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Girls with Low Self-Esteem: How to Raise Girls with Healthy Self-Esteem

By — NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Aug 30, 2012

Introduction

Although women have made gains in education and employment in the equal rights war, they're still losing the self-esteem war. Girls' self-esteem peaks when they are about 9 years old, then takes a nosedive. Here is a look at why girls' self-esteem plummets and what can be done to prevent it.

What do we know about girls' self-esteem?

Self-esteem is related to how we feel about ourselves: it's not just how we look but how we feel about how we look. And it's not just how successful or smart others say we are, but how confident we feel about our talents and abilities. Consider the following in order to understand the internal and external pressures girls feel, and how these pressures affect the development of their self-esteem:

  • Eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression are the most common mental health problems in girls.
  • 59% of 5–12th grade girls in one survey were dissatisfied with their body shape.
  • 20–40% of girls begin dieting at age 10.
  • By 15, girls are twice as likely to become depressed than boys.
  • Among 5–12th graders, 47% said they wanted to lose weight because of magazine pictures.
  • Health risks accompany girls' drop in self-esteem due to risky eating habits, depression, and unwanted pregnancy.
  • Girls aged 10 and 12 (tweens) are confronted with "teen" issues such as dating and sex, at increasingly earlier ages. 73% of 8–12–year olds dress like teens and talk like teens.

When and why does girls' self-esteem drop?

  • Starting in the pre-teen years, there is a shift in focus; the body becomes an all consuming passion and barometer of worth.
  • Self-esteem becomes too closely tied to physical attributes; girls feel they can't measure up to society standards.
  • Between 5th and 9th grade, gifted girls, perceiving that smarts aren't sexy, hide their accomplishments.
  • Teenage girls encounter more "stressors" in life, especially in their personal relationships, and react more strongly than boys to these pressures, which accounts in part for the higher levels of depression in girls.
  • The media, including television, movies, videos, lyrics, magazine, internet, and advertisements, portray images of girls and women in a sexual manner—revealing clothing, body posture and facial expressions—as models of femininity for girls to emulate.

The sexualization of girls and mental health problems

In response to reports by journalists, child advocacy organizations, parents, and psychologists, in 2007 the American Psychological Association (APA)created a Task Force to consider these issues. The Task Force Report concluded that the sexualization of girls is a broad and increasing problem and is harmful to girls' self-image and healthy development. Sexualization is defined as occurring when a person's value comes only from her/his sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics, and when a person is sexually objectified, e.g., made into a thing for another's sexual use. The report states that examples of sexualization are found in all forms of media, and as 'new media' have been created and access to media has become omnipresent, examples have increased. The APA Task Force Report states that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains:

  • Cognitive and emotional health: Sexualization and objectification undermine a person's confidence in and comfort with her own body, leading to emotional and self-image problems, such as shame and anxiety.
  • Mental and physical health: Research links sexualization with three of the most common mental health problems diagnosed in girls and women—eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression or depressed mood.
  • Sexual development: Research suggests that the sexualization of girls has negative consequences on girls' ability to develop a healthy sexual self-image.
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