One of the most influential books I read as an undergrad was Gloria Steinem's "Revolution from Within."
I'm not sure what I was hoping to find when I started reading it, as it's a self-help text of sorts that had been published way back in 1992. But as I turned the pages, it became more and more clear that the issues I was struggling with — the self-doubt, the negative body image, the fear of being anything less than perfec t— were not mine alone.
Wherever I traveled, I saw women who were smart, courageous, and valuable, who didn't think they were smart, courageous, or valuable—and this was true not only for women who were poor or otherwise doubly discriminated against, but for supposedly privileged and powerful women, too. It was as if the female spirit were in a garden that had grown beneath the shadows of barriers for so long that it kept growing in those same patterns, even after some of the barriers were gone.
Steinem's book made me realize these issues had clearly been plaguing women for a long time. This epiphany simultaneously gave me relief (I was not broken! I was just like everyone else!) and made me furious (How had these things been allowed to become side effects of womanhood? We didn't deserve this!).
Steinem drives the point home with her own personal anecdote about receiving a letter from The Keri Report: Confidence and the American Women, which informed her that in a survey of 6,000 men and women, she had been voted one of the 10 most confident women in the United States.
Her reaction to this great honor?
It made me realize all over again what deep shit women were really in.
Now that was telling.
If this champion of women's equality, this giant of social justice, this ultimate idol of mine didn't feel deserving of the recognition she had received (and so many felt she deserved) after all she had accomplished, then I had been telling myself a lifelong lie.
I had always believed I was one step away from being truly self-assured. I just needed to accomplish XYZ, and then there would be no room to question myself any longer.
But like Steinem, each time I accomplished XYZ, there was always a next level to pursue. The higher I got, the more I felt there was to do, and the more fearful I became of losing the ground I had already won if I stopped or failed.
It had never occurred to me that perhaps the reason I struggled with the concept of “enough,” of being “enough” for so long had something to do with self-esteem.
Second semester of my freshman year, a junior confidant told me, “Feigned confidence is real confidence.”
At the time, the advice seemed right. I found if I just acted like I knew what I was doing, if I dressed the part and held my shoulders back a bit farther, if I gave a smile and always had a drink in my hand, if I pretended to get the reference, I would come across as self-assured.
I would look like I belonged and maybe even feel like I belonged.
For a period, this was enough for me. But eventually, I realized I may have been fooling others with this feigned self-assurance, but I certainly wasn't fooling myself.
I grew exhausted from hustling for a sense of self-worth based on approval and validation from others. I wanted more than this.
Because, honestly, what was the point of it all?
What was the point of making dean's list if I still sometimes found myself doubting whether I was even smart enough to go here? What was the point of having a busy social life with tons of friends if a part of me remained forever uncool in my head?
What was the point of starving myself stick thin if I always felt fat? What was the point of driving myself to such extremes if the payoff was never fulfilling?
I wanted to feel like the person everyone thought I was. If what Steinem said in her book was true, that “we create much of the outer world from within ourselves,” why was I making this my reality?
No matter how well I convinced people otherwise, if I felt dumb, uncool and fat in my head, even just part of the time, that was how I was going to experience my reality.
Why was I doing this to myself? Why were we all doing this to ourselves? I knew it wasn't just me.
Once "Revolution from Within" pushed me to take off my blinders, I began to notice this bizarre self-esteem epidemic all around me, manifesting itself in my female peers. Evidence was everywhere, and painfully so.
There were young women too self-conscious to speak up in class and always starting their sentences with justifiers if they did (“I'm probably wrong, but…” and “This may be a stupid question, it's just…”).
Young women counting every calorie and voicing how “disgusting” they felt in their bodies through never-ending fat-talk. Young women too afraid to demand better treatment from their hookups for fear they would end up alone at the end of the night (and oddly seeing that as the worse of the two options).
Where was all this coming from? Certainly, if given a proper choice, these would not be the realities we would choose for ourselves. How much more could we be accomplishing if self-esteem wasn't such an issue?
The statistical “canary in the coal mine” — the warning call that goes out when something in an environment is turning toxic while managing to remain invisible — was finding that despite all the strides that have been made, young women continue to leave college with less self-esteem than they came in with (while young men tend to leave with more).
Clearly, self-esteem is not such an elementary principle if it befuddles and plagues us as intelligent 18- to 22-year-olds in university. My own personal journey could not be more representative of that.
Yet, my own personal journey has given me hope.
It showed me that changing my reality was not dependent on changing an entire culture (something that takes time and patience and the changing of many, many opinions). It was about investing in the hard work of growing my own personal self-esteem (which only required changing my opinion).
And that was not a generation of change away.
It was something I could achieve in due time if I took the necessary steps toward becoming aware of how I was being socialized and how those natural inclinations and ways of judging myself, and others, were flawed.
Certainly, aspects of current day college culture made it harder for my self-esteem to flourish. Shadows were still being cast where old barriers had once stood. But, that didn't mean I couldn't venture out into those darker places and try my hand at growing, maybe one day even blooming.
I want to set an example both for myself and for the young women around me: It is OK to love yourself. It is beautiful to love yourself.
You are allowed to let that shine through every now and then. Too often, we are sent the memo that we are only to be self-abasing and that self-deprecation is a virtue.
Societal messages tell us we are meant to be beautiful and smart, but we aren't supposed to show it or even know it. If we know it, we have crossed a line into vanity and arrogance.
Is there no middle ground? Isn't that middle ground where self-esteem would spring most naturally?
Maybe we could make ourselves an example of this.
Maybe by growing into the places we had been told we weren't supposed to put down roots, by daring to let a bud unfurl into full flower, then other young women would see that daring to break the restrictive gender rules could be stunningly fruitful and follow.