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Girls with Low Self-Esteem: Overdone Trope or Realism? – Discussion Post

Girls with Low Self-Esteem: Overdone Trope or Realism?

Mimi from Digimon AdventureI don’t have any childhood memories of women or girls in books or movies that I aspired to be like. Sure, I had a favourite Spice Girl, but I didn’t want to be her. I was more jealous of the kids in Digimon that got to go to a foreign land and have pets that spoke to them. And yet, I have a good amount of memories of girls in media and books that annoyed me. They were petty, their voices were too high, or they never did anything ‘cool’. With the singular exception of Mimi (yes, from Digimon) who for some reason I clung to. Partially because of all the pink, but also because she had a lot of heart despite being kind of ditzy and she kicked butt with Palmon—omg my nerd is so exposed…

Now, as an adult, I feel a need to examine any female role models I had and why I liked them. Why Mimi and not Sora (the soccer-playing tomboy) or Kari (the kid sister who befriended a villain)?

In fiction and especially YA, there’s a focus on creating characters that are realistic and admirable. The benefits are a call for diversity and the inclusion of active female leads. Meaning female leads that are essential to the plot and DO things instead of waiting for someone to save them. People, not plot points. And yet, this trope of the girl who doesn’t think she’s good at anything, special, or pretty remains. It toes the line of representing people who suffer from low self-esteem and presenting as a negative trope that presents young girls as unable to feel good about themselves.

As a note, when I speak about female characters feeling attractive, I’m talking about their personal evaluation. Not attractive to boys. But the self-esteem that comes from believing that you’re a worthy, talented, and attractive human being.

Girls unsure of their abilities

We all feel unsure at times. There are things we don’t think we’re any good at, or areas where we feel lacking. And from these feelings insecurities grow. Personally, I sucked at sports. I felt this with every bone in my body, and so I always picked a team position where I wouldn’t ‘screw things up’ for my team. I’ve had friends with physical scars and acne who constantly worried people were staring at them and avoided going outside without makeup or being photographed. In many ways, seeing these fears reflected in a character is refreshing. But when is it too much?

Who doesn’t roll their eyes at the ‘plain’ girl who insists that she isn’t special that discovers a secret power? And then even after discovering the secret power still laments about how unspecial she is. Or how useless she’ll be at using said power. Or the girl who is positive that she’s as plain as can be, but somehow has all these unbelievable things happen to her like being revealed to be a long-lost princess.

Strong females that can’t see themselves as attractive

Then there are the female characters who are badass and confident in their skills. Maybe they were a little shaky and unsure in the beginning, but they come into themselves to become great fighters and leaders. But then you put them into a fancy outfit and all they can talk about is how stupid and plain they look. Or otherwise, how they look like a stranger. It blows their goddamn mind that they could look beautiful at all. And simultaneously suggests that it hadn’t occurred to them to even think about being attractive when they were doing all that butt kicking.

Confidence in abilities gets praised while feeling good about your physical appearance is shoved in the background. There’s a difference between not caring/worrying about looks and believing that there’s nothing particularly pleasant about your body.

Real-life mirrored in fiction

Is this just realism? Does the average girl see her own insecurities reflected in the character and relate to them more for that? After all, there are girls that kick butt but feel uncomfortable getting all dressed up. It’s natural that some girls would feel confident in one area while feeling differently about another. When I was younger I distinctly remembering having confidence in my intelligence and grades but had trouble seeing myself as pretty. That being said, I also had a lot of days where I did feel attractive. But there were girls I knew (was friends with too) that almost never felt attractive.

Or is it something else parading as realism? I don’t know about you, but when a book describes a character as insanely beautiful and special, but the character can only find negative things to say about themselves, I roll my eyes to high heaven. Despite knowing that there are people in the world who feel that way.

Role models in fiction

Do we want to read about female leads with low self-esteem? Or do we want to read about girls who are able to believe in and accept themselves as they are? I have to wonder if Bella Swan would be a more attractive character if she accepted being special and beautiful and owned it. And owned it before a boy came along to tell her she was special and beautiful. Or if as a teenage girl that would have felt insincere. I  don’t know if reading about a female character that confident in herself would make teenagers admire her, or if toss her off as unrealistic. Would we say ‘there’s no one my age like that, this isn’t a real person?’

