Ten Out of Ten: Stuyvesant Students on Self-Esteem

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In the pimpled years of adolescence, self-love can seem like a lofty goal. The ever-critical media feeds off of insecurity, convincing young people that they are too dumb, too ugly, too fat. The word “fat” weighs particularly heavily on teenage girls, as according to the Park Nicollet Melrose Center, 78 percent of 17-year-old female Americans report hating their bodies. Boys are not exempt from body insecurity either.

“Everyone thinks that girls are the only ones with eating disorders, but it’s almost equal,” school counselor Jess Chock-Goldman said.

An anonymous male junior described his aspirations for a personal fitness renaissance: “I would lose eight pounds of fat […] I have about 17 pounds of fat on me. I would be able to have what I call an ‘x-pack’ instead of a six-pack,” he said. This numerically-oriented student gave his assets a tepid assessment: “On a scale of one to ten, I would say a three for physical attractiveness. For personality, probably a seven or an eight. For intelligence, a run-of-the-mill five out of ten.”

But not everyone at Stuyvesant is experiencing an all-time confidence nadir. “I do love myself,” freshman Maya Doron-Ripa said. “I don’t really believe in changing yourself in any way because it doesn’t live up to other people’s standards. I like myself.”

Junior Asher El-Hanani echoed this: “I feel pretty good about myself in general,” he said. “I like my ability to just not care about what other people think of me, and that just makes life a lot easier.” He traces his confidence back to his self-affirming attitude: “A lot of people who struggle with their self-esteem focus on what they can’t do, what they don’t have,” he said. “And when you focus on negative statements, negative as in ‘I can’t do this’ and not ‘I can do this,’ you forget what you can do, because everyone is capable of something. A lot of people just don’t see it in themselves.”

Sophomore Leo Smulansky claims (perhaps somewhat sarcastically) to be among the people who “just don’t see it in themselves.”

“I don’t think I’m good enough for anything,” he said. “I feel like everyone around me is better than me at everything. My parents always compare me to other people in order to judge my worth. I don’t feel like I deserve to be where I am in life.”

Why do so many Stuyvesant students struggle with feelings of inferiority when they are among the most intelligent students in New York City? For some, this struggle stems from not being able to live up to expectations: their expectations as well as their parents’. For others, low self-esteem is the product of gossip and criticism.

“I kind of want people to be more critical to me, to confront me, instead of talking behind my back,” sophomore Andy Lin disclosed.

Though no panacea can eradicate the rituals of the high-school hierarchy, one method of coping may be to talk it all through.

“Therapy, therapy, therapy!” Chock-Goldman said. “It is the most important thing. I’m in therapy. I’m very open about being in therapy. I think it’s very important to have someone to talk to, to work through the things that are a little heavier to handle in our minds. And I will tell you: the number one thing I do at Stuy[vesant] is refer people to therapists. And it’s totally private. Colleges don’t know, teachers don’t know, friends don’t know. Everything’s private. And it’s so good to be talking to someone. One time a week, two times a week. It’s 45 minutes all about you. That’s pretty cool.”

For students looking for a solution that doesn’t require a guidance office referral, one of the best ways of coping with criticism and gossip may be to simply not care.

“What matters is what you think about yourself, and not what other people think about you,” El-Hanani counseled. “Just look at yourself and ask yourself, ‘Am I a good person? Can I do good things?’ And if the answer to that question is ‘yes,’ then I think that you’re okay.”