Self-Esteem and Young Women

"At the buried core of women's identity is a distinct and vital self, first articulated in childhood, a root identity that gets cut off in the process of growing up female" (Hancock 1989, p. 3). Emily Hancock is describing the phenomenon that has come to be associated with the developmental process in the adolescent female. It is this process by which a self-assured, confident child grows into a self-conscious, insecure teenager, often in what seems like an overnight transformation and much to the dismay of parents and teachers. It has been titled the "loss of voice," "the confidence gap," or "hitting the wall," and it is pivotal to an understanding of the unique experience of female development. Although early childhood experiences for young women vary according to family background, cultural heritage, and neighborhood environment, women often tell a consistent story about what characteristics defined their personalities in childhood. Consider this description of a young woman between the ages of 8-10:

They speak of this girl as one who pulls on her blue jeans, packs her own lunch, and gets on her bike to ride to her best friend's house to build a fort or a tree house . . . It is at this age that a girl gets her first wristwatch, sets her own alarm clock, and chooses her own clothes. A superb organizer, she is likely to have her own collection of stamps, stones, shells, or snakeskins . . . She is likely to be a sharp-shooter and ballet-dancer, spelling champion and botanist, applauded for being both smart and strong. She is a mistress of excellence. Even if her circumstances are wanting, a girl this age can aspire to far-reaching objectives in her imagination -- a new and private inner realm no one else is privy to . . . her ambitions are boundless . . . contradictions do not deter her: future archeologist and rancher, she will tend the flock by day and watch the stars by night . . . would be oceanographer, explorer, astronaut . . . her goals are not subject to criticism; her choices do not yet include losses; only later will one choice preclude another. She can think, she can plan, she can do! (Hancock 1989, pp. 7-9).

Even though the specifics of the experience are different for each woman, it is surprising how universal the general picture of the secure young woman is for many women despite their very different circumstances. This confident young woman is sometimes called a young woman's authentic self, and it allows her not only to see her future but to have faith in her thoughts and opinions. "Straight talkers, they are able to speak their minds directly . . . able to speak their minds with all of their hearts" (Debold, Wilson, and Malave 1993, p. 13).

According to psychologists, the loss of self-esteem is nothing more than the natural process of growing up female and realizing that what was once respected and adored is no longer tolerated or accepted. This realization causes many young women to make dramatic changes in their self-images and their behavior. Carol Gilligan, a Harvard researcher, has called this process "hitting the wall," which is made of blocks containing all the negative messages young women receive from society about their bodies, their minds, and their worth. Through this process, they begin to recognize that the world functions in terms of power dynamics and that it is women who do not possess the power (Debold, Wilson, and Malave 1993, p. 14).

As this realization process begins internally, expectations of females from outsiders change also. "Upon entering the teenage years, the girl is no longer afforded the tolerance which she may previously have experienced in being just herself, but now has to begin to assume the responsibilities and rights of adulthood" (Llewelyn and Osborne 1990, p. 30). For the adolescent female, becoming an adult means becoming an adult woman and thus taking on the expected characteristics of womanhood.

Response to this external pressure to conform tends to reflect one of three patterns that are related to culture. Initial research done by Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown discovered that Anglo young women, particularly those who were middle or upper middle class, responded by losing their voice or their confidence in their own thoughts and opinions. These young women became withdrawn and silent, especially in the school environment (Gilligan and Brown 1992, p. 5). Later studies by several researchers began to discover an alternative to the loss of voice, one in fact where the voice became the pivotal form of resistance. In later research, Gilligan, Taylor, and Sullivan (1996) found evidence of one of the most prevalent resistance for survival strategies in their Understanding Adolescence Study. According to their findings, low-income Anglo and African-American young women did not experience the same pressure to conform to society's standards of femininity as middle- and upper-class Anglo young women. In fact, these young women could often clearly articulate their belief in a woman's right to speak up for herself, which seems to be contrary to the popular notion of the loss of voice. In fact, it is often the "mouthy" young women who are expressing their very resistance to cultural norms.

In "A Belief in Self Far Greater Than Anyone's Disbelief," Robinson and Ward define the resistance found in African-American girls as often taking two forms: resistance for liberation and resistance for survival (1991, p. 89). Although it is defined in that context as being an African-American phenomenon, the patterns of resistance may also be true for young women of other ethnic backgrounds. The behaviors associated with resistance for survival are often self-destructive and lead to negative consequences, whereas the behaviors of resistance for liberation serve a higher purpose of freeing a race from harmful cultural norms. These young women soon realize that speaking up for oneself carries a risk, often resulting in negative feedback from teachers and school officials. Thus the resistance strategy of mouthing off to keep from being silenced or to rebel against the perception of an unfair school setting is really a survival technique rather than a liberating tool. Robinson and Ward stress that this type of behavior must be adapted to truly benefit the young woman and other young women. It is their view that one must recognize the loud nature of these girls as a tool for resistance and then teach them more effective and organized ways of engaging in the same behavior, such as forming an advocacy group for change within the school.

In her article "Those Loud Black Girls" (1993), Signithia Fordham explores another common resistance for survival strategy. Fordham reinforces the notion that African-American young women often show resistance to accepting the Anglo norm of femininity by being loud or by asserting themselves through their voices. Yet again this behavior leads to negative school experiences, and these young women soon find out that it is the quiet ones who do well in the academy. For many of this population, this can lead to a process of "passing for white" or adopting this submissive behavior in order to become successful in the classroom. Robinson and Ward call this process cultural disassociation and see it as a survival strategy rather than a tool for liberation. "Cultural disassociation through psychological separation is essentially a posture of subordination, one that places her healthy racial and individual identity development at risk and leaves her vulnerable to the destructive effects of emotional isolation and self-alienation" (1991, p. 91). Again, in order to move to a resistance of liberation, this young woman needs to be shown how to recognize negative distortions of her own culture and how to move beyond allowing these distortions to shape her identity.

Finally, Gilligan, Taylor, and Sullivan also discovered that the strategy of being vocally aggressive is often not employed for Latina, Portuguese, and perhaps Asian young women. To these young women, "being a good woman centers on maintaining loyalty to their families and adhering to cultural and familial restrictions" (1996, p. 41). Therefore, these young women often "self-silence" or even struggle with the conflict between speaking their native language as spoken in their homes and speaking English, which allows them to associate with the larger society. Thus cultural disassociation may be an issue if being a true American is seen as necessitating separation from one's home culture in terms of dress, accent, language, and customs.

Juvenile justice practitioners must recognize the effects of this loss of self-esteem in the young women they serve so that they are able to develop effective treatment modalities to encourage strength in their clients. Furthermore, it is critical for staff to recognize the differences presented by culture and socioeconomic background, as this will enable them to assist young women in either developing their self-confidence through the exercise of their voices or to learn practical ways to resist social pressures in a manner that is liberating.

Juvenile Female Offenders: A Status of the States Report October 1998