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The self-esteem exodus

Published: Monday, November 5, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01


Danielle graduated from high school at the top of her class: she was the valedictorian, a varsity captain, school president, and heavily involved in more clubs than you can count on your fingers. Although she had been voted “most likely to become president” in her senior superlatives, she was also voted “biggest ego.” Indeed, it was no secret that Danielle was proud of her achievements, if not arrogant. She was sure she would continue to stand out as she did in high school in her next four years at Boston College. Danielle graduated from BC with decent grades, although not as good as she would have hoped and a much lower self-esteem. If her high school friends could see her now, they would revoke Danielle’s “biggest ego” title. In fact, they might now vote her “most insecure” if that were a category.
Danielle’s story is not unique. According to a recent survey done by BC faculty, women come into BC with more confidence than they have when they leave. Men, my English professor told me, had opposite results. “I’m wondering,” she asked our Studies in Poetry class, “how much of it is cultural, how much of it is BC, and how much of it is inevitable?”
Her question left the class in silence as we pondered a problem much of us did not realize existed. The topic came with the implicit question as to whether BC men were deflating women’s self-esteem, but you could hardly attribute such statistics solely to the likes of Steve the Womanizer.
The reasons behind the digits got me interested. If men aren’t the problem (as they are not), then what is? What needs to change in order for these statistics to change? And why is it that men come out of college more confident than when they entered?
There are several possibilities to this quandary. Option one, as suggested by a classmate, was that women who have gone through four years of college are more realistic about their goals than when they were a fresh-faced high school graduate. This suggestion makes sense: Danielle, for example, probably thought that she had a world of possibilities before her right after her high school graduation. She may have known what she wanted to study, but there were still many paths to be chosen from, and she could change her mind at any point of time in the next few years. She also probably had a false perception of how easy academics were based on the courses she took in high school. Four years later, however, Danielle has graduated from college with a set career path in front of her. Her imagination is limited because the many paths to life she once dreamed of have evaporated.
Option two: “Women at BC have a huge pressure to look a certain way,” another classmate of mine suggested. This suggestion is a little bit more controversial. Her statement made me wonder—is it men that put this pressure on women, or do women place it on themselves?
“I would describe the typical BC girl as very fit—they all wear Lululemon yogapants, come on—and pretty skinny,” a friend of mine told me. If the general female population is “skinny,” then doesn’t that put pressure on the typical incoming freshmen to fit into that stereotype? Even though men are a source of some of this pressure, it’s also true that women are their own targets. The most shocking consequence of these pressures? According to another BC survey, women are more likely to graduate with an eating disorder than enter with one … but that’s a whole topic of its own for another column.
Option three: “It’s just a college thing,” suggested a sophomore girl. “I think it’s also an age thing to have these sort of pressures.” She noted that “while you’re at college, you’re getting your own education, but also figuring out who you are.”
Now that we’ve established ourselves as credible psychoanalysts of Danielle’s case study, we can come up with a conclusion: the explanation is not limited to one of the three suggestions, but a mixture of the three. It’d be extremely unfair to blame men for the decrease in a BC woman’s confidence over her four years here. I still can’t explain, however, why the survey suggests that men’s confidence actually increases by the time they graduate— that’s a psychological conundrum if there ever was one, but one that you can have fun brainstorming on your own. The last suggestion, however, dominates the other ones: We are simply at that point in our lives where reality sinks in and large life decisions are made, in terms of both physical appearance and emotional stability.

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