Girls and the Confidence Gap: She Got 8th-Grade Education in Girls’ Self-Esteem Deficit
By Kay Miller
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), September 22, 1994
(Variety Section; Pg. 1E)
Peggy Orenstein remembers her stomach going kathump as she read the front-page story.
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) had conducted a national survey of 3,000 girls and boys ages 9 and 15 and, in its 1990 study “Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America,” reported that girls are far more likely than boys to suffer a crisis in self-confidence at puberty, preceding a long slide in girls’ math and science performance.
“By their senior year, convinced of their ineptitude, [girls] become less persistent in solving problems than their male peers and less likely than boys with poorer grades in the same class to believe they can pursue a math-related career,” said Orenstein.
Reading the story reminded Orenstein of her seventh-grade class in St. Louis Park: Her math teacher regularly derided the female author of their textbook and allowed one boy to ridicule students asking questions. Orenstein recalls the moment she decided not to raise her hand with questions anymore. “Over the next three years I dropped from being the top person in the class to almost failing and eventually just dropped out — decided I didn’t like math anymore.”
Three years ago Orenstein, in collaboration with the AAUW, set out to put flesh on the survey numbers. She donned Doc Martens, pulled her nimbus of curly blond hair into a ponytail and returned to the eighth grade. She was 31 and had just quit her job as managing editor of Mother Jones Magazine in San Francisco.
All the kids and school administrators knew Orenstein was there writing a book. But her dress and young face gave her a kind of protective coloration as she looked for the answer to a riddle posed in 1990: What happens to sap young girls of self-confidence — making them believe that the shape of their bodies is far more important than the caliber of their minds?
The result is a new book, “SchoolGirls” (Doubleday, $23.50), in which Orenstein paints a disturbing portrait of life for American girls. Orenstein watches as boys make fun of girls, grab their breasts and speak to them in rank obscenities. She sees teachers who ignore, even belittle girls. And she sees the self-inflicted burns and razor scars on a girl rejected by peers because she’s fat.
In a way, none of this is new. It is behavior so common that many of us have stopped noticing. The strength of Orenstein’s book lies in the fact that she observes it all with fresh eyes. Schools are not solely to blame for what happens to girls; they merely present the most public face of it, said Orenstein, who was in the Twin Cities area visiting her parents.
In the first section, Orenstein takes readers to Weston Middle School, a pseudonym for an affluent, mostly white suburban school. The AAUW study found that for white girls appearance is central to self-esteem. “While the actual food intake is low at Weston, fear of fat still runs high,” writes Orenstein. “Part of the role of a girl’s lunchtime chums is to reassure her that she is ‘so skinny,’ even if it isn’t true.” Bulimia and anorexia are so common here as to constitute “a female rite of passage.”
Every day Lindsay, who fits the 1960s image of the slim California girl, pulls from her locker the lunch her mother has lovingly packed and holds it out into the teeming hallway — until a passing student claims it. “I’m so worried about doing perfect in all my classes and everything that my stomach ties in knots and I can’t eat,” she explained to Orenstein.
“Asked directly, most of the girls at Weston will say that it is acceptable for a girl to excel, to get good grades,” Orenstein writes. “Yet behind their backs, girls like Lindsay and Suzy are referred to as ‘schoolgirls,’ an insult so great that, once tipped off, I never revealed the title of this book.”
Orenstein watches boys dominate class discussions, shouting out answers and pulling attention away from girls who sit patiently, hands raised in silence. “I think my opinions are important, so I yell them out,” a suburban boy named Nate tells Orenstein after one math class. “The teacher’ll tell you not to do it, but they answer your question before the people who raise their hands. Girls will sit there until the bell rings with their hands up and never get their question answered.”
And the bright girl Nate adeptly overpowered in the math class? Orenstein watches her put her head down on her desk and mutter, “I hate this class.”
Reluctance to speak out in class is not merely a stylistic difference, Orenstein says. “Students who talk in class have more opportunity to enhance self-esteem through exposure to praise; they have the luxury of learning from mistakes, and they develop the perspective to see failure as an educational tool.”
In a deliberate attempt to promote a gender-fair classroom, Weston teacher Liz Muney began calling on boys and girls alternately from her attendance roster. After two days the boys blew up, claiming that she was unfair. “Equality was hard to get used to; they perceived it as a loss,” she told Orenstein.
It is a more dismal picture still that Orenstein paints of a place she calls Audubon Middle School, a poor urban school where 90 percent of the students are children of color. She watches boys grab girls’ thighs, rears and breasts in full view of teachers. But in a school where the hidden curriculum teaches that all students are powerless, monitoring sexual harassment becomes a low priority.
Marta is a bright girl who loved school in the third grade. By eighth grade, she is at war with her father, who accuses her of being a “whore,” even though she has been “good.” Eventually, Marta faces the decision of whether to join a gang. It would offer protection, but at a price: During initiation she will get beaten up or have sex with a parade of boys.
Yet, Orenstein finds a remarkable strength and resilience among Audubon’s black girls, particularly those who care for their siblings as “junior mothers.” This bears out one of the more newsworthy items in the AAUW study — that black girls exhibit higher self-esteem overall and better body images than white girls. Dashelle, an Audubon girl who would have been considered fat by Weston standards, looks puzzled when Orenstein asks if she’s concerned about her weight. “It’s not my body that’s going to get me somewhere,” Dashelle says. “It’s my brain.”
If there is an encouraging note in an otherwise bleak score, it is Orenstein’s final section. She visits San Francisco teacher Judy Logan, who for several years has run a model gender-fair classroom. For a unit on African-American heros, Logan required students to report on a man and a woman.
At the unit’s culmination, Orenstein watches Nick, a red-haired, freckle-faced boy, deliver a monologue as Anita Hill: “I had to have the courage to speak out against sexual harassment for other women in this country, so they could speak out, too, and be strong,” he says.
That was important. For girls to begin thinking of themselves as able and equal, boys will have to stop thinking of them as lesser, says Orenstein.
“I wish I could end the book by saying, ‘These are the 10 things that we can do to raise our girls better.’ That was why I ended writing about a teacher who is trying. She was really challenging a lot of conventions. And it was really exciting. But it isn’t easy.”