Why we must boost confidence in our girls now

We have a pic­ture on our fridge of the day Izzie turned five. She’s rock­ing a sequined gown and glit­ter­ing tiara, her daz­zling smile and sparkling eyes exud­ing con­fi­dence and sass. I remem­ber some­one that day remarked, “You look like a Disney Princess!” To which my daugh­ter tossed her hair and retort­ed, “I’m not a princess. I’m the queen.” Her father and I exchanged self-con­grat­u­la­to­ry looks over her head, smug that we were crush­ing this par­ent­ing thing, rais­ing our daugh­ter to be a mas­ter of the uni­verse. Our child didn’t know that she was any­thing less than perfect.

At six­teen, my daughter’s smile can still light up a room. But it’s a lot rar­er these days because she longer believes she’s per­fect. My child’s con­fi­dence seems to be shrink­ing before my eyes.

And I’m not alone. I bet every mom of an ado­les­cent girl has seen this in some way. Did you know that, for girls, self-con­fi­dence peaks at age nine? After that, we can lit­er­al­ly watch their spir­its get bro­ken bit by tiny bit. 

Some of it is all the uncon­scious gen­der bias our girls are con­front­ed with day after day. Our tra­di­tion­al fairy tales por­tray the “good girl” as being young, slim, and kind (and, far too often, white). Look no fur­ther than Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Aurora, and Snow White. Literally none of our tra­di­tion­al fairy tales pass the Bechdel Test, a mea­sure of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in fic­tion­al works. To pass, a book or movie has to have at least two women in it, they have to talk to each oth­er, and they have to dis­cuss some­thing besides a man.

During remote learn­ing, Izzie took a History Through Film class and almost none of the movies she viewed – Dunkirk, Red Dawn, Titanic, Walking Tall, Forrest Gump – passed the Bechdel test. While I agree on the movie list as a good rep­re­sen­ta­tion of American his­to­ry, it also sub­tly tells us that only men actu­al­ly make history. 

It’s death by a thou­sand cuts. GI Joe is a buff hero but Barbie’s best fea­ture is her thigh gap. The king rates high­er in the stan­dard deck of cards. Leggings for female tod­dlers are designed with­out pock­ets because evi­dent­ly look­ing slim is more impor­tant to a four-year-old than col­lect­ing inter­est­ing rocks. Social media algo­rithms are con­struct­ed in a way to affect ado­les­cent girls more adverse­ly than their male coun­ter­parts. A recent Facebook leak revealed that the com­pa­ny knew the app wors­ens body image in one in three teen girls and kept the research secret for years. They also con­clud­ed that some of the self-esteem issues, specif­i­cal­ly “social com­par­i­son,” were unique to Instagram and not repli­cat­ed by any oth­er app. 

The cul­ture with­in social media is no less tox­ic. There are 14.4 mil­lion uses of #boy­mom, but only 5.5 mil­lion uses of #girl­mom. This uncon­scious cel­e­bra­tion of rais­ing the next ones that “mat­ter” is cor­ro­sive to all. This seem­ing­ly inno­cent way of embrac­ing the chaos that comes with “rais­ing boys” decries the truth that girls are just as smelly, loud, and chaot­ic (and fur­ther com­pli­cates the issue of trans­gen­der chil­dren, but that’s anoth­er column).

Some of the blame for our girls’ degrad­ing sense of self lies in neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy. Did you know that women tend to rumi­nate and over­think more than men? That women, on aver­age, set unat­tain­able per­son­al stan­dards three times more than men? That women are twice as like­ly as men to devel­op anx­i­ety and depres­sion? That they are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect­ed by eat­ing dis­or­ders and self-harm­ing behav­iors and are three times more like­ly to attempt sui­cide than men? 

Want to guess when these neur­al changes start?  In puber­ty of course. Around age nine.

Further, girls are social­ized to take on the emo­tion­al needs of oth­ers. This means that every time they per­ceive them­selves as unwor­thy, they also must car­ry the heavy man­tle of oth­er people’s dis­plea­sure. So they start feel­ing as if they are not good enough in mid­dle and high school and… grow up to be moth­ers and wives and busi­ness­women who still feel unwor­thy. Women who still believe that their val­ue lies in being young, beau­ti­ful, and meek.

We need to do bet­ter by our girls, empow­er them to reach their full poten­tial. We need more pos­i­tive role mod­els and gen­der rep­re­sen­ta­tion in places that mat­ter (board rooms, polit­i­cal posi­tions, etc.). We need more SEL (social and emo­tion­al learn­ing) pro­grams in our schools. 

And we need to get our girls mov­ing. The num­ber one cor­re­la­tion with healthy con­fi­dence in ado­les­cent girls? Participation in sports. Yet over half of girls vol­un­tar­i­ly drop out of sport par­tic­i­pa­tion – or are forced out because they don’t “make” the team – by their fresh­man year in high school. 

But the good news is that young women needn’t be on an offi­cial sports team to reap the ben­e­fits of move­ment. Any sort of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty leads to high­er lev­els of con­fi­dence in both sex­es. So Moms, take your daugh­ter with you to yoga or karate. Ask her to join you on a hike. Jump in the ocean with her (and please, please, please don’t den­i­grate your body in her earshot. Your inse­cu­ri­ties about your body being “accept­able” will only shrink her fur­ther). 

Get mov­ing and get her mov­ing. For all our sakes.

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.