Speak Up: Recalibrating the Relationship Between Body Image and Assertiveness

FreeImages.com | Anissa Thompson
FreeImages.com | Anissa Thompson

Editor’s note: Studies have shown that around age 10 girls begin to decrease their assertiveness in the classroom. It’s important to note that this behavior does not occur in a vacuum. A lack of role models, gender bias exhibited by adults, media messages and the hypersexualization and pinkification of girlhood greatly impact a girl’s sense of self and agency.


By Jessica Roberts, Intern 2015

I may be wrong, but —

I’m not sure, but —

I could be way off base, but —

It doesn’t matter what I say next; I’ve already told you to doubt it. By couching my statement in these disclaimers, I weaken any point I hope to make. It took me a long time to understand that part of establishing your authority is claiming it, without apologies, caveats, or excuses.

For many young women, this impulse to downplay or diminish our ideas, talents, arguments, and accomplishments can stem from our early experiences in the classroom, where self-consciousness about how our bodies look often becomes inextricably linked with how we perceive the validity of our ideas and opinions. However, academia is precisely the arena where young women could be practicing active participation as a life skill, offering thoughtful critiques, and engaging in meaningful dialogues with both our peers and instructors.

Doing so sets the stage for being noticed, in the classroom and in the professional arena, as a competent, confident individual. When you are trying to persuade others to follow your lead, listen to your ideas, and trust in your authority, your most important advocate is yourself.

Occupying Space vs. Fitting In

Establishing visibility in the classroom requires us to unapologetically occupy space with our bodies, voices, and ideas. Every time we worry more about the way our arm jiggles or how we could sound bossy, we are less inclined to raise our hands, venture an answer, or engage in classroom discussions. Your instructors might mistake shyness, self-consciousness, or silence for apathy and write you off as either uninterested, unprepared, or both. We stop competing for access to debates, inadvertently creating a space that favors male voices. We prioritize making statements about who we are with our appearance instead of with our words.

I can tell you exactly when I started caring about fitting in with my classmates. I was in fifth grade and hideously shy. I realized for the first time that there was a socially established hierarchy of bodies, and mine wasn’t top-tier material. Comparing my short, stocky body to that of my long-limbed, gazelle-like best friend, I wrote to myself, “You are fat! You MUST lose weight this summer” in angry scribbles. During class, I found myself looking down, fixated on how my thighs spread when I sat or trying to suck in my stomach. I kept a journal, not to log my ideas or thoughts, but to record how many chips I’d consumed that afternoon.

My experience corresponds with research suggesting that young women begin self-limiting their voices and participation between the ages of 10 and 12. When asked, sixth- and seventh-grade girls ranked popularity and being well-liked over being regarded as independent or competent. Boys, conversely, favored asserting themselves as independent.

The Dove Self-Esteem Project conducted extensive surveys on how young women perceive themselves, and the results were daunting: “6 out of every 10 girls stop doing what they love because they feel bad about their looks.”

Consider what this means. More than half of girls go through school more preoccupied with their weight, size, skin, hair, clothes, and overall appearance than their schoolwork, hobbies, and interests. The external pressure to fit is holding girls back.

A girl will consider signing up for the school play … next year, after she loses ten pounds. She wants to try out for the soccer team, but is too self-conscious about how her legs look in shorts. She stops raising her hand in class, nervous about being wrong, looking stupid, or uncomfortable with drawing attention to herself.

When she does muster up the courage to answer, she often places a disclaimer on her thoughts. “I may be wrong, but …” she starts.

Fine, you could be. So what? No, really, so what? The absolute worst thing that can happen is that your answer or argument isn’t tenable. You can fail without being a failure. So why is it still so daunting for many of us to raise our hands?

Women, We’re Doing This to Ourselves

It wasn’t until I was 22 and a graduate student that I gained some insight into why I constantly felt talked over by my male classmates, and self-conscious about how I looked when it happened. I was one of two women in an otherwise all-male seminar. I watched, admiring and curious, as the class respectfully listened when the other woman broke in to offer an opinion.

I wondered, How does she know when it’s her turn to speak?

And, Why does everyone, myself included, respect her thoughts and arguments as valid?

It took me far too long to realize two critical points. First, she wasn’t waiting for an invitation to speak. She spoke up when she was ready to contribute. Second, and more importantly, she made her arguments without caveats or disclaimers.

A Harvard study confirms my observations about the dynamics of a mixed-gender classroom. In an all-female setting, women take turns talking and speak for roughly equal amounts of time. Conversely, a male-only classroom sees students competing to speak, interrupting, talking over each other, and raising their voices to make their points.

In a mixed group, men tended to dominate classroom discussions because they are actively seeking access to the conversation. Women, however, were more likely to wait for their turn, which was unlikely to come. Furthermore, women were more susceptible to removing themselves permanently from the discussion after being interrupted.

Now — here’s the kicker — the study also found that in mixed-gender settings, women are more likely to be interrupted by other women.

I suspect that women compete with each other for what already feels like a finite amount of room in a mixed-gender conversation. Unfortunately, this is sometimes to the exclusion of other female classmates. It’s not so surprising when you think about it — living in a patriarchal society, women are explicitly and implicitly encouraged to self-censor when around men. Fortunately, there is an incredibly simple way to claim your authority in a classroom, and later in a professional setting.

Say what you’re going to say, with zero disclaimers.

Self-advocacy starts with claiming authority. Why should anyone else believe you if you don’t sound like you believe yourself?

Say What You Mean, and Mean What You Say

Some of you realize that you’re smart cookies with something to say. You’re raising your hand, asking questions, and engaging in discussions. You get it at 13, 17, 22. Thank you. You are helping other girls and women just by virtue of asserting yourself.

Now, as a higher education consultant who works with students from elementary through graduate school, I prioritize helping young women understand the importance of owning their assertions, arguments, and accomplishments. Being comfortable with raising your hand in class, putting on a leotard for the school play, and signing up for the mostly male debate team lays important tracks to finding your voice and self-worth outside of being the “good girl” or “pretty girl” or “hot girl.”

It starts with speaking up, announcing yourself as a person with thoughts, opinions, contributions, arguments, and ideas. One of the bonuses of being an assertive person is claiming control over when and how people look at you.

And if you find yourself logging calories in the margins of your notebooks instead of taking notes, as I spent most of college doing, please remember: Chronic dieting weakens a person’s cognitive abilities, literally shrinking the heart and brain when a body is deprived of nutrients over time. If a girl starts dieting in grade school, continues to flirt with restricting and purging through high school, and then enters the work force at 22, that’s nearly a decade where her intellectual and optimal physical health have been compromised.

That means that even when you do reach a point where you are ready to be heard or to participate, your ability to do so at your fullest potential may be diminished.

If self-consciousness about how you look, how much you weigh, or what you’re wearing is holding you back from actively participating in the classroom, consider how much your self-image could improve by engaging in debates. You — yes, you! — have ideas that are fascinating, provocative, and add dimension to any conversation. Raising your hand accomplishes what your pants size never can: laying claim to a space in a group dialogue and establishing your own authority.

Cultivating an identity based on your ideas, rather than on the body housing them, can help you win scholarships to fund your studies, gain admission to competitive programs, or gain support for a business venture. And most importantly, it helps you believe in yourself.

Through my own experiences, observations, and research, I can tell you that a woman’s eventual access to power in all its forms — discursive, representative, self-initiated, and invited — depends in part on her early understanding of when and how to assert herself. The classroom is one of the first settings where a girl can practice claiming authority, so that ultimately her voice is heard in academic, professional, and personal settings.

So please, speak up.