Photo Credit Osei (Ozzy)

*Note* This series comes from an integrative theology paper that I wrote on the intersection of the doctrine of sin and identity development in young adolescent girls.  You can read part one here

Research on Young Adolescent Girls and Self Esteem Development

Peggy Orenstein’s book, Schoolgirls explores self esteem and what she calls the “Confidence Gap” in young women.  In response to the American Association of University Women’s 1992 report on the achievement gap in schools between boys and girls “How Schools Shortchange Girls”, Orenstein spent a year observing in two Jr. High Schools, one urban and one suburban, and argues that the achievement gap is driven by a confidence gap.

Self esteem is something spoken of quite often in Education and Youth Development fields.  Orenstein describes self esteem as a result of two beliefs a young person holds, first how well she thinks she does at things that are important to her, and second what she believes other important people in her life think about her abilities in those areas.[1]

Many religious leaders worry that too much emphasis on self esteem hurts the spiritual development of youth,[2] this is a mistake.  Healthy self-esteem is not the same as selfishness or pride.  While there are some who have a much inflated sense of self-esteem that is prideful or selfish, many others have a very deflated sense of self-esteem.  Women tend to evaluate themselves more poorly and have a lower self-esteem.  Healthy self-esteem is not irrationally high nor low.  It is not denying our sinful nature, nor our bearing of the imago dei.  Healthy self-esteem is to accept and love the person that God created[3].

According to Orenstein, girls regardless of race or ethnicity experience a drop in self esteem and confidence in early adolescence.  When asked to agree or disagree with the stamen, “I am happy the way I am.”  Fewer girls agreed at age fifteen than at age nine.  The drop was largest in Latina girls and smallest in African American girls.

Race/Ethnicity Drop in percentage points between ages 9 and 15 of girls who say, “I am happy the way I am.” 

African American

7

Latino

38

White

33

Another dynamic of self-esteem in these early adolescent women is their perception of what it would be like to be a boy, and their male classmates’ views on what it would be like to be a girl.  When asked to describe what life would be like if they were born the opposite gender, Orenstein observed  the boys’ responses were largely “have to”s, while the girl’s responses were mostly “get to”s, for example:

  What boys said What girls said
If I were the other gender[4]
  • I wouldn’t play baseball because I’d worry about breaking a nail
  • My room would be pink and I’d think everything would be cute
  • I’d have to spend lots of time in the bathroom on my hair and stuff
  • I’d have to stand around at recess instead of getting to play basketball
  • I’d have to help my mom cook.
  • My father would feel more responsibility for me, he’d be more in my life.
  • I’d have my own room
  • I wouldn’t care how I looked or if my clothes matched
  • I could stay out later
  • I’d get to play more sports

Orenstein’s research is almost two decades old.  The American Association of University Women’s latest report “Wher the Girls Are,” published in 2008, shows that the achievement gap in middle school, and in college entrance exams has closed significantly.  However the themes of Orenstein’s research are reflected in pop culture and   In 2008, Beyoncé’s song, “If I Were a Boy” climbed to number one on the billboard charts.  This song echoes the discussion in Orenstein’s book.

If I were a boy even just for a day/ I’d roll out of bed in the morning/ And throw on what I wanted
And go drink beer with the guys / And chase after girls / I’d kick it with who I wanted/ And I’d never get confronted for it/ ‘Cause they stick up for me[5]


[1] Orenstein xxiii

[2] See for example: What The Bible Says About Parenting Biblical Principle For Raising Godly Children  by John MacArthur.  “Self-esteem is based on an unbiblical perspective that denies original sin and the doctrine of total depravity” (41).

[3] Eckert 100

[4] Orenstein xxxii and xxxiii

[5] Beyoncé “If I were a boy” I am…Sasha Fierce 2008