from Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap
Preface, second edition
A few years after Schoolgirls was first published, a girl who identified herself only as “Fish” contacted me via email. Over the next few months we corresponded about her life. She was sixteen and lived in Atlanta, where she went to public school. She hoped some day to become a journalist. She wrote to me about her dreams, her plans, her friends, and her parents. She was pretty confident herself, she told me, but she worried about some of her girlfriends. One hardly ate and kept complaining that she was fat. Another, afraid that she would lose her boyfriend, had begun having sex with him even though she didn’t want to and didn’t enjoy it. A third who was bright and talented insisted she was stupid. Sometimes, Fish wrote me, she felt like she was living in a chapter of Schoolgirls.
Much has changed in the years since I wrote this book. There’s a whole new section in local bookstores filled with straight-talking guides for teenage girls on how to stay true to themselves as they navigate adolescence. Programs like Girls Incorporated and Girl Scouts foster girls’ adventurous spirit and intellectual curiosity. The Women’s National Soccer Team and the WNBA basketball league have offered an alternative vision of the female body, one that’s grounded in strength and utility rather than decoration. At the same time, it would be a mistake to assume that girls are no longer at risk. Like Fish’s friends, they continue to face significant, gender-related hurdles as they make the transition to womanhood.
The confidence gap in education hasn’t disappeared since I first visited classrooms, but it has changed. With the help of grass roots programs and federal attention, the difference between boys’ and girls’ test scores in math and science has narrowed. But a new trend has emerged: few girls are taking computer courses, and those who do tend to enroll in data entry (the millennial version of typing) classes, while boys take advanced programming. What is it about the way we teach computer science that is discouraging girls? It’s an urgent question: in today’s technology-driven economy, a digital divide could have a disastrous effect on girls’ futures.
As I’ve criss-crossed the country, speaking to parents, teachers, college students, and young girls, I’ve become more convinced than ever that girls’ bodies have become the battleground for their conflicts. Hating one’s body, sometimes to the point of starvation, remains a tragic rite of passage for young women: appearance remains the most important determinant of teenage girls’ self-worth. Meanwhile, girls are under tremendous pressure to become sexual at an inappropriately young age. How do we teach girls that they have the right to say no? How do we teach them that when they say yes, it should be on their own terms—not to please someone else or to keep him from walking out the door?
Sexual harassment continues to be a complex issue in schools, both pervasive and misunderstood. A few years back, the media had a field day with a story about a first grade boy in North Carolina who was suspended for kissing a girl on the playground. Clearly, pundits sputtered, things had gone to far. Obviously, the suspension was absurd, but I wondered: surveys have shown that sexual bullying affects nearly 80 percent of middle and high school girls, and nearly 10 percent have been forced to perform sexual acts in school other than kissing. More often than not, their harassers still go unpunished. Why was there so much coverage of that goofy incident in North Carolina and so little on the real, day-to-day humiliation so many girls endure?
Sometimes, during my travels, critics would enumerate to me the difficulties boys face as they reach adolescence. I would always agree, but remind them that this did not cancel out the trials of young girls. Raising our children is not a “boys against the girls” proposition. Nor should teaching mutual respect—in the classroom, in the home, in the workplace—be just a women’s issue.
Still, after nearly a decade of reporting on teenage girls, I feel tremendous hope. Progress, while sometimes slower than I would have liked, has been made. Things are moving in the right direction. Girls more often believe that someone cares. Over the years, I’ve often been asked how I “get” girls to talk to me so candidly. What are my reporter’s tricks? The truth is, I have none. I just ask a lot of questions. One of the most enduring lessons I learned while writing Schoolgirls is that young women truly want to tell us about their lives. Five years later, I still believe that as adults, taking the time to ask—and taking the time to listen—is the single most important thing we can do for our girls.
© Peggy Orenstein. All rights reserved.
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