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

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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  I was never shy, embarrassed, silenced, or withdrawn due to my male counterparts.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.  Boys were singled out and spoken to, as well as had several group lectures for all middle school students on the subject of sexual harassment.  

I always wanted to do the very best I could in high school.  My older sister achieved good grades, but I wanted to do better – so I did.  My parents used to give me trouble for staying up to late doing schoolwork, and I remember a few occasions where my dad actually turned the light off and said, “That’s enough, Kelly.  Get some sleep.”  My younger brother was pretty much the reverse when it came to school.  He always struggled to get good grades, and rarely did.  The teachers kind of gave up on him and he switched schools half way through his final year in high school. Our school was very academic, very challenging.  My parents would make this huge deal when he got a decent grade and would post his results on the fridge.   This rarely happened for me since it was expected of me.  Because my brother and I had been at the same school for ten years, we had a lot of the same teachers year after year.  So, the teachers knew from day one what I was capable of and I guess in a way, they never let me live that down.  Today, I am glad that they were always there to support me and challenge my potential.  After reading Orenstein’s book, however, I now can draw some parallels between my experiences and those of the girls in the novel - particularly the Weston girls: the sexual harassment, the poor body image, drive for perfectionism, the pressures from teachers and parents to succeed.  I guess the hidden curriculum at my school taught us that power is not conferred by gender, but by success.  The teachers tended to give the most attention and support to those students who had the most potential.

Since Orenstein’s book clearly focuses on the experiences of girls in two different schools, I decided that my paper will do the same.  

We have all seen how people are subject to different treatment by society.  Even from a young age, children are subject to difficulties that challenge their identity.  In Schoolgirls, Orenstein depicts the lives of young girls in two different schools and show how the interactions between gender, race and class are important in understanding the content and effects of the ‘hidden curriculum’ in the classroom.  That is, the things that are unconsciously taught in the classroom and are indirect – sometimes these indirect ways of learning seem to stick the most.  Furthermore, we see how the experiences of the young girls are affected by the hidden curriculum. The results are shown thorough their change in sexuality, body image and health, and also result in sexual harassment and violence in the classroom.

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While the educational system is designed to present young people with opportunities, encourage their intellectual abilities and prepare them for the real world, it seems as though there is a hidden curriculum that inhibits their growth as confident human beings and leads to a lack of self-esteem.  There is a sort of irony about the education system.  The indirect lessons of life and of self seem to be more powerful and more real than the direct teachings in the classroom.  These underlying messages can shape an individual’s sense of self from a very young age.

The hidden curriculum ...

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