From a young age, girls face an onslaught of negative messages from the media about their bodies, intelligence, roles in society and their families, and their worth. In response to these stifling and overbearing ideas, some young women begin to cultivate identities or a sense of worthiness based on superficial matters such as assumed attractiveness, academic validation, or sports performance.
Any source of worthiness that is subject to change can be a slippery slope. If your claim to worthiness is your academic prowess, what happens to your self-esteem when you receive a C? The goal is to develop a sense of self-esteem that transcends external markings such as performance of any kind and instead focuses on your inherent worth as a human being.
Despite what your parents or teachers say, academic validation is just as toxic as any when it comes to sourcing your self-esteem from a single factor. Students who strive for academic validation may lose motivation for learning, instead focusing on their GPAs and scores. And because academic validation is not reliable–no matter how hard you work or how smart you are–one poor performance can lead someone to spiral. (Ever introduced yourself, “Hey, I’m 3.8?” or “Nice to meet you, I’m 1490?” That’s because you’re more than just a number).
Someone I spoke to told me that she experienced suicidal thoughts after getting one bad grade. “It was terrifying,” she told me. “I realized something needed to change.”
What to try instead: Your self-concept may consist entirely of your academic ability, but what would it look like if you began putting more focus on the effort you’ve already been putting in to achieve such success? Instead of thinking, “I am smart and therefore worthy,” (which can be more or less subconscious), try, “I put in every effort I can, which makes me feel proud of myself.”
Not Drawn to Scale: on Weight and Worthiness
Step one: throw. your. scale. out.
Whether you want to have a smashing ceremony or simply refuse to replace the batteries the next time they run out, realize that as long as you continue to weigh yourself, some part of you will associate your self-worth with your weight. It’s inevitable, given the full-court press of diet culture pretty much everywhere. Think about how scales are marketed in stores: the box itself usually bears an image of the product inside, and the number on the scale is usually in the low 120s. We are taught that in order to be desirable and healthy, we must be as small as possible. Inherent in that message is the societal pressure to avoid taking up space at all costs.
The best way to cultivate a positive body image is to act like you have it. Wear whatever you want and treat yourself as if you love yourself: wake up earlier to get a moment to yourself, try on some new lip gloss just for fun, or add some joyful movement into your day by walking your dog.
Whenever you’re having an insecure day, have a mantra you repeat to yourself, such as, “my body does not define me.”
Practice body neutrality or tolerance – you don’t need to call yourself stunning all day, but it is important to respect your body just as you would respect anyone else’s body. If you catch yourself thinking cruel thoughts about your body, gently redirect your process. (You’ll eventually get there!).
Stay curious! If you have a negative thought about your body, notice it. For example, if you think, “I look so ugly, I may as well stay home,” take a moment to wonder what spurred that thought. Is it that your dress is tighter than usual? Is it perhaps not your style? Are you bloated from a big meal? None of these thoughts necessitate action, but they can help increase your empathy for yourself.
There is No Juxtaposition: Strength and Femininity
How many times have you tried to play down your femininity when attempting to appear professional or knowledgeable?
“Plain makeup. Dark suits. No jewelry,” was how Hailey, of Project Empowerment, described how used to dress to speak at important school board meetings, “regardless of if the topic was dress code or recognising June as Pride month. I felt like I had to dress that way to be heard. However, now I happily attend those same meetings in heels and makeup- all of which make me happy.”
Your femininity does not undermine your proficiency or ability. If you enjoy dressing femininely, don’t feel forced into androgyny because you think it’s what other people want.
Asserting Your Needs
Many girls struggle to assert their needs in fear of being seen as aggressive or mean. Remember that as long as you are being respectful, it is not your job to control how others perceive you. Women who stand up for themselves are more likely to be labeled as needy or annoying, but we cannot let stigma prevent us from living optimally.
If you have needs that aren’t being met, keep on pushing. People may not be on your side yet, but the law is.
Social Media and Unfair Comparisons
It’s not up for discussion: social media consumption and self-esteem issues are positively correlated. Despite this, girls may feel an enormous social pressure to stay on these apps.
Here are some tips for damage control:
Unfollow people who give you the ick. If someone appears to edit his/her/their photos very often, spreads messages that do not align with your values, or otherwise makes you feel uncomfortable, simply unfollow.
Follow women who inspire you. Social media can be a great space for creativity and inspiration if you let it be.