Final Thoughts

There seems to be a balance between a character that has low self-esteem and a character that has insecurities. Insecurities are something we all have, even those with high self-esteem, and can come and go all our lives. Low self-esteem feels more pervasive and can permeate all aspects of someone’s life. It reads more as a feeling of not being good at anything or special in any way than having insecurities about some things.

But in our world, there are girls with low self-esteem. They exist. There are girls that feel down on themselves every day no matter what ‘facts’ lay in front of them. Is it more beneficial for them to see themselves reflected in these characters that save the day despite their feelings of inadequacy, or to read about a character overcoming insecurities and saving that day as a direct result of it?

What female characters in books or media did you admire when growing up? Why?

Let me know in the comments!

PS. As someone who went through bullying and being an overweight child, I think I will always prefer characters like Mimi that felt good about themselves. The envy I felt for characters that truly liked themselves made me want to be able to do the same. Which I was able to do overtime. I felt brought down by characters that thought they were terrible at everything, even while understanding their feelings. But I’m genuinely curious about what other people think.

20 Comments

  • Yudith @ raisefrequency

    August 20, 2017 at 2:22 am

    The character that I admired as a teen is Scarlett from “Gone with the wind”. She had some insecurities but not low self-esteem. The qualities that I admire in her are strength, courage and determination. My favourite scene is the end of the book or movie when she declares fearlessly and passionately her determination to re-build her land and her world.
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  • Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight

    September 1, 2016 at 6:01 am

    Oh, I was just ranting about this on someone’s blog yesterday! I am very tired of the low self-esteem female MC trope. Especially since it’s always ridiculously obvious that they’re actually gorgeous and smart and good at various different things and like 7 boys are interested in them. The fact of the matter is, there *are* teens out there with low self-esteem, but there are also teens out there with confidence, and I know because I was one. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a single insecurity or ever think a negative thought about myself, it was just that I accepted myself and put myself out there and took risks and all that anyway. I think the problem is that many people equate confidence to cockiness, but they’re not the same thing. It’s like, confidence is having the guts to try out for a school play and thinking maybe you have a shot if you practice enough, and cockiness is just assuming you’re going to get the lead and not even bothering to practice. But it seems that the confident characters, who are usually side characters, are portrayed negatively.

    But a little more back on topic, I think it’s ok to have some MCs with low self-esteem, but I don’t think it’s good that it’s starting to be portrayed as the norm and almost like it’s a good thing. It’s almost like it’s showing them they *should* be that way. We should be showing young girls NOT to think so negatively about themselves! A book that did this really well I thought was The Hypnotic City by Andrea Berthot. The MC did have some insecurities, but she never let them stop her, never felt like less or unlovable because of them. I’d like to see more books like that.

    Great post!
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    • ltlibrarian

      September 1, 2016 at 8:07 am

      I completely see what you’re talking about as it being portrayed as the norm or a good thing. I’ve read a few books where low self esteem seemed thrown in like a ‘cute little quirk’ on the level of being clumsy. And certainly there are girls that have a lot going for them that can still have low self esteem. But for sure the average girl won’t have a million guys chasing them and all this amazing stuff happening to them. I wonder if that wouldn’t just make readers with low self esteem feel worse and make it more difficult to relate to that character.

      But I agree that if books are going to show a character that thinks negatively about themselves, there should be an assertion that, that’s not how it should be. Clearly, we want young girls to have confidence and good self-esteem. And I know what you mean about that character coming off negatively. Like that popular girl with confidence is also often the bully. And it would be great to move away from those tropes

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  • verushka

    August 25, 2016 at 7:09 am

    This is a thought-provoking discussion. Hm. I think, there are readers who are going to respond to every time of female character you described above, but I also think that in part is fuelled by what publishers put out there. If Bella Swan sells, they’ll publish more like her, but thankfully I don’t think that’s a case. I’ve loved the badass characters and then I’ve fallen out of love with them and prefer the perhaps more emotionally complicated ones who aren’t as badass. I go through stages, and it ultimately just depends on the author and the plot for me.
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    • ltlibrarian

      August 25, 2016 at 6:19 pm

      That’s a great point about publishers and the writing market. And for sure the more badass female character is more popular these days. I can understand going through phases too. Especially as you get older and go through different places in life or read more and get tired of reading a certain type of charaxter

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  • Got My Book

    August 22, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    I don’t mind insecurities or even low self esteem unless it is taken to the extreme. An example that comes to mind is a character who had everyone(!) telling her she was attractive or that she looked like her Mom (who she thought was beautiful) but she still thought she was ugly. To me, that speaks of a mental or emotional issue that needs to be acknowledged & dealt with by a professional.

