Saturday, May 2, 2009


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As I was reading The Globe and Mail this morning, I came across an article written by the very talented Margaret Wente. Entitled "Not every girl can be a Winner," I was dumbstruck that the Girl Guides now have a self-esteem badge. Say what?

In my youth, I spent years as a member of Brownies and Girl Guides. I traipsed through the woods with the rest of the pack, trying to light fires by rubbing two sticks together in the pouring rain, suffering cuts and scratches and burns from campfires, getting lost in the wood (still can't figure out how a compass works), near-drowning in canoes on choppy lakes, and learning how to do the sheep shank and the round-turn-and-two-half-hitches knots.

Summers were spent at Girl Guide Camp building lean-tos and roughing it in the woods. It was a rough-and-tumble life and I loved every minute of it. Nary was a mention made of my having to study up to earn a self-esteem badge.

I'm sure Lady Baden Powell is rolling over in her grave over this latest development.

Here is Margaret Wente's excellent take on this:


"Not every girl can be a winner"

"I thought Girl Guides was about doing stuff. I don't remember being encouraged to love myself"


"What's the best way to build self-esteem among adolescent girls? The Girl Guides think they know. They're adding a new self-esteem badge! Girls will earn it by participating in something called the Love Yourself Challenge, which involves things like group discussions about how much they hate their bodies, and why it's bad to stick your finger down your throat. Girls who meet the challenge will get a crest that depicts a thick body, a thin body and an average body, plus a heart, which is there to remind you to love yourself.

Funny, but I thought Girl Guides was about doing stuff. I thought it was about summer camp and canoeing, swimming across the lake, tying knots, building fires in the rain, pitching tents and learning how to apply a tourniquet in case someone is bleeding to death. I don't remember anything about being encouraged to love myself.

But times have changed, I guess. Today, the low self-esteem of adolescent girls is a veritable industry. To be sure, it's a vile time of life - much harder than it is for boys, and even more awful for girls today than it was when I was that age. By the time a girl is 12, she's been saturated by media images of artificial feminine perfection. She's obsessively self-conscious. Her body and her emotions are completely out of control. She needs and wants to conform socially, to be like her peers, and she's convinced she doesn't measure up. Is she pretty? Is she cool? Is she wearing the right clothes? Suddenly she finds herself in a world of relentless social and sexual comparisons.

Still, it wasn't all that easy way back when. I remember studying myself in a mirror for hours at a time, wondering if anyone could possibly call me pretty. Mostly I concluded no. I was chunky and felt hideously awkward. My girlfriends and I all loathed ourselves, even though many of us were kind, beautiful and brilliant. Today, all of us would be prime candidates for eating disorders. Thankfully, they were not epidemic then. Because they didn't have a name and nobody discussed them, we weren't aware that it was possible to have one. (A few of us did anyway.)

There are many, many explanations for the low self-esteem of adolescent girls, which range from the toxic media culture to the subtle "silencing" of residual sexism. Personally, I think a lot of it is hormones. Girls go nuts, just as boys do, only in different ways, until their hormones settle down.

One thing I know for sure, though. The self-esteem movement is a crock.

Much of the modern self-esteem enterprise - which basically consists of telling every kid how fabulous she or he is - is completely hollow. We go to absurd lengths to turn every kid into a winner. One 10-year-old I know is thrilled because she won a High Silver at a dance competition last week. That sounded great - until I learned that above High Silver comes Gold, and then High Gold, and then a brand-new category called Platinum. Like grades, prizes have undergone rampant inflation. The idea is to make everyone feel special, whether they are or not.

Does this work? Well, no, not really. For a long time, people thought that kids who felt good about themselves would get higher grades. They don't. They only feel entitled to them. Nor do they commit fewer crimes, smoke less, do less drugs, or have less of what we might call inappropriate sex. In fact, it tends to work the other way around. Getting better grades improves your self-esteem. We also think that bullies have low self-esteem, but it isn't so. Their self-esteem tends to be very high.

Even though girls now outperform boys in school, efforts to improve the self-esteem of girls have been especially strenuous. These efforts tend to feature inauthentic praise, easy tasks, solely positive feedback, and other "schools without failure" gambits. All of that can backfire badly. One day those girls will be exposed to reality. That can be a nasty shock - especially if they have never been allowed to fail, or asked to do something really hard. They won't have the emotional persistence or fortitude to deal with it.

Boys, at least, get some lessons in resilience and persistence on the playing field. They learn to suck it up and be a man. Girls could use some more of that. (Just as boys could use more sensitivity to other people.) Instead, we give them structured, easy tasks and go out of our way to make them feel good. All this reinforces their adolescent tendency to act helpless, instead of competent. And then we wonder why they don't feel more empowered.

Among the biggest critics of the self-esteem movement is cognitive psychologist Martin Seligman. "We now think we should inject self-esteem directly into our young people, as opposed to producing warranted self-esteem, which I believe comes from doing well with the people you love, doing well in sports, doing well in school," he said. In his view, self-esteem exercises are a menace to society.

In some cultures, especially Asian ones, high self-regard is thought to be a flaw, not a virtue. Our culture used to believe that too. We used to call such people "conceited" or "full of themselves." One problem is that they have trouble seeing the world around them as it really is. They imagine that other people share their high opinion of themselves, even when other people think they're jerks. "People who have elevated or inflated views of themselves tend to alienate others," wrote social psychologist Roy Baumeister, who used to believe in the importance of instilling self-esteem, until he reviewed all the research.

The irony is that the Girl Guides themselves invented the best way to empower girls. Challenge them, build their competencies and give them the experience of authentic accomplishment. Take them away from the boys, so that they don't have to be obsessed with how they look, or whether some boy likes them.

"They need to learn the dedication you need to struggle through something," says Jessie Barrie, a remarkable young Canadian who is the director of experiential education at a top school in the United States. She has seen adolescent girls transformed by three-week wilderness trips. "It's essential with girls that you put them in a situation that truly does challenge," she says. "On the first day, they completely believe they can't do it. But slowly you give them the tools and building blocks, and they do." They get cold and wet and sore. They survive for 21 days without a shower and no makeup or clean clothes.

"The social playing field is levelled, because all of them are dirty and they all have greasy hair, and they all have to depend on the group to get through. It doesn't matter if the cool girl and the dorky girl are in the same group," she says. "They know for certain they've accomplished all this by themselves. And the next time they face adversity, they'll remember when something seemed impossible, and they succeeded."

I know that feeling. I was 12, at Girl Scout camp, on my first overnight canoe trip. We found a campsite and pitched our tents, and then the rain came down. It was torrential. We were soaked to the skin. But there was no wimping out. We built a giant fire in the rain and cooked a giant pizza over it, all by ourselves. Age 12 was the worst year of my life. But that night, I was completely happy."

Bravo, Margaret.


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