An articulate young woman, barely into her teens, was holding forth in one of those personal essays on National Public Radio. I was impressed, listening alertly to my car radio as she deftly dissected the harmful effects of women’s fashion magazines on the egos and body images of girls her age. With spunky indignation that was neither preachy nor shrill, she castigated the magazines for featuring models so skinny that their ribs showed. This was bad for America’s daughters, she wanted it known, very bad for their self-esteem, as few among them could measure up to the emaciated glamour girls.
I was taken with the young woman’s passion. I’d heard the message before, but always from older women, never from someone so well-spoken at such a formative time. I found myself rooting for her and all her “sisters,” that they should reach adulthood as proud and sassy and unscathed as possible.
But still, I found myself bristling when she offered up the line about self-esteem. Please, I found myself muttering, not that again. You can’t turn around these days without hearing someone somewhere, almost always a woman, earnestly opining about self-esteem. Low self-esteem, we are given to understand, is the root of all evil, the reason good people do bad things and good women stay with bad men.
If I’ve heard one person talk about having low self-esteem, I’ve heard dozens, particularly women. For many, the low self-esteem refrain has become a mantra, an all-purpose explanation for women’s wounds, self-inflicted or otherwise. It was no accident, of course, that the young audio-essayist on NPR availed herself of the cliche.
But whatever happened, I found myself thinking, to the idea of self-respect? Isn’t that a much better term, a much more positive one? Self-esteem, the way it’s used now, seems to connote some innate quality, some sense of self-worth that we should all just have and not let anyone interfere with. It has become a kind of passive attribute; an entitlement, if you will. Everyone should be blessed with inviolable self-esteem just for being on the earth and being human.
Self-respect, on the other hand, is something you earn, something you bring on yourself by doing constructive, creative, honorable things. When I was growing up, what you wanted to have was self-respect, not self-esteem--nobody used the term then--and the message was that it was up to you to get that respect. Nobody else could do it for you. Nobody else could give it or take it away. Self-respect was an ongoing daily battle, the work of a lifetime. You had to get out there and figure out what to do so you could respect yourself.
And a lot of that doing involved doing for other people. Self-respect came from being selfless. Self-esteem, it increasingly seems, is about being selfish or at least self-involved. The problem is that the less self-involved we are, the happier we are. All this I found myself saying to that young woman on the radio.
It isn’t just that she was mouthing a cliche with her talk of eroding self-esteem, but more: It was that the concept itself is wanting and ultimately self-destructive for women; a trap, even for women in very tough economic and emotional situations, women whose egos and souls--and sometimes bodies--have been battered. The notion of self-respect is more adult, more galvanizing, more hopeful.
Yes, those fashion magazines offer up a tyrannizing beauty ideal, I answered the young commentator. You’re absolutely right. So close them. Toss them away. Don’t complain about your eroding self-esteem when you’ve got gifts aplenty, such as the poetry in your soul. Go write another essay. Self-respect is yours for the earning.