S is for Schoolgirls (A Crisis of Esteem)

Ignore any naughtiness implied in the title; my reference is specifically to Peggy Orenstein’s 1994 book of the same name, subtitled Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap. Banish ye now any lame fetish costume fantasy (and sadly Google’s ‘helper’ when you search for the book by name). I picked this up at Book People a few weeks on recommendation from one of the employees. Tip of the hat to you, Seth of Book People.

This book has a great deal of resonance with me for several reasons. First, the girls Orenstein studies are almost exactly my own age: I was in eighth grade in 1992-93. Reading along, all too often I find myself identifying with the girls on their journeys. The Nates and Kyles that dot Orenstein’s pages, boys who were held to different standards, encouraged, and allowed to dominate the classroom had different names in my school, but they were there none the less. Seventh and eighth grade were, thinking back, the place where my academics took a decisive turn.

I won’t pretend I would have grown up to be in a math or science field; English was always my strong suit. But I was good at math. In fact, I was the math tutor for our sixth grade class four grading periods in a row (an honor you got by having the highest average in the class). Once I got to junior high, things changed. At first, I got  teachers’ attention by trying to ask and answer questions. When that didn’t work, when they ignored or shamed me (which led some of my classmates to shame me), I started cracking jokes. The ones that got me attention usually involved me playing dumb. Beginning in about the seventh grade, people assumed I was an airhead. Sometimes I even bought the hype. Finally, one teacher pulled me aside and told me to stop joking around in her classroom because it was disruptive. The next class one of the guys led us in a Monty Python sing-a-long (which was awesome, btw, but you see my point). So I got quiet in most of my classes or when I did talk, it was to make a joke, not engage in the class. Mostly I was silent.

Consequently, it was shocking to a number of people, some of my closest friends included, when I was named a National Merit Scholar my junior year. Again with the shock when I went on to NYU (granted it was for theatre, but my grades didn’t hurt). The world of NYU was different. We were more competitive and mature. But it was hard to shake the airhead game. Outside of the classroom, I was snarky instead of spacey, although it was still assumed that I was the least intelligent of my friends. In class I never spoke because I wasn’t in the habit. Graduate school would actually mark the first time I spoke out in a classroom, mostly because I was frustrated by how quiet everyone else was when I knew the answers. I became the aggressive, confident one who felt entitled to my opinion.

When I was recently interviewed for our local newspaper, the interviewer asked me how I felt about the Lean In assertion that women are less likely to broadcast their success. I brushed it off and redirected the question because I didn’t know how to answer it. I mean, I Tweet and Facebook my publications and promotions. That’s not underplaying my success, right? A few weeks later, one of the higher ups at my college cornered me to pay me a compliment on the work I’ve been doing leading a faculty committee. Again, I deflected, making a joke about not knowing what I’m doing and redirecting. When she refused to stop her praise, I finally asked her to stop because it was making me uncomfortable.

Reading the introduction to Schoolgirls something struck me: “Too often we deride our own abilities. We denigrate our work and discount success. We don’t feel we have the right to our dreams, or, if we achieve them, we feel undeserving.” I do tell people about my success, but I feel nervous and slightly ashamed when I do it. Telling my friends and family, I am embarrassed, like I’m bragging about myself. It feels unladylike and selfish to assume that others would care about something I wrote. Usually, I undersell it with something like, “Oh yeah, I sort of sold a story to a magazine. It’s just a silly little piece, some more fluffy bunny crap.” I’ve been known to call my work, and myself, a cream puff. When that administrator praised me, I wish I could have accepted it gracefully, but I really didn’t know how, fearing I would sound either insincere, egotistical, or both. Generally when people do compliment me on my work, I brush it off and try to change the subject because I assume they are just being nice.

Before too much eye rolling ensues and someone points out how stupid these issues are for a grown woman,  I will tell you that reading Schoolgirls and actually writing this, I realize how crazy and destructive this form of thinking really is. Like crazy pants to the millionth degree. I have enough ego to be proud of myself, but not enough to really enjoy it without feeling bad. The impersonal nature of virtual communication–Facebook, blogging, Twitter, email–is an infinitely easier forum for me to share success than face to face. This is the first time I’ve ever articulated it, even to myself. Before now it has just been the sick feeling in my stomach when I hit Tweet or try to bring up the courage to tell someone that, by the way, I maybe sort of won an award. It took me the better part of a year to get over myself and actually post my publication list on my own blog. I bought Schoolgirls to help me anticipate some of the challenges of raising a daughter. Turns out I need it for me.

There is one page, again in the introduction, that I turned down and highlighted. Orenstein talks about confessing to her adviser her feeling of “fraudulence” in trying to construct her senior thesis, a fear of being recognized as unworthy. The adviser’s response? “‘You feel like an imposter,’ she asked. ‘Don’t worry about it. All smart women feel that way.'”

Is that true? Do smart women feel like they are the verge of being called out as having no clothes, no right to their point of view, no value in their success?

As for my daughter, I see early signs of the behaviors Orenstein documents–giving up when things get too hard, crumbling under mistakes, equating being good with being smart (which are not actually the same thing). When I do discuss things with her teacher about why something happened in the classroom, often she begins with, “Well, those boys can be rowdy.” This is not a critique of the teacher; it is merely an observation that aligns with some of the later patterns presented in Schoolgirls.

Reading Schoolgirls has given me a great deal to think about, both for myself and my daughter. I highly recommend this book and hope my husband will read it as well. It’s something we need to talk about together.



Categories: Get Smart, Life and Other Nonsense, Objects de Art | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “S is for Schoolgirls (A Crisis of Esteem)

  1. Fantastic article, A! Thank you.

  2. Really good article. I want to read this book now.

    • It really is great. Even thought it was written about 20 years ago, sadly a number of the patterns shown haven’t changed. And now there’s technology to make it worse. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Pingback: X | Generation Cake

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