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    • ltlibrarian

      August 22, 2016 at 1:20 pm

      Exactly! I think in those case it goes farther than just insecurities and is more indicative of a serious problem that requires professional help. In which case a character that just overcomes that from some external issue may not be realistic. In situations like this it would be great to have acknowledgement of the seriousness of the situation. Or scenes of the character getting help from a professional like you said would be really positive

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  • Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight

    August 20, 2016 at 1:40 am

    Um, this post is freaking AMAZING. I have been trying to decide how I feel about the question, and it is SO thought provoking- I have been debating with myself so much! On one hand, I think the low self-esteem character IS incredibly realistic. I know her, I am her. I am like your friends who have legitimately NEVER felt attractive, or comfortable in their own skin. But then… I wonder if it is a bit of a cyclical situation- we see these characters who have no self esteem, and then suddenly they’ve saving the world and getting the guy, and that obviously isn’t happening to most of us in life, so we feel even worse, so the cycle just keeps going?

    The ideal way to handle this, just for me personally, is that the character gets like, actual help for some of these self-esteem issues. I am talking the serious ones, not the little self-doubts that everyone has, I think those are FINE- more than fine, necessary, often. It’s like, if a character is insecure about her role in a play, or her ability at her sport in the big game, or whatever, that’s real. Then overcoming it makes sense! Good life message, etc. But if the character is legit unhappy with themselves, feels ugly, incompetent, unlovable, whatever… some magical thing isn’t going fix that, and that is an AWFUL message to send, IMO. Because if you feel like an ugly duckling, you’re probably not going to get magical powers, and some gorgeous guy/girl your age from wherever isn’t going to waltz into your life and sweep you off your feet… and that I feel is setting girls up for more of the same doubts and esteem issues.

    This post is seriously amazing, I am going to go read everyone’s answers!
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    • ltlibrarian

      August 22, 2016 at 9:02 am

      Yay! I’m happy you like it, I’m never sure whether discussions I bring up are things people wonder about or not. And this is the sort of situation where I wonder if it feels insincere because of course most girls in real life aren’t having a bunch of amazing things happen to them.

      Yes! Insecurities makes sense and so does characters overcoming them. But people that have pervasively low self-esteem may end up reading those experiences as things that would be impossible for them to achieve or would never happen for them.

      Whereas a character that has low self-esteem and goes to group or individual therapy, or even online help in forums, that’s something achievable. While a character that never feels like they’re good at anything that is constantly saving the world etc. becomes so unrealistic that I can see it being discouraging.

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  • Molly @ Molly's Book Nook

    August 19, 2016 at 11:45 am

    This is a tough one. On one token, I appreciate when there are characters with low self esteem but then end up doing something great. I think it kind of shows the reader like “hey, even though you feel this way about yourself, you can still do great things, so come on, cheer up”. I was bullied since 4th grade. So 8 years of bullying didn’t do much for my self esteem. But I remember when I would read a book about a girl who felt the same as me, but then did something great, I was like YEAH SEE, I CAN DO THAT TOO!

    But then there are the confident characters, which to be honest, I can only think of one off the top of my head (Throne of Glass). And I didn’t read that book until this year. So, as an adult, I’m like HELL YEAH, but as a teenager with insecurities, I might have associated her with the “popular girls” or the “preppy kids”, and then disliked her, you know?

    But then do the insecure characters just promote that insecure mentality? I think it just depends on the reader and how they relate to each character. You pose a very difficult question here hahah
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    • ltlibrarian

      August 22, 2016 at 8:36 am

      These are great points! I think seeing a character with lower self-esteem get better and accomplish things they didn’t think they could do can be inspiring for others struggling. While someone that was confident from the beginning, may be great for people who feel good about themselves, but may feel unrelateble for someone who doesn’t.

      But yes, there is that catch of does seeing insecure characters just promote the idea that girls should naturally feel insecure. It is hard to pin down!

