Confession. When I was a little girl (age 8) I would write obnoxious things in my diary. Things like:
Life is so great and exciting, especially when you're someone like me, good at writing and school and sports!!!!!
One day (age 13) I came across that diary when I was cleaning out my bedroom, and felt mortified by my egocentric and deluded younger self. I threw the diary into a big black garbage bag with the other junk and never saw it again.
Recently (age 40) I came across a quote by singer Edith Piaf (1915-1963):
I had a very high opinion of myself. Perhaps with good reason.
That kind of blew me away. For a woman to not just think and believe such a thing, but to say it out loud? Dude. That takes guts.
One thing I've noticed lately in my conversations about women, reading books and magazines about women, listening to other people talk about women, is that everybody seems to take it as a given that women as a group have low self-esteem. A lot of this seems to be attributed to the fact that, bombarded as we are by an insane beauty standard, most of us don't look like supermodels -- a.k.a. 'genetic freaks' -- and don't consider ourselves beautiful. Boo hoo.
(For the record, Edith Piaf didn't consider herself beautiful either. "I'm ugly," she stated flat-out. "I'm not Venus. I've got sagging breasts, a low-slung ass, and little drooping buttocks... But I can still get men." Indeed. I was reading about her in a book called SEDUCTRESS by Betsy Prioleau, about the great seductresses and enchantresses of history, and Piaf could "get men" until the day she died.)
I have struggled with self-esteem issues since my teens, but it's clear in my first long-ago diary that I didn't start out that way. I acquired my low self-esteem. I learned it. I learned to play down the fact that I was smart, to bend over backwards so as not to "intimidate" people, to feel ashamed of the fact that I read so much and had an odd-for-my-age vocabulary (and mispronounced words), to feel ashamed for reasons I couldn't pinpoint or articulate. What's more, it was good to have low self-esteem; anything else was to risk a big head, and who would like me then?
Confidence did not endear me to my peers. Insecurity did.
Part of the problem had to do with my undiagnosed ADD, or the fact that I was growing up right-brained in a left-brained world. The right brain -- holistic, intuitive, creative -- has no sense of structure, details, or time. I could do things that other people couldn't (write novels, ace certain subjects without bothering to attend class, get a black belt) and yet barely function on a day to day level. I was so disorganized and scattered that when a boyfriend once asked me, "Justine, how do you get through daily life?" I had no honest answer.
But I would say another, equally big part has to do with the innate human tendency to rise or sink to the level of expectation the culture holds for you. We like to claim that we're not influenced by the world around us, but truth is we're hardwired to adapt to the herd (which is why choosing your herd is so important). As a girlchild in the early-to-mid 1980s, I wasn't expected to like math. So I stopped liking math. As a young woman, I wasn't expected to have high self-esteem. As an older woman, I'm not expected to have high self-esteem either, but I've learned to say a cheerful "screw that."
I can't speak for men on this -- I'm writing from a deeply female perspective -- but I can say that, as women, we seem to police each other when there aren't men around to do it for us (or the men don't care, are oblivious, or even supportive and nurturing, as many men are.) Author, entrepreneur and online superstar Danielle LaPorte recently talked about the backlash she received when her star was rising and she was pronounced, by some, to be "too big for her britches." They might as well have picketed her with signs saying: Danielle! Get back in your place!
Which is not to say that narcissism is, you know, a good thing (although it would seem to have certain advantages, and high-functioning narcissists can do some very good things for society), or that people are wrong to be on guard against it.
It just seems that the label is so quickly applied to women who dare to declare their self-confidence, their sense of worth, their own self-interest, that women as a group learn to defend themselves against it by swinging to the opposite extreme.
(If you're a woman, what's the one thing you can say online that will ensure you get absolutely massacred? "I'm beautiful." Even supermodels, who make entire fortunes off their looks, aren't stupid enough to say it, but will tell stories about what ugly ducklings they were growing up. Even Michelle Pfeiffer wouldn't admit to it except in a roundabout way -- "beautiful women tend to get used" -- and complain instead about her bloodshot eyes, her mouth "like a duck." That's right. Put Ms. Pfeiffer in the ugly corner.)
