Ophelia redux

09.29.134:45 AM ET

Why Are Girls Losing Self-Esteem During College?

New research shows that girls are losing confidence during college at an alarming rate. Is hook up culture to blame?

College is supposed to be a time of fun and learning, of making new friends and finding out who you want to be. Unfortunately, it might not be working that way for young women. Boston College set out to track the personal development of students by polling them on a variety of issues in their freshmen year and then checking back in on them when they’re graduating. The study revealed something depressing and frankly shocking: While the young men gained self-confidence over their four years in college, the young women actually had lower self-esteem when they graduated college than when they started it. This, even though they had higher grades on average than the mean. What’s going on?

Unsurprisingly, “hook-up culture” was floated as the immediate villain in an article in the student newspaper The Heights. The chair of Boston College’s marketing department suggested that a supposed lack of long-term relationship possibilities and the pervasiveness of promiscuity was to blame. “I used to see people holding hands on campus,” she told student journalist Mary Rose Fissinger. “My students used to get married—to each other. And that’s totally disappeared.”

It’s an appealing image that plugs directly into long-standing stereotypes about how women “need” male devotion more than men need women, but sadly, the real world evidence remains unsound to assert that casual sex is destroying our young women today. It would be nice if it could all just be reduced to our mental image of the sad young co-ed, left alone by a callous man, wondering if she’s ever going to find real love, but there’s not reason to think that’s as endemic a problem as the media portrays. As Lisa Wade wrote for the Los Angeles Times, college students do not actually “hook up” as often as the hysterical media accounts would have you believe. In addition, the fear that they never form long-term relationships is completely overblown—about three-quarters of college students have a monogamous, long-term relationship at some point in college.

But that doesn’t mean that the instinct to look to the culture of dating and sex on campus is completely wrong. The problem, however, isn’t how many partners young women have, but the kind of treatment they can expect to get from those partners. In a paper about the issue by sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong, Laura Hamilton, and Paula England, the real problem was laid out: Whether dating or just hooking up, college is a time of profound inequality between men and women. Women described hooking up as a situation fraught with disrespect and cited fears of being called a “slut”. Women in relationships, however, were often no better off. Women complained of demanding boyfriends who wanted the women to put the relationships ahead of their studies, spats over jealousy, boyfriends who exerted total control over their social lives, and even abuse.

When I contacted Lisa Wade and asked for her thoughts, she agreed that while hook-up culture can have effects on self-esteem, especially as it’s “a system that depends on everyone pretending not to really like one another.” But, “singling out hook up culture as harmful to women's self-esteem is a misdirection of our energies.”

“Ultimately I think the concern with hook up culture as the culprit for women might be motivated by a discomfort with naming the real problem,” Wade said. That problem being, of course, “the ongoing privileging of men and masculinity in our society.”

The impossibly high and often contradictory expectations put on women in the college dating scene are just part of the larger problem. Young men generally feel they are measured against the concept of “good”, but young women all too often are made to feel anything less than “perfect” makes them a failure. In her 2007 book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, Courtney Martin described young women feeling they were expected to achieve “effortless perfection,” a term she picked up from a Duke student who said young women live under “the expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, and that all this would happen without visible effort.” Effort being, of course, very unfeminine and likely to make people feel guilty for seeing you trying so hard. Never being a burden to others is part of the expectation of effortless perfection.

While perfect girl syndrome starts early—research shows girls in elementary school worried about being perfect at all things all the time—college is no doubt a particularly fraught time for young women who have absorbed the expectation of effortless perfection. Already the perfect girls are juggling a regime of trying to look perfect, trying to please the overly high expectations from young men, trying to make good grades, and trying to have meaningful outside activities and friendships. Add to that the responsibilities of adulthood that start to creep in when you enroll in college, and no wonder young women start to feel bad about themselves. The fact that so many other young women are projecting an image of effortless perfection around them has to only make it worse. They can’t know that those other girls are struggling just as hard as they are.

If young women have absorbed the idea that they have to be twice as good to be taken half as seriously, can we blame them? In a lot of ways, that’s just an accurate assessment of the world we live in, where women routinely get called “fat” and “ugly” for the slightest infractions against rigid beauty standards. Women who exhibit ambition often still get derided and abused, whereas men are praised or at least just accepted. When you walk down the street, there are men everywhere eager to put you in your place by harassing you. If you try to express yourself online, you get a concentrated dose of the same sexual harassment. Trying to be “perfect” starts to seem like the most logical bulwark against a world that constantly wants to abuse you just because you’re a woman.

That you’re going to face a lot more derision and judgment than men is a lesson that most women learn eventually. In 1994, Mary Pipher put parents and high schools on notice about what this meant for teenage girls in her book Reviving Ophelia. She described the way that confident, boisterous young girls routinely hit adolescence and see their self-esteem take a plunge. Not coincidentally, this also happened to be the first time girls experienced the routine objectification and derision aimed at you simply for being female.

Reviving Ophelia helped change a lot about how high school age girls experience the world. Keeping girls from having their self-esteem plummet became a mission for schools and parents. Nowadays, we have extensive self-esteem-boosting extracurricular activities and anti-bullying initiatives to help dial down the hit that girls take when they become teenagers. Parents are more mindful these days of the importance of bolstering their girls’ self-esteem.

These are all great things, but perhaps an unintended side effect is that the dawning realization that the world thinks less of you for being female is merely kicked down the road a few years. Maybe instead of learning that you’re going to have it harder simply because you’re a woman isn’t learned at the hands of adolescent bullies as much, but instead being learned at the hands of sexist joke-sprouting frat boys and pompous tenured professors who engage their male students more than their female ones in class.

There are certainly a number of things that could be done to make the culture of college campuses safer and more welcoming to young women: Programs to train professors to practice gender equality in class, feminist lectures and events, anti-sexual harassment training and training in sexual consent and health, putting more emphasis on female athletics, trying to show the gender equality in the faculty that you want in the student body. But above all things, we need to start acknowledging that things are often not that rosy for college women, and start doing a better job of conveying to them a very simple message, that if they feel like the world is coming down on them too hard and asking too much, it’s not because they aren’t perfect enough. It’s because the world isn’t fair to women, though bit by bit, it is getting better.