We tell women to be confident, but not too confident, leaving them with a very narrow window of “acceptable” levels of self-esteem.
I was on the train going into work this morning and two songs came on back to back that caused me to reflect on self-esteem and how it can be complicated for women.
The first was “Feeling Myself” by Nipsey Hussle. As it played I wondered what the song would be like if a girl sang it. Not a similar version of the song. But the exact same lyrics. Would it have been as popular? What would people have thought of the girl singing?
As I was thinking about how that would be received, the next song that came on my iPod was “Pretty Girl Rock” by Keri Hilson. While the two songs initially appear similar, songs about individuals with high self-esteem and wanting the world to know (which is not a bad thing), they are very different.
The first, sung by a male, is more focused on what makes them great. It talks about looks, personality, and success. All things that contribute to him “feelin’ his self.” While the second, sung by a woman, is exclusively about her looks and specifically what men find attractive about her. There is also an interesting layer to this song. Other women hate her because she is beautiful. So while the two songs may appear similar on the surface, they are fundamentally different.
As a social worker, I run girls groups and self-esteem is one of the topics that we frequently discuss. I often use songs to help improve their media literacy. While both of these songs are a few years old now, I still use them because they spur conversations about what high self-esteem looks like in guys versus girls. When listening to “Feeling Myself” the girls talk about how the guy has high self-esteem and think of that as a positive quality. Many will comment that he has “swag” and that is something that they find attractive in a guy.
Then we listen to “Pretty Girl Rock.” When I ask if they think the singer has high self-esteem, the groups inevitably answer yes, but too high. They perceive the singer as cocky. Someone often says that “she needs to be knocked off her pedestal.”
This speaks to the gender dichotomy that impacts self-esteem. Women and girls are often left to navigate these confusing realms on their own. Much like with sexuality, where women are expected to simultaneously be “the virgin” and “the whore,” girls are expected to have high self-esteem but not too high or else they risk being considered cocky and other girls won’t like them. There is a fine line that girls and women are expected to find—and if they fall too far on either side, it can have serious consequences.
Self-esteem directly impacts all aspects of a girl’s life. Having low self-esteem can affect the relationships you are in and decisions you make, which could have long term consequences. And I know this from personal experience. I was in a bad relationship for far too long because my self-esteem was so low I thought that no one else would love me or want to be with me.
Research also shows that low self-esteem can impact girls differently than boys. One study found that girls with low self-esteem were more likely to use illegal substances and have sex for the first time at a younger age, while low self-esteem did not impact substance use or sexual activity in young boys. Low self-esteem can also increase depression, social isolation, and risk of suicide.
So based on that, one could conclude that we should work hard to increase self-esteem among all women and girls. But we can’t increase it too much because “cocky” women are seen as high-maintenance, bitchy, and undesirable. Given the negative consequences of low self-esteem for women and the social implications of high self-esteem, it leaves women with only a narrow window for “acceptable” self-esteem levels.
But, of course, few people talk about it and many of the young girls and women I work with are left to figure it out by trial and error.
Kristie Theodoris is a social worker in the Boston area working with youth and adolescents.