I have known and currently know more than a few women with low self-esteem. This is sometimes a bit bewildering to me. It seems that many (most?) women obsess about their appearances–need to lose weight, need to tone, getting crow’s feet, finding a gray hair, less than perfect nose, etc. Or they think that nothing they do is good enough and that fear of missing the mark or making a mistake keeps them paralyzed from taking risks. They beat themselves up with negative self-talk and diss themselves in front of other people. And that makes me very, very sad.
I am quite aware of my flaws. I have a hereditary double chin, long skinny feet, big pores, and cellulite on my thighs. I am a procrastinator, which can rear itself as laziness, depending on the task at hand. I can be very critical and selfish. I suck at chemistry. But…I am very aware of my strengths. I like my blue-gray eyes, my hands, and my sense of humor. I am a creative thinker and I can write pretty well. I am kind, passionate, and I love people. And although I have a lop-smiled smile, I have come to accept that it is quirky and endearing, rather than weird and ugly. So lately I’ve been wrestling with why I have a pretty intact self-esteem and other women I know, who are far more talented, accomplished, gracious, and loving feel bad about themselves. I think a lot of it boils down to parenting, role models, and compliments.
I am the mother of two sons and I have no daughters. I like to think that if I did that I would raise them with the same “ethic” that my parents employed to raise me. I grew up believing that I could do anything, be anything, and accomplish anything that I put my mind to. Nothing was off limits because I was “a girl.” My parents most common praise had nothing to do with how I looked or what I wore. I was celebrated for being me. I got dolls and a motorized erector set (umm..yes, it’s a construction toy) for Christmas one year. I was the first girl in my hometown to ever enter the soapbox derby race (and I beat the ultimate winner in the first heat I raced against him). I could bait a hook with wigglers and catch frogs at the lake with the best of them. I also loved fingernail polish, floral prints, and Parker Stevenson. I can remember only two times specifically (other than BIG moments like my prom and my wedding day) that my parents complimented my appearance. Once was in sixth grade when I was going to the movie with a friend. I still remember I was wearing a pink gauze top and my mother told me I was starting to look like a teenager, which thrilled me at the time. The other was when I was in high school working as a volunteer at the hospital. I frequently worked in the recovery room, so I wore scrubs and a lovely disposable hat. My sister had had surgery, so I got to help transport her back to the room where my parents were waiting. My mom told me that the color of the scrubs made my eyes stand out and look really pretty. Funny and odd that I remember only those two comments about appearance. What I heard much more of was “We’re proud of you,” “I knew you could do it,” “That was a clever solution,” and “What a creative idea!” I remember another specific time when I had seen a film about how George Washington Carver had used flowers and berries to make paint at library story hour one summer. I came home, grabbed a piece of cardboard from under my dad’s motorcycle, picked some blackberries, and proceeded to make “paint” and paint the cardboard. I did get scolded for taking the cardboard (it was under the motorcycle to catch errant oil drips), but I remember being praised for using natural dyes to make paint and art.
Everywhere I turn today, I see “princess mania.” The Disney princesses reign supreme. Every little girl wants to be a princess and wear tutus and tiaras. Now I was, and am, a girly-girl too. I like to wear high heels, paint my fingernails, and I can appreciate polka dots. I don’t fault any female for wanting to be feminine. Even though I was never into playing princess (playing school or library were my favorites), I get that. Fairy tale, pretend, poufy tulle dresses. Okay. But it’s all of this aspiring to be a princess 24/7 stuff really gets me. The immersion into total Disney princess mania is disconcerting. Let’s deconstruct it. I think this cartoon says it all.
