By Leah John
Like every other tween growing up on the internet in 2015 many of my evenings were spent watching my fellow teenage girls on youtube: specifically, young female “lifestyle” bloggers praised as “relatable girls”. They were insanely beautiful, rich, almost exclusively white: but most importantly, they absolutely hated themselves.
These prototypical influencers built their “relatable” brand off of this self-imposed hatred. Endemic jokes about how ugly and stupid they were dominated. They apologized profusely for the tiniest pimple or slightest lilt in their voice. As an impressionable twelve-year-old girl who was neither rich, pretty, white, or charismatic, their constant self-depreciation sent me a clear message: if even the most gorgeous girls can’t outwardly love themselves, I definitely couldn’t either. We made insecurity popular and indoctrinated our entire generation of young women to believe that self-hatred was marketable and their confidence was a detriment.
The media exemplifies this reality all the time. If a woman projects confidence, she is labeled unapproachable and standoffish. Traditionally “feminine” characteristics, like the ability to empathize or be vulnerable, are disparaged. In essence, in order to be confident, female characters must act like men, causing us to associate confidence as an exclusively male trait . As such, female characters who embrace this confidence must be perfect in every other way, thus limiting female viewers’ ability to relate to her powerful character. Carina Chocano, a contributing writer for the New York Times, describes this reality; she argues that any media depiction of confident women tolerates “little blubbering, dithering, neuroticism, anxiety, melancholy or any other character flaw or weakness that makes a character unpredictable and human.” This lack of relatability tells the audience that confidence as a woman is unattainable, for it is a trait exclusive to the flawless.
This paradigm is further complicated for women who don’t fit the “mold” of someone society deems “worthy” of being confident. Lizzo, a plus-size pop artist, is frequently praised for being unapologetically herself, singing lyrics about being “100% that bitch” on the regular. Yet every time she wears an item of clothing that shows her body, trolls run to twitter, arguing over whether she should be allowed to do so. Simply existing as a plus size person without hiding in shame somehow becomes a “radical act” promoting unhealthy lifestyles to the public. Clearly, these blatant cases of fatphobia are unacceptable. The idea that someone is not allowed to love themselves unless they check certain boxes paints a grim picture for anyone who is not a skinny, cisgender, white woman. Confidence as a BIPOC plus-size woman, shouldn’t be considered a form of protest that must either be wildly celebrated or brutally torn down.
This toxic media culture expands far beyond the entertainment world and influences how women outside the public landscape interact in the world. A 2011 Institute of Leadership and Management study questioned managers on their perceived job performance; they found that “half the female respondents reported self-doubt about their job performance and careers, compared with fewer than a third of male respondents.” This stems from the reality that the few women who do display confidence in their work are often punished. A 2016 report found that women projecting self confidence in the workplace are more likely to be seen as bossy and ineffective. In short, our outdated attitude towards self-assured women forces society to reflect One Direction’s debut hit song, “You don’t know you’re beautiful”. That’s what makes you beautiful.” The way we treat female confidence has tangible effects on women’s societal success. The gender pay gap is often attributed to having children or general misogyny in the hiring process of upper level positions: but we must also acknowledge women’s self-harming contribution of not putting themselves up for a promotion in the first place because of their tendency to feel undeserving. This gap explains why women, despite obtaining higher education and entering the workforce at an equal percentage as men, still hold far fewer high level leadership positions than men.
This disparity highlights how a lack of confidence plays a direct role in limiting how women navigate through life. Low self esteem isn’t “quirky and fun”; it’s exhausting and sad and our current internet culture is just exacerbating the issue. Our portrayal of confident women must change. Insecurity can no longer be the most powerful clickbait tool a woman can use. But as the future of the workforce, for this to happen, we as college students must change first. So, to the next generation of men: I invite you to question why that “bossy” girl in your class discussion is actually ticking you off, and to consciously choose to encourage women’s self-assurance in their work and worth. And to my fellow women: stop making yourself the butt of every joke. Verbalize your self-love as often as you can. Normalize giving yourself credit where credit is due–the next generation of young women deserve to live in a world where “relatable girls” are not just confident, but are relatable BECAUSE they’re confident.