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Are girls better at liking themselves?

by Dr. Claudia Aguirre

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In an interview with Vanity Fair Caitlyn Jenner compares her Olympic gold to finding herself and her self-esteem: “It’s not about the fanfare, it’s not about people cheering in the stadium, it’s not about going down the street and everybody giving you ‘that a boy, Bruce,’ pat on the back, O.K. This is about your life.”

She seems to be saying that our self-worth, or how satisfied we are with ourselves, needs to come from somewhere deeper than the fleeting acceptance our society pays us, even if it occurs over a significant period of time. It’s hard to remember that others’ successes do not diminish our own, and that not living up to a stereotype is ok – in essence, it can be difficult to maintain our self-worth without comparing ourselves to others. And it seems that there are dramatic differences in how men and women experience self-esteem.

She and he

Children are socialized according to their gender from an early age. Some parents even paint their nurseries in gendered colours, like pink and blue, before their babies are even born. While boys are encouraged to be competitive and independent, girls are encouraged to be cooperative and interdependent, and to attend to their intuition and feelings. Studies suggest that there are gender differences in some aspects of self-esteem: compared with men who have higher levels of global self-esteem (“I am a smart man”), women develop self-worth based on feedback from others (“they like my cooking so I must be a good cook”). And girls tend to lose what psychologists dub the “positivity bias” compared with boys when they reach adolescence. This bias states that most people generally think of themselves in a pretty good light. What’s more, women are more susceptible to depression and eating disorders – conditions linked to lower self-esteem. They tend to ruminate more than men, which could lead to longer-lasting negative emotions. And this rumination can be a vicious cycle. Depressed patients have a tendency to ruminate on negative information about themselves, which leads to more depressive thoughts.

We can all do more to build awareness about others’ feelings, and how our actions could irrevocably affect their self-esteem.

However, being more in-tune with the greater group on a social level can have positive effects. Women score higher on moral-ethical self esteem, which suggests that they conduct themselves morally and ethically in line with a specified philosophy or religion more so than men. An interesting finding linking our skin’s sense of touch with emotions states that higher self-esteem correlates with greater activity in the posterior insula, an area involved in processing gentle touch. Think of how comforting a mother’s caress is – perhaps this touch not only helps us build trust and love (along with the plethora of physiological benefits), it may also literally boost our self-esteem. So next time someone says, “I’m touched by your generosity,” remember that the brain feels that act of kindness.

Finding ourselves

We live in a competitive world, where people are constantly and consistently judged. A recent study noted that men felt threatened by their female partner’s success, lowering their implicit (subconscious) self-esteem, while women’s self-esteem was not lowered by their male partner’s success. Researchers noted that men interpret “my partner is successful” as “my partner is more successful than me.” While we’re still teasing out the reasons behind the gender differences, perhaps cultural stereotypes are at play here: where there are strong gender stereotypes that are not compatible with reality, self-esteem may suffer. Caitlyn’s example is also a great reminder of those outside of the very simplified groupings known as male and female. We can all do more to build awareness about others’ feelings, and how our actions could irrevocably affect their self-esteem.

In a perfect world (the one where you live alone with magical creatures), self-esteem would spring only from your pure sense of ‘self,’ untainted by stereotypes and expectations. But the reality is, our world is full of gender stereotypes. What we can do is find a balanced way to interact with our world, while mitigating other’s expectations so they don’t negatively impact our psychological well being. In fact, mindfulness meditation practice has been shown to decrease MPFC activity, suggesting that it may help us reduce self-centered thoughts in exchange for an overall basic sense of self-awareness.

Dr. Claudia Aguirre

Dr. Claudia Aguirre is a neuroscientist and mind-body expert. She earned her doctorate degree in Neuroscience from the University of Southern California (USC), and she recently completed a year-long certificate course on Mindfulness, Yoga and Social Change from Loyola Marymount University. She is also a TED Ed educator, creating various neuroscience-related lessons, which have reached millions worldwide. She researches the latest science around mindfulness and meditation, and communicates these findings to the Headspace audience.