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.