the pre-teen age. The pre-teen years are when girls can cognitively begin to understand their place in the world and are able to process more complicated messages about what it is like to keep your sense of self in a world that is often unfair to females. Giving girls messages like these can empower them to better deal with the pressures and complexities of high school. If you can start involving girls at a young age, the tools for healthy self-esteem, such as good body image and media literacy, have more time to take root and can even prevent declines that often show up in older youth. By starting earlier you can also bypass a lot of the problems with making self-esteem seem cool, as this age group is not as attuned to the intricacies of what makes things popular.
If adults could learn how to make things “cool,” we could easily infiltrate the secrets of teenage life and indoctrinate them into the wonderful world of “focusing on school” and “wearing sensible clothes.” However, much of what makes the teen years so interesting and unique is the specific ways this group develops and uses trends, slang and inter-group dynamics. If the teen(s) you have in mind are already in the murky waters of adolescence, there are a few things that can help you reach them. Just being aware of the phenomenon of adolescent culture can be a great tool for engaging teens. First of all, it is important not to undermine adolescent culture to its members or, on the other hand, expect to be part of it. Just accept it; you are not cool. But, by emphasizing your awareness of this you can make great strides with adolescents and gain their trust. While it may be impossible to speak to them in the same way a peer can, it is feasible to create a fair, honest and respectful relationship that will allow you to share your knowledge and advice more effectively. Also, consulting teens on what they like and dislike is a great way to establish a relationship and engage them in any advice or programming you may have. If you give teens a say they become involved and thus more ready to listen.
Related to the phenomenon of coolness is the unique position young, college-aged women have in relation to teenage girls. Everyone can remember being in high school and having images of your future parent-free, co-ed college life. Some may even be able to recall looking up to particular young women in their lives and thinking “Someday that will be me.” There is something inevitably attractive and mysterious about the college years and those in and around that age group have a great opportunity to influence adolescent girls. As role models, we are old enough to exude some wisdom, yet young enough to remember how hard and complicated our teen years were. Also, the simple fact that we are involved in promoting girls' autonomy, pride and freedom gives those goals a look of importance to teens. Further, we are still in the know of some teenage fashion and slang and thus can communicate, physically and verbally, in a way many parents cannot. Young women have the ability to model an image of an empowered, smart, active woman and to lead adolescent girls on a path of success.
Self-esteem is a widely used term that carries many different meanings for different groups. Despite this, research has shown over and over again that it is a salient term of utmost import to teen girls and those who care about them. Which should be all of us. However, we happen to live in a world that devalues and overlooks the inner potential of adolescent females. Our media-rich culture has a huge influence on the way girls see themselves. And any 30-minute channel-surf will reveal that this image is one of a size 0, overly-sexualized, one-dimensional construct. It is our job, as citizens, parents, teachers and young women, to help girls develop and take pride in their other dimensions. This can be as simple as evaluating your own behavior or incorporating pro-woman language and as involved as becoming a mentor or a volunteer for teen girls. Future generations need our help to move self-esteem from a sitcom cliché to a way of life.
Laura Walton is a graduating senior at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and has recently completed an extensive research project that involved creating, implementing and evaluating a self-esteem program for youth in a group treatment