I would like you to stop for a moment an imagine a self-esteem workshop for a group of pre-teen boys. What types of activities do you think might be planned? What would the boys do? Really think about this for a moment before I go on. What comes to mind when you think of boys and self-esteem building?
Now, I want to tell you about a workshop called “Boys Unstoppable!” The workshop is put together by a company in the personal care industry. The boys arrive with their dads. They sit down at tables and find paper and magic markers.
The leader, known as a “Self-esteem Ambassador” first asks the boys to think about their dad and his appearance. The Ambassador asks each boy to write down anything he has heard his dad say about his looks. Then the boys create a second column, and they write down how those statements made them feel.
One boy, Tommy, starts to fidget in his chair. Why do they have to think so much about their feelings? It’s a nice day out. Can’t they go out and do something?
The Ambassador smiles like a salesman or a Ken doll. He introduces the next exercise. The boys are asked to think about all of the good things about themselves. Then the Ambassador hands out “confidence cards.”
The cards say “I have a beautiful________”
The Ambassador tells them to fill out as many cards as they want.
Tommy stares at the cards. “I have a beautiful face?” he thinks. Not really, he thinks, but he writes it down anyway.
The exercise is kind of hard. It’s hard to fit what he is good at into that sentence without it sounding weird.
“I have beautiful math skill.”
Tommy thinks about last week when he won the 100 yard dash. He was proud of that. “I have beautiful running skill” is awkward. So he writes “I have beautiful feet.”
That’s not right. He gives up and looks out the window.
“What’s wrong?” asks the Ambassador with a kind of cheery sympathy.
“I can’t think of anything,” Tommy says.
The Ambassador tilts his head. Tommy can tell he is thinking that the boy is a real hard case. He must have no confidence at all. It’s worse than he thought.
“Come on,” The Ambassador says, “There are lots of beautiful things about you. You have a great smile. Great eyes.”
“Yeah, but…” Tommy is thinking about how his dad taught him to change the oil on the car. He is proud that he knows how to fix stuff in a car, but that doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that’s important in this exercise. He tells that to the Ambassador.
“Of course it is!” the Ambassador says. “You see, you’re talented. That will make you very attractive to girls. So write that down on the card. ‘I have beautiful repair skills.”
Tommy does as he is told, but he isn’t feeling what he thinks he is supposed to be feeling.
“You’re unstoppable!” The Ambassador croons. “You are an amazing, beautiful, talented young man.”
The attention pleases Tommy and he feels vaguely flattered for a few minutes, but he wonders if this guy has been listening to him at all. Does he know anything about him?
“Of course it’s important,” The Ambassador tells the dads, “to compliment the boys on their intelligence too, not just to tell them they are cute.”
“You are unstoppable if you just believe in yourself,” he tells the group.
Tommy is not listening. He is looking out the window wondering when they will let him actually do something.
I wrote this little scenario after reading an article on The Huffington Post about an empowerment workshop for girls called “Girls Unstoppable.” It is essentially as I have described it above except with girls. I discovered the story through my Facebook feed where one of my friends had posted it for inspiration and as a reminder of what is important. I did not feel at all inspired by what I read. My reaction, in contrast to most people apparently, was bleech.
Something about the nature of the workshop and the way it was described bothered me. I had a feeling that something underlying all that empowerment talk was not empowering at all, in fact it was the opposite. It was not until I tried to envision the same workshop given to a group of boys that I was able to put my finger on what my discomfort was.
I have been like Tommy. I may not have been in a Dove empowerment workshop, but I’ve had the same types of messages presented to me as inspiration and empowerment on talk shows, in magazines and by friends for years.
At the beginning of this article, I asked you to think about what an empowerment or self-esteem program for boys might consist of. You probably imagined something like the Boy Scouts or Outward Bound. Young men test their limits, practice a sport, enjoy the outdoors, discover skills they didn’t know they had. In short, they do.
When we try to “empower” girls we tell them to think positive and feel pretty. If it is “empowerment” it is a strange use of the word “power” because it is entirely passive. The program focuses entirely personal qualities that make one attractive, not achievements and actions.
The article features a slide show with images of the “confidence cards.” Beauty is the most frequent positive quality mentioned. Other qualities also appear, sometimes described in terms of beauty. Strength makes an appearance along with uniqueness, grace, unspecified “talent” and positive thinking which is phrased in various ways. “You are beautiful when you look at the positive things in life.”
The message is not to get angry or frustrated. But sometimes anger is warranted and is the basis for action. Being unhappy is a sign that something is wrong, and that it is time to go out and make a change.
The aspirational vision in this workshop is not to take action. It is to look on the bright side of everything, even if you have to lie to achieve that beautiful inner confidence. Indeed, we are asked to lie to ourselves, for example, by pretending not to notice which girl in the room is the prettiest by current standards. “Look how beautiful we all are!” OK.
This might be worth doing if lies worked, but they don’t. A 2009 study published in Psychological Science backs me up on this. When people get feedback that they believe is overly positive, they actually feel worse, not better. When people hear and affirmation they don’t believe, they adhere even more strongly to their original position.
The article on the workshop points out that six out of ten girls stop doing something they love because they are self-conscious about their looks. There is something wrong. It is not just a problem because it hurts their self-esteem, but because when a girl decides not to take woodshop because the protective glasses make her look ugly, we are all at risk of losing a fantastic future architect, builder or engineer. This is an issue we should take seriously.
But when our response to the problem is to “coo over how beautiful she is” (a line from the article) we do little to set her back on her natural course. The very messages we compose to soothe girls’ feelings are telling them that action is not valuable and that the only way for action to become valuable is if it can be defined in terms of feelings and looks.
Feeling good about yourself for no particular reason is not of much value. If you want to really make girls feel stronger, happier and more talented give them a challenge, give them tasks to master, goals to achieve. Let them be who they are, and celebrate what they do.