@ruthproject_ (the only account of our global gender equity organization)
@almondmilkisnuts (anti-diet dietitian)
@sierraschultzzie (body-positive influencer)
@_peacefromwithin (help with anxiety and anti-diet culture content)
These are just examples! There are thousands of women surgeons, lawyers, engineers, psychologists, politicians, and other professionals you can follow.
Remember that it’s most likely contrived. Have you ever been shocked when the happiest couple on your For You Page broke up the day after posting their photoshoot in a Napa vineyard? You’re not the only one. If you feel really strongly about continuing to consume influencer content, try to bear its lack of authenticity in mind.
Being Yourself: the Job Nobody Can Do For You
This is the one job you cannot delegate –being yourself. Think: what makes me me? How have I tried to conform to an ideal before? How can I prevent that from happening again?
Jess used to think that her interest in the environment would make other people think she’s uptight and too liberal. She now realizes that her ability to effectively convince people about environmental policy is one of her most special traits.
Tarryn always wanted to thrift her clothing but was scared people at school would judge her for not wearing trendy fast fashion. One day, she decided to just buy the plaid dress from the local consignment store and wear it to school. She didn’t get many compliments, but she felt the most authentically herself she’d felt in ages.
What’s something you’ve been scared of trying or showing others about yourself?
Acceptable Sources of Worthiness
While we’ve discussed what you shouldn’t base your self-esteem off, what can you try instead? Think: what have you noticed about yourself that you really love?
How hard you work
How much you care about others
How passionate you are
How much you love your family
What a great friend you are
What an independent thinker you are
How committed you are to your community
The ideal self-esteem is culled from a variety of innate characteristics (not just one) and also includes your inherent worth as a human being. That way, not even one bad day can send your self-worth tumbling into the gutter.
Affirmations For Self-Worth
Here are some great affirmations the Project Empowerment team wished they knew when they were younger:
I’m enough exactly as I am at this moment.
I have everything I need inside of me.
The power is inherent to me; I just need to tap into it.
I’m striving for improvement but I’m loving myself through it.
These are great to tack up on a Post-It in your locker, next to a mirror, or on a car dashboard. Saying them out loud can also be very helpful.
If you’re plagued by consistent thoughts of unworthiness or feelings of shame, it may be time to reach out for help. Left untreated, low-self esteem can lead to bigger problems like eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. Talk to someone you trust about seeing a licensed professional.
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My Shoulders Are Not Their Problem: The Problem With School Dress Codes
School is supposed to be an institution for educating children, but it is blatantly apparent that many schools hold wrong intentions regarding what is truly important. There seems to be an unnecessary obsession in terms of what students, but more specifically, feminine and LGBTQIA+ individuals choose to wear to school. While some regulations, such as intolerance to swimwear, pajamas, etc. are reasonable, some rules are taken too far and create room for doubt. Are a girl’s shoulders really “revealing” or “distracting”? Or are the feminine individuals objectified and taken to be merely flesh and skin, rather than the complex and capable individual they are? Are “doo rags”—usually referred to in racist terms—genuinely a distraction to students, or are schools just blatantly racist toward people of color? The truth is that the school system has had both past and present tendencies to enforce unnecessary regulations that target minorities of various genders, races, and ethnic backgrounds.
The impacts of being dress coded are not confined to wearing embarrassing sweatpants or shirts that read “Dress for Success,” or any other type of catchphrase indicated to create a sense of shame within an individual. Dress coding proves to be incredibly contradictory and ironic towards its purpose of “enforcing success within the classroom.” By being dress-coded, an individual is forced to miss class, and will have to waste extensive periods changing their “inappropriate” clothing to school-issued clothing intended to be more “modest.” By doing this, school dress codes are doing the opposite of their objective: diminishing the ability of students to learn in an area where the main goal is to allow individuals to do exactly that.
So what can we, as feminine individuals and minorities do to combat this issue? There are multiple things you can do to ensure that your situation is fair. One step to be taken is to know your rights. As students, we can become feeble when faced with administration, teachers, and staff members who seem to have more power. However, we must remain confident and remember that we are just as human as them – we deserve to feel secure within our skin.
If dress coded, students can take several steps to rise against the injustice they face. The first step is to remember to stay calm and respectful and build a professional character while talking with administrators. Otherwise, you risk losing their attention and the conversation may quickly turn aggressive and unproductive. Secondly, ask the staff member which section of the dress code you are in violation of. Keep a record of their response, any questionable remarks, and any class time missed. If you feel that you have been discriminated against, appeal to the staff member’s supervisor, and involve anyone you feel may be of assistance. This could include your parents or any friends that have faced similar injustices.
