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Free Press
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TODAY books
updated 4/2/2012 10:16:22 AM ET 2012-04-02T14:16:22

In her new book, Haley Kilpatrick shares girls' true stories about surviving issues from bullies to body image. Here's an excerpt.

Chapter 1
Staying True to Her: Self-Esteem, Self-Awareness, and Self-Respect

“Every girl in this school wants to be someone else.”  — Bridget, thirteen, New Jersey

As a little girl, I loved to dance. I started taking ballet lessons when I was three years old and from then on practiced routines for hours in front of the mirrored wall in our living room. Throughout elementary school, I even gave impromptu performances for my parents and their friends. When a new round of classes began each year, I’d race to the store with my mom to buy a new leotard, skirt, and pair of tights.

When the popular girls in my grade started to exclude me — and when I no longer had my best friend, Maryashley, to talk to — dance became even more essential. For me, it wasn’t just a hobby or a form of exercise; it was my lifeline. I signed up for three classes a week and practiced for two hours a day. When I danced, I went into the zone: I forgot about whatever mean thing had been said to me that day or the weekend sleepover that I hadn’t been invited to. Only a few girls from my school were in those classes, so I didn’t feel as if I was under that same microscope. Plus, all the girls were at different levels of experience, and we were all there because we loved to dance. I wasn’t the best dancer at my studio, but I did feel at home there. I knew what I was doing and felt confident in my abilities.

But sometime around seventh grade, all of this changed. I didn’t try as hard to excel: I was suddenly scared of falling and being perceived as a klutz. They used to place me in the front row during recitals, but now I was put in the middle, or the back, because I wasn’t shining as much during class as I had. And the worst part was that I felt relieved at that change: if I didn’t try to get back on top, then I wouldn’t be in the spotlight.

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Now, as an adult, I see what was going on. My insecurity at school among the girls in my grade had touched other parts of my life. I wasn’t trying as hard because I didn’t want to be noticed; I didn’t want to be judged by the girls in my dance class in the same way that my classmates criticized me. There was less pressure, less attention, less drama that way.

That intense self-consciousness held me back — and I know now that it holds back other girls too. Girls who might want to try out for the soccer team or debate club might second-guess that urge out of a fear of being ridiculed or stereotyped. Many tween girls feel the same way I did: they just want to blend in without attracting attention because they’re so worried they’ll be scrutinized or made fun of. Since everyone’s feeling insecure, it becomes especially easy to criticize others; they’re just hoping to deflect any potential teasing.

Middle schoolers are faced with overwhelming changes — biological, hormonal, social, emotional — in a very short period of time, culminating in a perfect storm of selfconsciousness. Without knowing how to handle all these new issues, they find it easy to target others in an attempt to stave off that underlying anxiety.

This is why the three years between sixth and eighth grade are an incredibly fragile period, and why it’s vitally important for a girl to have a strong sense of self before she enters middle school. If your tween girl isn’t aware of who she is and what she’s about, she won’t have the confidence to try new things, take risks, or take a stand — no matter what anyone says.

Given all this, it’s understandable why girls so often base their sense of self on how other people see them. What does self-esteem mean? Here’s what our tween girls said:

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“When I think of self-esteem, I think of if you feel good about yourself, or if you let people tease you. A lot of girls think they’re ugly. They’re so hard on themselves. I think a lot of girls don’t like the way they’re made.” — Emma, twelve, New Jersey

“Self-esteem is how you see yourself. It has a lot to do with how others see you, and if you take that in or not, and a lot of people do take that in.” — Kelly, thirteen, New Jersey

Every girl answered with a version of the same idea: that self-esteem is all about what other people think and how that affects her opinion of herself — not how she sees herself regardless of the opinions of others. Most of our girls didn’t feel that they knew their core self, that solid ground of their personality that was exclusively them. They didn’t mention their families, their grades, their love of sports or music or other after-school activities, their connection to their religion, or even their general feelings about who they were on the inside. Instead, their self-esteem depended on where they fell on the social ladder and whether they were victims of teasing (factors that can change daily, even instantly).

