I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and goshdarnit, people like my sarcasm

20 08 2012

When I first started my teen girls’ group, I had to come up with an overarching theme. Apparently “let’s get together to chat and eat cheese” was insufficient. My co-leader and I came up with self-esteem. In some way, everything we wanted to cover–dating, body image, relationships with parents, peer pressure–could be incorporated into this.

Saying I run a “self-esteem group” is kind of embarrassing. It just sounds so Stuart Smalley. The term gets thrown around and degraded so much. My fantasy happy hour guest and Twitter follower personal hero Jessica Valenti wrote about this recently. I thought about it a lot, due to my group and my respect for Ms. Valenti.

Still, I can’t just say “fuck self esteem.” Because it is important. It encompasses so much of what our girls are dealing with. They’re shoplifting because they have to have what everyone else does, and also because their friends are doing it. They’re having sex, at times, to maintain a partner’s interest. They’re getting in fights constantly because they can’t let even the littles comment slide. So what’s the problem?

Self-esteem has gotten kind of weird. Primarily because it is far too tied up in physical appearance, as evidenced by the idea that plastic surgery is going to improve a young woman’s self-esteem. I got teased for being flat-chested when I was in junior high. Fortunately, my parents didn’t start saving up for a boob job for their twelve year old.

“You’re all beautiful in your own way” is remarkably similar to “everyone gets a trophy.” I had a shitload of trophies as a kid, because I participated in a shitload of activities. I sucked at most of them, so I knew those trophies were meaningless. If everyone is beautiful, what’s the point? Not everyone has to think you’re hot. There are standards of beauty in our society. (Impossible, stupid standards, says my brown hair and tummy.) Not everyone conforms to them, even if they want to. Pretending that away doesn’t work, and it puts the focus on the wrong place.

Valenti points out that not growing into your looks until a bit later in life can be beneficial. Hell yeah, it can. You don’t learn to be funny if people are fawning all over your looks. Why bother? If I had known how to brush my hair properly and didn’t wear my brother’s hand-me-downs in junior high, I wouldn’t have had all that time to watch entirely inappropriate stand-up on Comedy Central. Or to finish The Diary of Anne Frank while eating lunch alone. (Oh yes, it was bad.) A friend of mine will sometimes tell others, “you are so beautiful right now” if they tell a joke that falls flat. Just about everyone who is successful in a creative industry will talk about how they were an awkward loser at some point in school. Except the models who talk about how they were way too skinny and couldn’t get a date until they were fourteen. They don’t count.

I’m often told that it is great for my girls’ self-esteem that they are all black or Latina. You know, because their culture, and their men, like “bigger” women. Because there is nothing to make you feel worse than being overweight, everyone is heterosexual, and defining your self worth by men’s attraction to you is a rockin’ idea.

It reminds me of a vintage advertisement that was making the rounds on Facebook recently. It featured an image of a skinny woman and a curvier woman, and implored women to take some snake oil type treatment so they could pack on some pounds to look sexy at the beach. Everyone tagged it with, “How times have changed!” And because I’m obnoxious, I had to keep commenting, “Eighty years ago, people were still telling us we weren’t good enough, so…no, times haven’t changed that much.”

My girls want to be thin, but they don’t want to be skinny. Skinny is a bad word. The constant refrain is “I don’t want to look like a crackhead!” This might be indicative of the devastation that crack cocaine wrought on our inner-cities, or something. Of course, my fantasy therapist and woman who could totally call me to baby-sit other hero Tina Fey said it best. As always.

All Beyonce and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine year old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.

Women and girls are held to very high standards. You have to look a certain way, and you’re not supposed to work at it. Don’t starve yourself, that’s stupid! Just be really skinny! But have boobs, don’t be gross about it. Don’t wear too much make up, it looks fake and gross. A natural, minimal, blemish free perfectly smooth complexion is preferable. Be tall, but not too tall. Dress sexy, but not slutty. (As there are no clear guidelines on this, you will just have to wear what you think is best and then listen when others criticize you. Fun!)

When I ask my girls in group what I like about themselves, they start listing off physical attributes. “My hair,” “my eyes,” “my titties,” (seriously.) It isn’t because they’re shallow, or think that’s all they have to offer. It’s because they think that’s what I mean. I have to press them for what they’re good at, what it is others admire in them.

I try to focus on getting my girls to notice double standards between what’s expected of them and boys, to question why certain things are considered “slutty” or indicative of a “lack of self-respect,” and to get them a little pissed off about these things. I’m not under the impression that pointing out that they are undervalued by society will make them feel good.