I don't think it's that difficult to distinguish between people with narcissistic disorders and people with high self-esteem. Narcissists -- real narcissists -- abuse and destroy the people closest to them (and those of you who know what I'm talking about, raise your hand). High self-esteem people, on the other hand, uplift, empower, inspire. They are the Oprahs of your personal world. They make you feel good about yourself, as if their own sense of worth is contagious.
If you're a woman (or man) with high self-esteem, what would you do that you're maybe not doing now?
I have an answer for that:
You would trust yourself.
You would take good care of your health, for one thing, because you value your body too much to trash it. You would honor your strengths and talents -- and also your weaknesses, your limitations. Instead of feeling threatened by your imperfections (and other people who might point them out), you would learn how to work around them and form partnerships with people who complement you. You would feel the fear but do it anyway -- because you would know, come hell or high water, that you can handle it. You would go after the goals that are worthy of you. You wouldn't worry so much about what other people think. You wouldn't confuse their voices with your north-star inner voice. You would say no. You would say yes. You would bring all of yourself to your work, to your life, because you would recognize that every so-called vice has a virtuous flipside, every shadow contains a glint of gold. You would honor your relationships. You would seek your place in the bigger picture. You would empower others. You would look in the mirror and see the cellulite on your thighs, the sag to your breasts, and recognize that you are still innately fascinating; you don't have to be "born beautiful," as Diana Vreeland put it, "to be wildly attractive." (Edith Piaf would agree.)
You would trust yourself.
You would educate your intuition as best you can, and listen to it, and let it lead you, step by step, day by day, even and especially when it takes you into uncharted territory. You would become the ultimate explorer of you. You would tell your story to the world through how you live it, and how you own it.
And this, I would say, is where women are at a disadvantage. We live in a culture that does not encourage women to be epic heroes of their own Big Stories, but the mothers and lovers and wives and mistresses and muses and personal assistants, the femme fatales and fantasies and manic pixie dream girls, in someone else's Big Story, and this someone else is usually a dude. Even the smart, feisty, bookish girl (if she's not careful) gets cast as the Hermione to someone else's Harry Potter.
There's that saying: You have to see it to be it. If you don't see how you're entitled to your own Epic Story, your own Big Life, you might just smile and say, That's all right. You go ahead. I'll stay here and organize the snack committee. After all, somebody has to.
Here's the thing. We, as women, want to be sexy and beautiful and loved; we want to support and nurture; we would die for our kids without thinking twice. We want to be lovers and mothers and wives and mistresses and some of us make damn fine personal assistants and snack committee organizers and see it as good, worthy work that fulfills us.
But kids grow up. Not every marriage works out. Sometimes lovers leave; sometimes we're the ones doing the leaving. Not to mention that men have this annoying habit of dying before we do.
We want, we need, our own freaking stories.
We want the feminine, but we want the epic feminine. The heroic feminine. The badass feminine.
We hear our own call to greatness, and by that I mean: the right to create, to cultivate our own gifts and talents, to pursue mastery, to carve out a place in the world, and lift up the global sisterhood while we're at it. To taste power for ourselves. To redefine it.
Which is why I don't think it's enough to pat women on the head and say, You're beautiful just as you are! You're amazing! You're fabulous! You are YOU and that's enough! We encourage women to be "selfish" but act as if that "selfishness" is about holding on to your sanity and taking better care of yourself (...so you can take better care of others).
Women don't want to feel less-than, but we also don't want empty lip service. Women want, I think, permission to pursue dreams and goals and greatness of our own, and when I say permission I mean a story that supports us, a story that manifests in the social and economic and political structures that make greatness possible without feeling like you have to sacrifice some or all of your womanhood, or that you'll get massacred for admitting, out loud, that you have some greatness in you, you just need the time and space and energy, the fierce commitment to your own damn self, to bring it out (and someone else can get the snacks). Women want a grand and inspiring call to action that points the way to a bigger, deeper life, even if it's still unclear -- in the year 2013! -- what that kind of badass womanly life is supposed to look like.
Which brings us back to that issue of high self-esteem: important when you have only yourself to find the way, make the way or lead the way.
We need to trust ourselves.
We need to trust each other.