Girls, Women, and Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is a term used to describe your relative regard for yourself. People with healthy levels of self-esteem typically see themselves and others in positive terms. However, people with excessive amounts of self-regard tend to have an inflated opinion of themselves and a deflated opinion of others. Conversely, people with low self-esteem typically have a deflated or negative opinion of themselves and an inflated opinion of others. Girls and women frequently have relatively low levels of self-esteem. In turn, low self-esteem plays a role in the onset of a number of mental health disorders that affect girls and women disproportionately, including eating disorders, clinical depression and anxiety.

Self-Esteem Basics

People start developing their sense of self-esteem at a very early age. The Mayo Clinic identifies initial factors in the development of relative self-esteem that include a child’s self-perception and thought processes; the actions or reactions a child perceives from others; the culture and religion in which a child is raised; social class; various experiences that occur in school or other social or public environments; and abuse and other traumatic events that occur during childhood. A wide variety of adult experiences can extend or alter the basic level of self-esteem established during childhood, including specific work experiences, peer interactions, general social status, and the effects of additional traumatic events.

Close familial and social relationships have a huge effect on a person’s relative level of self-esteem, and the day-to-day experience of those relationships can go a long way toward creating a healthy self-regard or, conversely, creating a deeply unhealthy self-regard. For instance, children exposed to verbal or physical abuse tend to experience strongly negative influences on their sense of self, while children exposed to reinforcing or supportive statements and actions tend to experience strongly positive influences on their sense of self. The truly harmful effects of low self-esteem typically occur when a child or adult internalizes negative outside influences and starts to believe in the validity of the damaging statements or actions directed toward them.

Eating Disorders and Low Self-Esteem

A number of studies demonstrate the links between self-esteem and the eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. For example, a study published in 2011 in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology examined degrees of self esteem in a large group of 11- and 12-year-old girls, then re-examined the same group of girls when they reached the ages of 15 and 16. Girls in the study who reported low levels of self-esteem at the ages of 11 and 12 had much higher chances of developing an eating disorder over the next four years than girls who reported high levels of self-esteem when they were 11 or 12. A second study, published in 2009 in the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, found that effective treatment for eating disorders produces, among other things, significant improvements in self-esteem.

Interestingly, many of the girls and young women at risk for anorexia or bulimia come from middle class or upper middle class backgrounds, perform well academically and have generally high expectations for personal achievement. When females from these backgrounds perform below their expectations in academics or in any other area, a lack of fully developed coping skills can lead to serious drops in self-esteem and contribute to the onset of some form of disordered eating.

Depression and Low Self-Esteem

People with depression and people with low self-esteem share a number of characteristics, including unusual self-consciousness, aggressiveness, the tendency to withdraw from social situations or avoid them altogether, frequent involvement in substance abuse, involvement in other risk-taking or reckless behaviors, problems with intimate or interpersonal relationships, and a decline in academic performance. While the two conditions are intermingled and mutually reinforcing, low self-esteem typically acts as a risk factor for the onset of depression. In turn, women develop some form of medically serious depression roughly twice as frequently as men.

Anxiety and Low Self-Esteem

Anxiety is the general term for a group of disorders that produce disruptive or debilitating levels of feelings such as worry, fear, nervousness, irritability, dread, and restlessness. Forms of anxiety linked to low self-esteem include conditions called generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social phobia (social anxiety disorder) and panic disorder. In some cases, low self-esteem can act as a catalyst for anxiety. In other cases, people with anxiety disorders experience low self-esteem as a symptom of their condition. As with clinical depression, women develop various forms of medically serious anxiety about twice as frequently as men.

Posted on May 14th, 2013

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