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Where does self-confidence come from? A new book explores the gap between empowerment slogans and reality.
Where does self-confidence come from? So many of the messages that are pushed at people these days are about ’empowerment’ and being proud of who you are, which is great, but at a time when those messages are so loud why are we also facing a sustained increase in unhappiness and low self-esteem, particularly among teenagers [and especially girls]? And this from way before Covid…
Are there not enough messages or are the messages that there are putting yet more pressure on girls to be strong and powerful and authentic when the more entrenched counter messages tell them something entirely different? Have we turned empowerment into a slogan rather than an action? A new book, Confidence culture by Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill, argues that the empowerment/self-confidence mantra is all very well, but it has ended up making people feel responsible for their own happiness or lack of it, rather than addressing the social pressures that often lie behind feelings of low self-esteem.
The book states: “What is striking is not only the similarity of the discourses, programmes and interventions proposed [on confidence] across diverse domains of social life but also the way in which features of an unequal society are systematically (re)framed by the confidence cult(ure) as individual psychological problems, requiring us to change women, not the world.”
Studies show that girls’ self esteem plummets over the course of secondary school when they are under the most scrutiny about their looks [and every aspect of their body is under the microscope], about every aspect of who they are and when they face intense pressure to achieve. Definitely the ante has been upped when it comes to how easily a person can be humiliated and shamed through messages that can circulate like wildfire should they put one foot wrong [or not even put a foot wrong]. As adults, we know we can be absolutely crushed on social media in seconds if a tweet is misinterpreted and circulated widely by the wrong people. Imagine facing that at 14.
The stories my children tell me are hair-raising. About girls being trapped in compromising situations and having videos circulated of them. Of widespread self harm. Of the pervasive feeling that you can be swiped away or ghosted or treated as if you are absolutely nothing. Of the kind of brutal comments that seem to be everyday ‘banter’. I remember a friend of my daughter’s, aged 14 or so, telling me that she was terrified of sex because all the boys watch porn and expected them to perform like that.
I was talking about this the other day to a colleague who seemed to think I was harking back to some dream-like past and was just becoming a grumpy old woman. He didn’t have children. I certainly know that the old days were not some kind of paradise and definitely women have made advances at work. But are girls happier?
Is all the talk of empowerment, the pressure to outperform the men, to be strong, is that helping them if the structures that are often responsible for feelings of low self-esteem haven’t changed significantly?
It’s Children’s Mental Health Week this week and there has been much focus on the impact of Covid and how it has accentuated mental health problems and how we simply don’t have the resources to deal with it. Much of the dealing with it seems, in any event, to barely scratch the surface because the problems are generally much more deep-seated than just targeting one person with CBT. They are about equality in all its forms, about respect for each other, about community, about leadership and about creating a vision for a better society, not slogans.