Baby, I Was Born This Way

Self-esteem: confidence in one’s own worth or abilities. (Oxford English Dictionary 2008)

I’ve been struck recently by the pursuit of self-esteem that seems to be at the forefront of our society’s agenda. TIME ran an article last month on research carried by Ohio State University that found college/university students to choose a boost in self-esteem over sex or money. The authors wrote:

“When people ‘want’ self-esteem more than they ‘like’ it, they pursue behavioral strategies to obtain it. Both men and women valued self-esteem more than sex and food. Men also valued self-esteem more than money, friends, and alcohol, whereas women only valued self-esteem more than alcohol. Collectively, these findings lend new credence to the view of self-esteem as an essential need.”

Thus the studies highlighted the value placed on self-esteem and the recognition that it is more valuable to us than many of the perceived desires of our generation (and others) are accredited with.

Where better to look for answers than to the thing we most look to for everything else – popular culture. The current UK Top 40 echoes the longing for this confidence in our own worth, and suggests some answers. Some artists offer anthems declaring that who they are is ok, suggesting self-esteem will come from self-acceptance. In a song which she told Good Morning America today she knew was ‘destined to reach so many people’, Lady Gaga sings:

“I’m beautiful in my way,
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way”

Ke$ha joins the self-acclamation party so aptly illustrated in the cartoon below by declaring that she and her friends are ”superstars, we are who we are” not to messed with.

Other artists take on the role of boosting others’ self-esteem. Katy Perry likens her listener to a firework who should “let their colours burst, make them go ‘oh, oh, oh!’“. Pink offers a boost to her partner by asking them to not “ever feel like you’re less than perfect…because baby you’re f***ing perfect to me”. Bruno Mars joins in on being a self-esteem giver in singing to his girlfriend, praising her for being “amazing, just the way you are“.

Will listening to these songs really help in the search for self-esteem? Do we repeat after the artists in the hope that our self-esteem will increase?

Does shouting from the rooftops that you are who you are, or having a partner love your smile really give you what this search for self-esteem is asking for? And whilst we’re in the realm of popular culture, do the very same artists who give us permission to be ‘born this way’ or act like a ‘firework’ not also dictate to us what to look at, how to behave sexually, what to value; putting at risk this sought-after self-esteem? Or do the ‘sense of social belonging’ and ‘good grades’ associated with self-esteem in the OSU studies REALLY give us what we are looking for?

Carol Landau, in her critique of the methodology of the OSU studies, suggested that self-esteem boosters were not within the students’ control. Self-esteem therefore becomes something which we chase after without really being sure we’ll get it.

So is self-esteem, the confirmation that it was ok for us to be ‘born this way’, really what to look for? And if so, how will we get it if it isn’t actually within our control? Is the quest for self-esteem then symptomatic of something more…a desire for freedom, for knowing and being known, loving and being loved, fully and passionately…a desire for something much more than these songs or singers or grades or social encounters could ever bring?

Read the TIME article here:

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