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If girls’ confidence in middle school is based on how their peers see them at any given moment, then it’s no wonder that it drops drastically during this time when everyone’s social status becomes unstable. It’s something psychologists, researchers, and writers began to tell parents in the mid-1990s, when a host of books about girls’ self-esteem, like Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia and Peggy Orenstein’s Schoolgirls, appeared on bookshelves across the country. These researchers found that girls who were curious, confident, and brimming with enthusiasm and zest for life in grade school often morphed into introverted, insecure middle schoolers. Their test scores dropped, and where they once were the first to answer questions in class, they now hardly raised their hands.

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Pamela, mother of a middle school girl, describes watching this transformation in her daughter. “The confidence drop happens overnight,” she says. “A lot of it has to do with this expectation of how they’re supposed to act. Over the summer, so many of her friends were getting ready for middle school, changing everything about themselves. When she started school, it was like you could almost watch her shoulders hunching, her head drop down. She wasn’t a victim of bullying, but it wasn’t safe, like elementary school.”

Why does this happen? Twelve-year-old New Jersey native Emma offers this explanation: “In fourth grade, you don’t think about yourself too much,” she says. But in sixth grade, girls do think about themselves . . . all the time. And the comparisons start in earnest; they’re wondering, Am I pretty enough, smart enough, cool enough — for my friends, for the popular group, for the guys? Rebecca, a thirteen-year-old Texan, is brutally honest about how her insecurities drive her to think about whether she needs to somehow “fix” herself to be accepted: “I’d like to know how I look through other people’s eyes,” she says. “Sometimes when I have quiet moments, I start thinking bad things, like, ‘What if I’m not right? What if something is wrong with me? What do I need to do to change myself?’ I’ll make a new play list on my iTunes to make me feel cooler. I’ll go through my whole room and change everything. I’ll go to the bathroom and give myself a new makeup look.”

Your tween girl’s social sphere now matters a million times more than it did in elementary school. So every decision she makes, no matter how trivial, often needs to pass a peer-approval process, similar to what Rebecca noted. At the same time, the teasing has ramped up — many girls talk about how hard it is to avoid the cruelty from other girls or from guys — so they’re spending a lot of psychic energy just trying to avoid embarrassing comments from their peers (who are, as we mentioned earlier, all too quick to repress and stave off their own insecurity by attacking others). “It’s pretty difficult to keep your self-esteem up,” says Valerie, a twelve-year-old in Michigan. “Just the other day a boy in my class told me I was ugly, right to my face.”

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What’s the major way that girls try to deal with these pressures? From what they tell us — and it’s something every parent or teacher of tween girls knows—they’ll do it by conforming and trying to fit in. But that’s not a process girls are blindly going through. They’re not just trying to instantaneously morph into an Everygirl who can magically avoid all teasing and who will always win the support of her peers. They know they’re changing to please others, and not everyone’s okay with that. For many of them, it’s a supremely uncomfortable line to walk, but they’re not sure what to do instead. Charlotte and Emma are walking that exact tightrope — they’re torn between wanting to be true to themselves and wanting to fit in with their classmates:

“It’s hard to just be myself. I don’t want to fit in 100 percent and end up wearing what everyone is wearing, but I don’t want to stand out a lot of the time, because then you’ll feel weird for being totally different.” — Charlotte, twelve, California

“When I first got to middle school, my friends and I split up, because they started wearing makeup, and I wasn’t wearing makeup yet. When I was twelve, my mom let me wear makeup, and people started liking me. I didn’t feel like myself, but I made more friends. I was acting fake, but it helped me through the first half of my middle school year. I wish that I could relax and be completely myself. I want people to like me for who I am — but at the same time, I don’t want to get made fun of.” — Emma, twelve, New Jersey

The girl who stays true to herself through it all, who can do exactly what she wants to do, whether it’s socially acceptable or not, is rare, says Kris, a middle school counselor. “It all depends on the girl: The more power she thinks  she has, the more she can do what she wants. If she feels confident enough to say, ‘I’m done with dance class because I really want to play ultimate Frisbee,’ it would be an interesting move. But it would really depend on the rest of her friends deciding together, ‘Is that the cool thing to do, or should we ostracize her?’”

Copyright © 2012 Haley Kilpatrick From the book "The Drama Years," published by Free Press. Reprinted with permission.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive

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