Should schools try to boost self esteem? Can feminism help?

Note: this blog post is more personal than you might expect.

I struggled with low self esteem when I was younger, particularly in high school. As an adult who now works in education, I think about the types of educational reforms within our grasp that improve self esteem, particularly for teenage girls.


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I contacted a couple friends of mine who have PhDs in Psychology, with special emphases on School Psychology. I asked if they knew of research on what school programs or interventions improve self esteem in youth. To my surprise, both of them replied basically saying “High self esteem? Why would you want that?”


My friend Marc said the following: “In social psychology, we generally frown on interventions that target selfesteem because we assume that what you should do is help people have genuine accomplishments, and selfesteem is the natural reward for those accomplishments.”

(This was interesting but hard for me to swallow, since I think I experienced genuine accomplishments in high school and also low self esteem.) Marc’s answer was just the tip of the iceberg.

My friend Jessica then pointed me to various journal articles written on self esteem, such as “An Alternative to Self-Esteem” from the National Association of School Psychologists and “The Truth About Self-Esteem” by one of my favorite education writers, Alfie Kohn.

As I read these articles and others (see “Self-esteem boosting is losing favor to rigor”) I quickly realized that for many people, improving self esteem means hollow praise, spoiled kids, sheltered existence, overinflated self worth, and the overall decline of American society. 

I winced as I read all this, thinking of the insecurities and low self esteem of my teenage years. I wanted to nurture and care for that fragile side of youth, and instead people see these interventions as a bad idea. Was I really wrong to think there was something schools could do to combat low self esteem? I hope not.

In the research articles and media pieces against self esteem interventions, what I see missing is the immense gendered experience of coming of age. This was central to my personal experience, where my own low self esteem was tied to my looks- I thought I was fat and ugly. When I think about the hours I spent thinking about how fat and ugly I was, and the AIM messages my friends and I were sending back and forth every night that said “you’re not fat, I’m fat,” I get angry- both at how I could have used that time better, and how I know I’m not alone. Millions of teenage girls are spending valuable time feeling bad about themselves- not to mention how this could lead to harmful behaviors- instead of channeling their energy in positive directions (and yes, genuine accomplishments). (Low self esteem in teenage boys is also often tied to gender, but I’ll save that for another blog post.)

One thing that could have helped high school Julia would have been a women’s group at school. A space for me to think critically- about why I was feeling certain feelings or thinking certain thoughts- would have helped me realize that the problem wasn’t me, it was societal pressures facing teenage girls. I came home after school every day and turned on MTV’s TRL, watching music videos of scantily clad women gyrating to the beat. Then I wondered why I felt like crap. It wasn’t until I discovered feminism that depictions of women in media became something I thought critically about and became passionate over. Being a teenager is hard for many reasons and dealing with gender identity is only a part of it, but the self esteem boost that comes from a feminist lens can transfer to dealing with non gendered struggles as well.

I did not discover feminism until I was an adult, and it changed my life for the better- primarily in opening my eyes to a world of social justice work that I could get behind- rallying together with women instead of feeling insecure and alone. I only wish I had gotten there sooner. After college, I taught high school at Leadership Public Schools in Richmond, CA. There I started a club called Ladies Outspoken, a weekly discussion group during lunch for high school students interested in exploring gender topics. Only one or two girls came each week.

As a first year teacher, I know I made mistakes and could have done better in many ways. I wish I did a better job building a community of support for teenage girls. Now I want to hear about programs that work, particularly best practices in middle and high schools. Should schools try to boost self esteem? Can feminism help? I like to think the answer is Yes and Yes please.

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