The bottom line: school dress codes are often sexist, racist, and classist in ways that take away from educational equity. We’re fighting to change this, and you can take action with us here if you witness gender discrimination through dress codes in your school/district.
It takes me three days to write an email. It takes twice as long to hear back.
The message is three lines, maybe four. I ask only what I need: support, care, help, acknowledgement. Anything.
Self-advocacy manifests itself differently for everyone, but it all comes from the same human need for support.
support (v): to endure bravely or quietly
There is a human need for support, and a human need for community. Everyone, regardless of identity or lived experience, needs to feel supported. Self-advocacy manifests itself in the absence of support.
self-advocacy (v): the act of representing oneself
The act of self-advocacy is much different than the concept. For one, Merriam-Webster’s definition leaves out the fear that comes with being a self-advocate. Without the proper tools and resources, self-advocacy is daunting. Broadcasting your needs to the world—even if the world can help––is simply terrifying. Often, self-advocacy is an expected characteristic, not a taught skill. But with the proper tools and some bravery, everyone can become a self-advocate.
Because everyone deserves support.
This section will reference the names of other members of our Project Empowerment Team, given the collaborative nature of these essays.
Like many others, my journey with self-advocacy began with my family. Both Julia and I were raised in academic households that encouraged us to seek help when we needed it. For some, however, families can act against self-advocacy, too: Despite growing up in a similar academic environment to Julia and myself, Emunah’s conservative religious culture discouraged her advocacy.
In the vernacular, self-advocacy is used to describe the work of disabled people to fight discrimination and gain independence. This idea has grown into a movement, with nearly 800 self-advocacy groups emerging in the United States since 1968 .
In smaller settings––in everyday personal, social, and professional settings––every person becomes a self-advocate. For some, self-advocacy can help them receive the proper accommodations in school for learning disabilities. Emunah advocated for her mental health in school, against the wishes of her conservative school board. And I advocated for my educational opportunities in a new school district.
For many of us, self-advocacy first came from a sense of necessity. Something had to break the ice, and it wasn’t a small nuisance. The ability to have mental health support, educational resources, and disability accommodations was crucial to our daily existence. Without self-advocacy, we could not have functioned.
But it’s difficult to become a self-advocate when the things you need to advocate for are not life-altering or world-changing. At least, not to the person you need to advocate to. But for yourself, anything worth becoming a self-advocate for is world-changing and life-altering. Emunah, Julia, and I were spurred into action out of necessity, but by then it was too late. The “small” things––small being a relative term, and only relative if you are on the receiving end of self-advocacy––had already become big things.
Self-advocacy is scary, it’s important, and for a lot of us, it needs to happen sooner.
The Dramatic Double Standard
For many feminine individuals, self-advocacy is difficult because it comes with the risk of being labeled “dramatic” or “emotional.”
“But I’ve learned that I can’t be quite so passionate in my presentation. I love to wave my arms, but apparently that’s a little bit scary to people. And I can’t yell too much. It comes across as ‘too loud’ or ‘too shrill’ or ‘too this’ or ‘too that.’”
– Hillary Rodham Clinton 
For many, self-advocacy is a vulnerable act. Worry over image or “looking stupid” hinders our ability to advocate for what we need. But for feminine individuals, appearing “too emotional” makes this worry about image exponentially more important.
It is claimed far too much that passion makes women seem unlikeable . But passion gets things done. Self-advocacy gets things done.
It is time to reconstruct the double standard. To become self-advocates, we must ignore what we think our image is. Self-advocacy transcends social standards, and when it is time to become a self-advocate, our actions must reflect that.
Breaking the Ice
My self-advocacy began too late. By the time I had learned to talk to The Higher-Ups, my small problem had exploded into a crucial issue. If I had the tools, the knowledge, and the encouragement to stand up for myself, maybe it would have happened sooner.
So I want to give those tools to you.
A good email goes a long way. Introduce yourself, state the issue, and clearly state how the person you are emailing can help. Don’t forget your contact information at the bottom.
If you sound too “forward” or “demanding,” you are doing it right. Especially if you are concerned about sounding that way.
The Higher-Ups are humans too. They experience human problems. If you tell them often enough and well enough, they have the capacity to understand your human problem.
You already have what you need to succeed: skills, confidence, and self-worth. Understand that self-advocacy is a habit––anyone can develop it with the right resources.