I think if we think about it a little more deeply, we realize that all of the “strong, smart women” in these Disney movies are evil and older: Cinderella’s stepmother, the Queen in Snow White, Ursula in The Little Mermaid. And I don’t mean to attack Disney. These are obviously beloved, children’s fairy tales. I am a big fan of fairy tales–the fantasy, the whimsy, the beauty, and the cultural commentary. However, they are 100s of years old ,back when women couldn’t even vote and were still considered as the property of a man. We are in different times now. But Disney has made the visual images of these women with big boobs, tiny waist, and wide hips that is not realistic for any real woman. Furthermore, as we come closer and closer to the present, the dress becomes more provocative, showing midriff and cleavage (just check out Ariel and Jasmine, for example). Think about Ariel. She trades in her not only her musical voice, but her whole ability to speak just for a man. True love does always involve sacrifice, but to this extent? You never see Mulan in this grouping of the Disney princesses. Yes, technically she is not a princess, but she wouldn’t be if it were offered to her. Why? Because she’s smart, independent, and a kick-butt, take names warrior—and she’s based on a true story. If I had a daughter I’d want her to prefer Mulan to all the rest. Belle comes in as a close second because she is a big reader, she realizes that Gaston is an arrogant, imbecilic jerk (I think any of the other princesses would swoon over him), and she likes the Beast for who he is not what he looks like. (There’s a book on this subject that I discovered called Cinderella Ate My Daughter. I haven’t read it, but it looks very intriguing and is a whole discussion about how these are the wrong sorts of role models for girls. Also, to add: I don’t think playing princess is bad. I think it could be great fun for many children and a good type of pretend play. I just don’t like when this is the only kind of female role model they are exposed to)
I have always loved to read and that was highly encouraged. My parents bought me a lot of books and we went to the library weekly. I would read and read and read. Through that reading, I developed a lot of heroes. I can’t remember every having a princess hero. In elementary school I went through a big phase of reading biographies. I had this one book that my parents bought me that was a biography of five female trail blazers. I read that book several times. Through that I developed heroes like:
I wish I could have been Elizabeth Blackwell. She was incredibly harassed and got her medical degree against all odds. It was considered very improper for a woman to see a man partially or completely unclothed for the purpose of a medical exam or treatment.
Helen Keller, Alabama native, and Annie Sullivan were both heroes. It was through the story of their relationship that I first ever got the inkling of working with people with communication disorders.
And I was a huge, huge fan of Nancy Drew, girl detective. Here was a teenaged girl who solved lots of hardcore crimes with her two best friends. What’s not to love and respect about that? Still to this day, I own over 50 Nancy Drew books.
My #1 all-time favorite female hero is…Sacagawea. Oh man, I was obsessed with her. She was such an impressive woman. She helped guide Lewis and Clark on their expedition while carrying, nursing, and caring for her two month old son. Ponder that for a moment. Then she acted as an interpreter between Lewis and Clark and the Shoshone Indians. This woman was smart and tough! She did all of this while dealing with a husband who had another wife in addition to her. I think she is remarkable and I was so glad to see her in Night at the Museum and in the National Geographic Lewis and Clark documentary. I’ll bet most young girls know the Disney version of Pocahontas, but don’t know the real story of her and probably have never heard of Sacagawea.
All of this to say, I am thankful that my parents took me on vacations, paid for all sorts of lessons–everything from ballet to cello to calligraphy, and showed me both with their words and their actions that they believed I could do anything. I may be the most inept person in the world, but I bought the line. I believed them. Know what the main reason that girls, who excel in math and science in elementary, begin to avoid math and science in the upper grades is? According to this article and recent study, it’s the self-confidence instilled by parents and teachers.
In addition to my parents, I am thankful for all of the remarkable women who have come before us. The ones who have blazed trails, fought the fight, lit the fire, and lived the dream. And let’s teach our daughters, nieces, sisters, and friends that being a pretty, pretty princess is not what it is all about. While it is lovely and good to want to have a great romance, to fall in love, and to be protected, we don’t need to rescued. Let’s instead talk about and celebrate Susan B. Anthony, Golda Meir, Jane Goodall, Margaret Thatcher, Margaret Mitchell, Betsy Ross, Louisa May Alcott, Danica Patrick, Sally Ride, and Mother Theresa. Those are some beautiful, worthy women worth emulating.