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self-esteem: it’s not just about looks


Image: Dave Hogg

Image: Dave Hogg

Very few things get talked about more than ‘self-esteem’, or rather, the lack thereof. And after many news articles and prime-time television special reports, we are all very aware of the fact that when it comes to their looks, the majority of women (and men, I might add) are not feeling all that impressed with themselves. It is a disturbing thing to think that so many people out there are actively hating their appearances and spending inordinate amounts of time trying to change themselves. The discussion surrounding looks and self-esteem is a very important discussion to keep on having and it’s a problem that we, as a society, all need to work together to fix.

But with all of this worry about people not liking the way they look, we have ignored other self-esteem issues that often go deeper and can have a greater negative impact on people’s lives.

A while ago I attended a talk at the Australian National University about the glass ceiling. And while it was interesting in other ways, what really stuck out for me was when they were talking about the high rates of “imposter syndrome” in women. Imposter syndrome is when someone feels like a fraud and is just biding their time until someone figures out that they’re actually absolutely terrible at what they do. This, the psychologists argued,  has hindered women in the work force, as women are less likely to both draw attention to their achievements and apply for higher positions due to not feeling worthy of them. So what this translates to for me is that many women lack the self-esteem needed to take pride in the good work that they do and the skills that they have.

When we left the lecture, my friend turned to me and said that when they were talking about imposter syndrome, she felt as if they were talking about her. Now I have to add this girl is brilliant – she was consistently at the top of her class during her Masters in architecture. Yet she constantly doubts her abilities, despite all facts pointing to her being a very talented woman indeed.

And I have noticed this in both myself and the women in my life: when it comes to universities and jobs, we are always second-guessing ourselves and assuming that everyone around us is much more talented and capable than we are. Because of this, we often lack the confidence to go further and aim for what we really want, so sure we are that we’ll fail.

We are so often told to appreciate the way that we look, but we are rarely told to focus on our brains, our achievements or our talents. Yes, appreciating your body and feeling comfortable with your physical appearance is important, but I am starting to wonder if by placing so much importance on how a person feels about how they look, we are giving physical appearance a much larger place in life than it should have. And we are forgetting about just how much influence self-esteem issues have when they go beyond skin deep. Because while not liking how you look sucks, not liking who you are as a person goes beyond that.

How you look really isn’t the be all and end all that society acts like it is – even the advocates for positive body image. Who you are as a person, the good that you do, your talents and achievements – these are the things that make a difference. These are the qualities that change the word. And these are the things that we need to not only start paying more attention to, but celebrating the way that we currently celebrate appearance.

I have seen so many people fall into this trap of self-doubt and feeling inadequate. And I know that many more will continue to fall into this trap if we keep ranting about how attractive they are, but forgetting to ever remind them just how capable they are too.

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