As humans, we are an accumulation of our diverse and distinct identities. These can include the color of our skin, sexuality, gender identity, religious identity, ethnic identity, or other identity we may hold.
Intersectionality—defined as the interconnected nature of social categorizations—is a major aspect of many individuals’ identities. Some intersectional identities may be empowering or oppressing. Feminism has the ultimate goal of empowering feminine individuals and advocating for our rights. However, feminism has often been confined to a specific race or has made assumptions about the identities of women. This has failed to acknowledge the disparities among those who identify as female. Feminism must evolve in order to support the individuality of every woman. The history of feminism is no exception to this—second wave feminists, for instance, have long neglected and even discriminated against women of color.
An example of an intersectional identity is a South Asian woman, whose race and gender identity can be met with discrimination and injustice within society—because she is both female and South Asian. Being a South Asian woman that grew up in a predominantly white community, I always found myself somewhat alienated. I was never necessarily bullied, but being a woman of color and the daughter of two immigrants, I had issues with fitting in with my peers. I often felt left out at the cafeteria table, where my peers had pizza for lunch, and I had ethnic food. Being in elementary school, my classmates were curious, and would ask, “What is that?” I would frequently have to explain what I was eating, and I’d even go so far as to hide my lunch to avoid questions. Certain occasions and things that others said to me ultimately left me feeling isolated and out of place.
The impacts of a society that discriminates against intersectionality aren’t just limited to one’s feelings towards their situation and identity. It can be seen that disparities within race, sexuality, and gender can lead to injustices with services as basic as healthcare, for instance. Racism is an issue that plagues countries across the globe, but it is both shocking and disheartening to see how this hatred seeps into the medical field as well. It is absurd to see that race, a social construct, can take years off of a lifespan. It is no surprise that a large number of minorities can be found in lower-developed communities, as it is incredibly difficult to break into a higher standard of living if there is a lack of job opportunities, efficient means of transportation, and adequate education within an area. It is a constant cycle, where one generation after another is unable to progress.
Gender discrimination and racial discrimination alone are already far too common, but for those who have identities that meet at the intersection of identities already subject to discrimination, we have an entirely different level of complex interactions filled with discrimination on a daily basis. To be a true feminist, be an intersectional feminist.
Feminine individuals from the age of 5 – 18 spend around 6 – 8 hours a day in school, where they spend the majority of their time building the skills and qualities that will ensure their success in the future. However, the truth is that these girls who work so meticulously are not receiving the proper opportunities and are their access to equitable education is, in many places, lacking.
The gender gap within education is dishearteningly immense, and its impacts seep into not only the present but this generation of feminine students’ futures as well. Some may argue that women have made substantial progress in their fight for equality and the ability to receive education, and while that is true, disparities are still present and it is important to fight for the highest level of equity possible. While advancements have been made, the impacts of systemic gender discrimination deeply ingrained into history still affects women in every single country to this day. According to the Center for Global Development, “women are more educated today than at any point in history, but we are still not as educated as men.”
Gender discrimination can be found in even the most developed countries, including the U.S., which has a relatively higher level of gender equality in comparison to many less developed countries. Although the U.S. has shown immense progress, many feminine individuals still report injustice and discrimination within educational institutions. Many women continue to report sexual harassment as one of their most prominent barriers in education.
One individual recalled that after being sexually harassed, what “hurt almost even more than the actual act, though, was when people would accuse me of actually ‘liking it’ and ‘asking for it’ just because I couldn’t say anything.” Feminine individuals often have to live with the fear of entering school, somewhere that should be a safe and productive area for students to learn and work towards their success in the future. Instead, girls are harassed, taunted, objectified, and seen as merely flesh and skin, rather than the capable people they are.
In addition to the harassment feminine individuals face, a lack of equality between girls and boys within sports, clubs, classes, etc. is present as well. One individual states that “In [her] personal experience, [she has] not been able to access AP courses that [she has] wanted to take that are available at the boys’ division of [her] school, and [she has] decided to self-study these for these APs without a course.” Although the primary purpose of school is to facilitate learning, the disparity between male students and female students makes it much harder for feminine individuals to receive an education at the same level as male students. The reality is that feminine students often have to over-compensate due to the barriers that are present. Even in places like the United States, gender discrimination is still pervasively present in education institutions—often, it just takes on a less obvious form.
From the problematic disparities in learning disability diagnoses for women to sexist dress codes and sexual harassment, we have yet a long path ahead of us in the fight for gender equity in education.