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  • Grace @ Rebel Mommy Book Blog

    August 19, 2016 at 7:07 am

    Really interesting post!! I think it is good to have girls with low self-esteem and insecurities represented because they exist. I love it when they can overcome those feelings to any extent. I do hate when a girl is really good at something and can’t accept that she is or is attractive but won’t believe anyone about it. While I know that can be realistic too it annoys me more. As far as who I admired I can’t even really think of anyone which is sad. Great discussion!
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    • ltlibrarian

      August 19, 2016 at 9:40 am

      Yes, it is another type of representation. I think it comes down to how that representation is done, like anything else. And I’m with you on loving them overcoming, but think the ‘to any extent’ you mention is important. They don’t need to suddenly feel good about themselves 24/7, but it’s great to see some positive development.

      Yes, this is my issue too. To see a character that’s clearly succeeding to talk like they’re a failure. It may resonate with some people, but I find it a hard pill to swallow myself.

      That is sad 🙁 It was hard for me to think of a character as well. But nowadays there’s more of an abundance of positive female role models in characters, so I feel somewhat better about younger generations.

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  • ShootingStarsMag

    August 19, 2016 at 1:28 am

    Interesting topic! I think the biggest issue for me is when we keep getting these characters that are described as plain or whatever and then more than one guy is ALL OVER THEM. This is unrealistic to me who is in her twenties and never dated anyone. I had issues with the way I looked, and I still do but I feel like it’s getting better, and reading about these type of girls? Kind of annoying. I do think it’s important to have characters with flaws though and things that maybe they aren’t that secure about. It makes them more realistic. I do want them to be okay with other aspects of themselves though or at least fight to be okay with herself because those are better examples for young girls reading.
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    • ltlibrarian

      August 19, 2016 at 9:32 am

      I can see that for sure. Especially because I feel like those characters are made specifically to appeal to the reader. Like ‘look at this plain girl who doesn’t like herself but still gets all this attention. this could be you!’ Except being an average girl and having 2+ guys fight over you never happens. Moreover, it seems to put emphasis on the male attention vs. the girl’s feelings about herself.

      Yes! That’s a great point about seeing them fight to be okay with themselves. Even if they don’t overcome that insecurity, there’s a lot of power in showing a character that wants to do that. Because overcoming insecurities isn’t easy, but readers should be encouraged to try instead of walking around waiting for a flock of guys to come along and validate them.

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  • Briana @ Pages Unbound

    August 18, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    I like a variety of characters, so I think it really depends on my mood. And I know that the characters who don’t appeal to me may really speak to someone else, so I try to keep that in mind even when I don’t really love a book. Some people want “role model” characters; some people want to see characters who have the same flaws they do. 🙂

    I think the other thing going on is that “strong female protagonists” were a BIG thing around The Hunger Games fad. It seemed like everyone was kickass and confident. That’s great, but also kind of boring, if there’s no variety. It’s also not really a personality type I relate to. I love seeing characters who are quiet but strong. Strength isn’t always about being loud or confrontational. But more “flaweed” characters with less confidence may be partially a reaction to the trend.
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    • ltlibrarian

      August 18, 2016 at 3:37 pm

      Some people want “role model” characters; some people want to see characters who have the same flaws they do.” – this is true, it feels split.

      Yes, the strong female character is out in droves. But I know what you mean, characters from multiple books felt like they had blended personalities. And it only seemed to cater to physical strength vs emotional in that quiet but strong way you mentioned.

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  • Caitlin @ Words and Other Beasts

    August 18, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    Really interesting post! I agree that it’s become too prevalent in YA for female protagonists to constantly be complaining about how plain they are and disbelieving when people say otherwise. Like you said, everyone has insecurities, and it would be unrealistic for a character to be completely and utterly sure of themselves 100% of the time. I like characters to have some doubts and insecurities, but to be constantly plagued by them is just difficult to read about really. It can be quite draining for the reader and sometimes I find myself feeling insecure after reading about a character who is exaggeratedly so! This isn’t a good thing so I think of course characters should have insecurities, but I want to see them overcome it. If a character has low self esteem, it should be an integral part of the plot. Otherwise, it just creates this idea that all girls should be deeply insecure.
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    • ltlibrarian

      August 18, 2016 at 3:58 pm

      I can sympathize with starting to feel down on yourself when reading about a character that constantly dismisses themselves. There’s a fine line between character insecurities and low self-esteem. Though the latter does exist. And personally, I agree that I like to see the character overcome at least some (not all) of their insecurities.

      And there is that backlash of this being shown as a distinctly female issue. It’s the female characters that feel insecure and often the male characters are the complete opposite. In cases like that it does seem to promote the idea of girls inherently being insecure.

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