But it does make them think about where that poor self-esteem is coming from. It takes some pressure off them to live up to those standards, and spend some more time questioning where they’re coming from and why they feel bad about themselves. It lets them know that they’re not alone in the inequality they notice (believe me, they notice), that gaining or losing five pounds or waxing their eyebrows isn’t the answer to what they’re feeling, and that there are more important things to think about. Being a part of something and connecting with other girls makes them feel pretty good about themselves, and about being a girl.

And things like this come out.

14 y/o: “It’s so much harder to be a girl. We have to get periods.”
Entire group: “Ugh, periods!”
13 y/o #1: “And we have to have babies and decide whether or not to have an abortion.”
13y/o #2: “Yeah, and guys can just leave if they don’t want to take care of the kid.”
14 y/o: “And men say nasty things to us on the street when we’re just trying to walk.”
12 y/o: “Yeah, but our moms teach us to take care of ourselves. One day a boy is going to tell me to cook for him or do his laundry and I’m going to tell him he should have learned when I did!”

It’s a start.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Find out what it means to SocialJerk! (Live accordingly.)

1 08 2011

There are certain words and phrases that tend to shut conversation down. You can’t argue against them. Attempting to do so is considered to be in poor taste. If you’re criticizing someone, and a friend says, “His wife’s in a coma,” you kind of have to shut up. Questioning someone on a particular practice ceases when told, “It’s my religion.” And it seems that the same goes for, “It’s an issue of respect.”

Respect is the most overused and poorly understood word in the English language. As a social worker, I hear it approximately eleventy billion times per day. “My teenage son has no respect!” Um…duh? “Why should I respect my teacher if she doesn’t respect me?” Because you don’t get to grade her. “These girls dress slutty because they have no respect for themselves.” Is that accurate? I dress my trampiest when I feel good about myself. “SocialJerk swears too much, she obviously has no respect.” She obviously was raised in Brooklyn.

It’s always the first thing that comes up when we set ground rules in my teen groups as well. Someone immediately suggests “respect” as a rule. I write it down. Then I ask, “What does that mean?”

You would think I asked them to present me with a unifying theory of physics.

“What do you mean, ‘what does that mean?’ Respect! It means respect.”

So we go over it, more and more. How do we show respect? What does that look like? How do you know someone is being disrespectful? Is it an attitude or an action? You know, annoying social work-y questions.

My helpful dictionary app defines respect as a verb meaning “to hold in esteem or honor.” Basically, to look at someone or something and think that they deserve to be treated a certain way. To treat them the way you want to be treated. To put them ahead of yourself.

How did such a simple, direct concept become so convoluted? I’m not trying to be controversial here, I’m not against respect. But considering how much people talk about it, especially in my work, you would think we’d see more examples of it.

Instead, I see more examples of irony. People screaming and disturbing others in the office, to make sure everyone knows that, “this bitch ain’t got no respect!” A mother telling her thirteen year old daughter that she needs to stop “getting with all these nasty boys in the neighborhood, because people think you’re fast. I want you to have respect for yourself.”

I don’t know about you, but my mother calling me the village bicycle would certainly increase my self-respect.

So many of these admonishments for “respect” are directed at women and girls. It’s an easy way to convey that faux concern. It’s not that I’m being judgmental, it’s that I’m worried about this girl! Those short shorts clearly illustrate that she has zero respect for herself. There is an inverse relationship between the length of your clothing and the amount of self-respect you have. Tube tops and self respect? Mutually exclusive.

Ask any teen girl, she’ll tell you that respect is the most important part of a romantic relationship. Many will then blame other girls for her boyfriend’s cheating, cheat to get back at him, make out with her female friends at a party to get his attention, and not leave immediately the first time he hits her or calls her a bitch.

We’re teaching our girls to talk a good game, but I don’t think we’re really teaching them a whole lot of meaning. Everything is respect or disrespect. It’s so watered down that it’s meaningless. It’s a buzzword. Much like “think outside the box,” “self-care,” or “SJ, this is a staff meeting, please stop coloring,” it seems like the more you hear it, the less it means.

When I worked in a pre-school program, we got a bit nosy and asked a bilingual three year old, “Why is daddy in jail?” She gave us her sassiest look and replied “Porque, no me respeta.” Daddy’s in jail, because he doesn’t respect you. This is a punishable offense, now? Clearly she was repeating what her mother said. But what was the real message there?

