As a quiet and unassuming young woman, I often find that self-esteem is hard to come by. Women of all generations would probably agree with me; in a world so full of images and expectations of what it means to be “ideally” female, it’s easy to fall into feelings of inadequacy and self-disgust. While I certainly won’t deny that those standards have negatively affected me, I find that I am more disturbed when people underestimate me and my abilities specifically. As we become more aware of the impact of advertising and other displays of societal expectations, we can begin to separate ourselves from those toxic criteria and understand that those “rules” don’t really apply to us. Personal attacks or aggressions, however, are more difficult to withstand and analyze from a distance.
Athletic ability is one realm in which I have found myself frequently underestimated. Throughout my career as a runner, I have had multiple coaches treat me as if I had very little potential. They gave me goal times for workouts that were far too easy for me while also giving faster goal times to people I had consistently beaten in races. Even when I was occasionally running in varsity races during my early years of high school, I felt that the coach was less interested in coaching me than in coaching the top varsity runners. I know that other girls on the team who were slower varsity or open race runners had similar experiences. While there’s an obvious reason for a coach to focus their energy on top athletes, nurturing the less successful athletes is important, too; this is especially true when these athletes are “young blood” and could later replace older top runners. Without even devoting too much extra time to an individual athlete, it is important for a coach to let each participant know that he/she believes in their current abilities and their potential to improve. Once, a high school track coach gave me a seed time for an event that was much faster than any race I had ever run. I expressed my hesitation, but he was firm in his belief that I could run this goal time, or at least close to it. To my great surprise, I finished that race with exactly the seed time that I had thought was basically unreachable. Sometimes a little encouragement is all it takes to push someone to the next level.
I have experienced this kind of underestimation outside of sports, as well. I vividly remember a class with a competitive group exercise that involved coming to a consensus on which answer to each multiple-choice question was correct. No matter how many times my answer turned out to be correct, my group chose to basically ignore my input and go with the answer another particular group member thought was correct. Was it because she was, and always had been, more vocal about her opinions? Did they think she was more intelligent? This pattern was repeated many times throughout my high school career. I was almost never appointed as “leader” of group projects and assignments, even though I often ended up doing more than my fair share of the work. My input was frequently dismissed. I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong.
My younger sister has had a similar experience. It is key to note that my sister is around average height, has terrific makeup and hairstyling skills, a sophisticated sense of style, and generally looks as if she just stepped out of a fashion magazine. Aside from all of that, she is incredibly successful; she is an athlete, an honors student, and winner of the Harvard Book Award for her graduating class. Still, her academic abilities are underestimated. Others will decline her assistance on homework in favor of asking someone with a lower academic performance. Even some of her friends have expressed their belief that they are more academically successful than she is, despite contrary evidence. I can’t help but wonder if her looks precede her academic achievements. Are we still so stuck in the dichotomy of beauty and brains that we don’t believe a woman can have both? I hate to see my sister treated this way because I think it impacts her own view of herself, even though she may not realize it. I am a small woman, and, as I said before, a quiet and fairly shy one. I wonder if this accounts for others’ perceptions of me if this is why I am so frequently brushed aside. Beyond that, I often wonder if there is something I can do to “fix” myself to avoid being underestimated. What is it that I’m doing wrong? The answer is: nothing. If people want to make assumptions about me, that is, in some ways, their own problem. Unfortunately, it might sometimes mean that I have to work harder to overcome these assumptions, such as in applying for jobs or working in a particular job. If they’re underestimating my ability to contribute to their team or to their life, however, then it’s their loss. I will move on and find places where people really appreciate me and what I have to offer.
After years of experiencing that which I have described, I try to never discredit people. I have wonderful parents who have always believed in me and provided me with encouragement, and I have a boyfriend who strengthens me and pushes me to succeed. Not everyone is lucky enough to have such a wonderful support system. When someone offers their input or skills, listen to what they have to say. It could make all the difference to them and to you.