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Reader's Companion to SchoolGirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, And The Confidence Gap
by Peggy Orenstein in Association with the American Association of University Women

Anchor paperback, ISBN 0-385-42576-7, $12.95 (US)/$16.95(CAN)

Reader's Companion ISBN: 0-385-48074-1; Copyright © 1995 by Anchor Books, Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036


1. Peggy Orenstein talks about SchoolGirls
2. About the Author
3. Some statistics from SchoolGirls
4. Create your own discussion group
5. Questions for Discussion
6. Recommended Reading

Peggy Orenstein talks about SchoolGirls and why she wrote the book:

When I first met the young women I wrote about in SchoolGirls, I had no idea of how their lives would unfold during our year together, no notion of the stories they would tell me. I only know that, after reading the American Association of University Women (AAUW) report Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America and other research on adolescent girls, I was left wondering: What is it like -- what does it look like, sound like, feel like -- to be a girl in America today? I wanted to offer that missing piece: the voices and actions of real girls who were struggling to define themselves at a crucial juncture in their lives. To that end, the process of reporting this book quickly became a series of running conversations. There were the conversations with parents who wanted the best for their children, with teachers who were (or were not) struggling with issues of equity in the classroom, and, most important, with the girls themselves, who discussed their lives so candidly and with such startling insight.

My hope is that SchoolGirls will inspire that same urge to talk among its readers. I hope that it will encourage discussion about how we are raising and educating our daughters, as well as about how we were raised and educated ourselves. And I hope that, through those conversations, through those extensions of the "gender journey" the reader takes in the book, we can begin to find ways to raise stronger, more confident girls.

About the Author

Peggy Orenstein was formerly managing editor of Mother Jones magazine, and was a founding editor of the award-winning 7 Days magazine. She has served on the editorial staffs of Manhattan, Inc. and Esquire, and her work has appeared in such publications as the New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Glamour, The New Yorker, New York Woman, and Mirabella. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Some statistics from SchoolGirls

* By high school, nearly half of the boys say they are "happy the way I am," as opposed to less than a third of the girls. Boys are also far more likely than girls to reject negative characterizations such as "I wish I were somebody else" and "I don't like myself."

* Two-thirds of girls have a negative body image. Girls with a negative body image are more likely to suffer from depression and to develop eating disorders. Teenage girls are twice as likely as boys to say they feel sad and hopeless, and four to five times more likely to attempt suicide.

* The number of girls under the age of twelve seeking help for severe eating disorders doubled in the late 1980s. Up to 40% of nine-year-olds today are dieting.

* Up to 55% of middle and junior high school students have had sexual intercourse. Girls who have sex as young teenagers regret their decision at twice the rate of boys. Young sexually active girls have lower self-esteem than their non-active counterparts, but boys show no such difference.

* Physically active girls have higher self-esteem than their non-active counterparts. Yet when sports activities are coed -- such as in school gym class -- girls' confidence in their athletic abilities plummets.

* 85% of girls say they are sexually harassed at school; one third of girls who have been harassed report not wanting to go to school because of the harassment; one third of harassed girls say they do not want to speak up in class because of harassment. More than half of students who are harassed say the incidents occur during class.

Create your own discussion group

One way for girls to inform and empower themselves is through the creation of in-school "girl groups" like the one started by a group of seventh-grade girls at the University of Chicago Lab School. Inspired by SchoolGirls, nearly half of the seventh-grade girls and their teachers met regularly to grapple with issues of sexual harassment and gender inequity in their educations. The girls discussed the teachers who call on boys more, the boys who make humiliating personal remarks, the gym teachers who assume girls are no good at sports. As a result of these meetings a committee from the group is drafting a proposal for a school policy on sexual harassmsent, the seventh-grade boys who at first feared and jeered at the group have now formed their own, and, since the girls began their "girls group," many in the school feel that tensions between girls and boys have decreased.

Questions for Discussion

1) How do your experiences of gender biases differ from those your mother faced as a child, or that your daughter faces today? Does your daughter and/or mother deal with gender bias differently than you do? Than you did? What do you think accounts for any such changes or lack thereof?

2) Did you find that you identified with any of the girls in SchoolGirls? How do their experiences resonate with your own memories of growing up and the ways in which you were taught what it meant to be a girl?

3) Judy Logan implemented a number of innovative teaching methods in her class which were designed to heighten women's strengths and accomplishments. For instance, she encouraged students to write and act out monologues about women heroes. Who would you choose as your heroes? Why? Can you come up with any other classroom strategies to eradicate gender bias?

4) Many of the girls in SchoolGirls didn't feel that they had role models at school. How important is the existence of female role models for girls at school? Who were your role models growing up? Were they at your school? Who are the role models for the teenage girls you know? How do you think girls and teachers can go about finding role models at school?

5) Orenstein discusses conflicting messages about their bodies and their sexuality that the girls in her book experience, as they are simultaneously told to be desirable but not to feel desire themselves. How prevalent do you think this message is for girls in our society? In what ways does it manifest itself? How do you think it's possible to change this message?

6) Some of the girls Orenstein interviewed felt that their brothers were treated very differently than they were. If you have a brother, do you feel that your parents treated your brother differently than they did you? How so? Do your parents feel that they treated you differently? How did your parents' relative treatment of you and your brother affect your assessment of your own strengths and weaknesses?

7) All of Orenstein's schoolgirls experienced various forms of negative peer pressure because they were girls. What kind of peer pressure did you experience as an adolescent? How did this influence your behavior then? Now? How do you think your school experiences would have been different if you had attended a single sex school? If you had attended a coed school?

8) During adolescence girls' bodies undergo many changes. With these physical changes often comes insecurity about body image and self worth. How do you feel about your body? What would you like to change about it? How does this differ from the way you felt about it as a teenager? How do the adolescent girls that you know view their bodies? How does this differ from boys' perceptions?

9) Many of the girls in SchoolGirls felt that at one time or another they were harassed by the boys at their schools and in their classes. Did you experience any type of harassment during your teenage years? What happened? What would you advise a teenage girl to do under such circumstances?

10) Do you consider yourself a feminist? Did you as an adolescent? Has your understanding of and attitude toward feminism changed since you were an adolescent? How so? What did you learn about feminism as an adolescent? How did you learn it?

11) A group of seventh grade girls at the University of Chicago Lab School started their own discussion group as a result of reading SchoolGirls. If you were to form a discussion group how would you go about it? What issues would you address? What goals would you set for this group? Have similar groups started in the schools near you?

Recommended Reading

Apter, Terri. Altered Loves: Mothers and Daughters During Adolescence (Fawcett Columbine)

Baruch, Grace, Rosaline Barnett, and Caryl Rivers, Lifeprints: New Patterns of Love and Work for Today's Women (Signet Books)

Gilligan, Carol, Nona P. Lyons, and Trudy J. Hammer, eds., Making Connections: The Relational Worlds of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School (Harvard University Press)

hooks, bell, Black Looks: Race and Representation (South End Press)

Laskin, David, and Kathleen O'Neill, The Little Girls Book: Everything You Need to Know to Raise a Daughter Today (Ballantine)

Pipher, Mary, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (Ballantine)

Sadker, Myra, and David Sadker, Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls (Touchstone)

Scarf, Maggie, Unfinished Business: Pressure Points in the Lives of Women (Ballantine)

Steinem, Gloria, Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem (Little, Brown)

Wolf, Naomi, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (Anchor)