That thirteen year old I work with was told that because her boyfriend gave her hickeys, he doesn’t respect her, and she doesn’t respect herself. Erroneous. He did it because he is in ninth grade, overeager, and lacks finesse. What matters is the way he treats her, the way he makes her feel about herself. Not these unwavering, written in stone regulations.

Respect is important, obviously. Of course it’s a crucial part of a relationship. And telling someone that they don’t respect themselves, their parents, or their community because they do something you don’t like or agree with belittles the person and the concept. If something really is as important as we all agree “respect” is, we should probably be able to comfortably define it.

Without a Droid app, that is.

But…my mom thinks I’m special.

20 01 2011

My job does not just consist of helping people to get their lives reorganized and back together, or helping them to learn to be better parents. A lot of what I do involves helping people to believe in themselves. Letting them know that they are competent parents, they can succeed in school, and that they deserve good treatment.

A lot of what we’re trying to do is boost people’s self esteem.

You’re special. You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and dog-gone-it, people like you.

Sorry. I had to.

People like to bitch about “the self-esteem movement.” We’re obsessed with making kids feel like they’re unique and talented. Trying is just as meaningful as doing.

We all know that this doesn’t quite fly is “the real world,” as we adults have so narcissistically dubbed our own lives. I’ve tried telling my boss that I really tried to get my service plan done, but it just didn’t happen. The important thing is that I learned something, and I had a lot of fun.
She didn’t go for that. Even when I gave her my drawing of a butterfly.

We’ve all heard the complaints. Everyone gets a trophy, because everyone’s a winner. (Hint: when there are two teams, one loses.) We can’t play dodgeball, because it makes people feel bad. (When I worked at a youth center, I made the kids play. We all need to get our aggression out.) Everyone gets a chance to be Student of the Month. (That used to mean something when I won it! Right?)

We want to raise kids who can tolerate failure and disappointment. Who understand that things won’t always go their way. Who realize that talent is special, and no one has it for everything. That way, our kids don’t become those dreadful people who embarrass themselves on American Idol.

Excessive, meaningless self-esteem breeds arrogance and a sense of entitlement. We can all agree that this is bad.

I don’t deal with that much in my day to day work. Like so many of the latest child-rearing crazes, feeling overly good about oneself seems to go hand in hand with privilege.

The two teen girls’ groups I ran in the past year were focused on improving self-esteem. To hear the girls talk, you wouldn’t think this was necessary. They sounded pretty pleased with themselves.

“Miss, I know I look good.”
“If that boy don’t wanna be with me, it’s his loss.”
“I don’t play with peer pressure. I don’t care what people think.”

Wonderful! We can conclude group! Perhaps these girls can go on some kind of speaking tour, imparting their wisdom to others.

Except, as happens so often with humans, their actions don’t match their statements.

The girls talked a good game. They sounded confident. But their sense of self-worth was superficial. For all they talked about leaving guys who didn’t treat them right, they returned to those boys, or a similar one, week after week.

They don’t care what others think, until they’re the only girl in the group who thinks shoplifting does not sound like a good way to spend the afternoon. Somehow, when security shows up, she’s the one left (quite literally) holding the bag.

The self esteem movement hadn’t reached their parents and grandmothers, who were raising them. When pressed for specifics, these girls could not list one thing that they were good at. And so often, their parents were no help.

One girl’s mother had the common problem of interacting with her daughter as though they were peers.

“You’re looking fat today!”
“I swear, you are my dumbest child.”
“Why are you being such a bitch?”

It was hard to explain to this woman the damage that this kind of talk caused a fifteen year old girl.

“She shouldn’t do those things if she doesn’t want me talking about them. You hear how she talks to me?”

I do hear how she talks to you. I wonder wherever she could get it from.

Newsflash from the desk of the Obvious News Network–kids can be jerks, especially to their parents. As the person who brought them into this world, it’s your job to rise above it.

It’s also your job to make sure that they feel good about themselves. Somewhere along the line this idea got distorted.

We’re either praising our kids every time they successfully use the potty until they reach high school, and preparing for their future in the World Cup due to their skill at three-year-old “let’s all bunch around the ball!” soccer.

Or we’re engaging in “brutal honesty,” a self-serving concept that allows people to  be mean without feeling bad about it, as they should.

Shockingly, I believe there is middle ground. Maybe there is a way to keep your kid from belting out “I Believe I Can Fly” in the school talent show, when you know it will wind up going viral on YouTube, but not for good reasons. And maybe that way does not involve, telling your child the first time he opens his mouth, “Oh no. You suck. May God have mercy on your soul.”

If nothing else, you’ll be keeping your kid off reality TV (and Maury).   And that’s good for everyone.