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Peggy Orenstein's Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap - review

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Introduction

While reading Peggy Orenstein's Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap, my initial thought was that the experiences of these girls were not at all like mine throughout middle school. I attended an independent school north of Toronto that consisted of upper-middle class kids with families whose parents wanted to give their kids the best education they could. It was a predominantly white school, but the ratio of Asian kids grew substantially while I was there and soon accounted for almost half of the student body. I was the bright student in the class over the years I spent there from grade three until I received my high school diploma. I, as well as several other girls, was always eager to raise my hand from the beginning, even though boys outnumbered girls for the most part. I was never shy, embarrassed, silenced, or withdrawn due to my male counterparts. After reading Orenstein's book, I actually began thinking deep into the daily experience at school growing up. I matured fast; visibly faster than anyone else. I had reached my current height, developed fairly generously-sized breasts, gained some weight, and experienced my first period all by grade four. I remember very well that I was embarrassed to wear a real, supportive bra. I would try to avoid it by wearing half-undershirts on the days we had gym class so that I would not look any different from the other girls while we changed. For this, I am not quite sure if I was the object of ridicule at the time, but I do remember boys poking fun at me in later years for having had the 'same size boobs as I did in grade four'. My best friend at the time did not develop quite as fast. She was ridiculed by some for being 'flat' - that is, flat-chested. I also remember that, when I was in grade seven, there had been a formal complaint made by the grade eight girls about the behaviour of the grade eight boys. ...read more.

Middle

They are the opposite of what they consider 'schoolgirls' in the sense that they are not perfect and pure and innocent, rather they are girls who have expressed their sexuality and given in to their 'sinful' urges. For this, they are deemed the 'fallen-girls' (51). Evie shames herself for even contemplating having sex with her boyfriend who dumps her for refusing. This is a typical case at Weston of male aggression and female defence whereby there is a fixation on intercourse as the only means of sexual expression for males. Since these 'fallen-girls' are looked down upon, girls learn to suppress their sexual desire and convert their desires to feelings of disgust. At Weston, the double-standard is well-known: sex "ruins" girls but "enhances" boys (57). As Orenstein points out, it is unfortunate that these girls do not learn that there are ways other than intercourse in which they can satisfy their curiosity and express themselves sexually. At Weston, the community decides what the kids learn in sexual education classes. The discussion of contraceptive use is forbidden until grade ten under the rationale that such conversation might trigger desire. Appearance has measured a women's worth throughout history. Young women today are being bombarded with conflicting messages relating body-image to self-image. Society connects thinness with "success, self-control, strength, masculinity" and fat with "failure, sloth, and weakness" (94). Just as the girls suppress their sexual desires, they restrain from the pleasures of indulging in food. A study in Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America as noted by Orenstein, revealed that "the way I look" was the single most important determinant of self-worth for white middle school girls (94). This is true for the girls at Weston. Lindsay, Becca and Evie engage in a casual conversation about their eating habits, or lack thereof. "It's not mine. I don't eat." "I'm kind of anorexic." "I was anorexic last year." "I ate breakfast...it was the first time this year." ...read more.

Conclusion

These girls are not empowered to put their own self-interests ahead of anyone else. They feel obliged to take care of their families, obsess about their body-image, satisfy their boyfriends sexually, succeed above all else, be nice before anything else, silence themselves, bear the burden of family problems, suppress their pain, take control over their bodies, and live up to societies pressures to be the 'perfect' woman. It is extremely difficult for the girls at Audubon to succeed due to the lack of guidance, support and attention received both at home and at school. Even when they do try, their efforts are futile. This is the most upsetting to me because they do not have the means or the encouragement to succeed like the Weston girls do. Although the girls at Weston are subject to the pressures and hardships endured by women in society, at home and at school, they are lucky to be receiving a decent education and to have parents that seem to care about their futures. While I can identify most with the Weston girls, as we had similar upbringings, I am mostly troubled by the Audubon girls because they are seen as a lost cause. It is most disturbing since they did not choose to be born into a low-class household on the brink of poverty. This division of class and race seems to be the more unfair to young girls than division by gender. While there are many struggles that girls face in light of gender politics, it is possible for the girls to breakthrough the stereotype and be successful. Although I may be biased (since I believe that I was subject to the same gender politics as the Weston girls), I believe I am a strong, confident, successful woman today because of my upbringing, my experiences and interactions in school and because of the pressures and stereotypes put on me. How can you grow as an individual, become stronger, push your limits, gain confidence, build self-esteem and challenge yourself if you are not subject to obstacles in life? 2 ...read more.

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