In "The Self-Esteem Soap Opera" (5/16/08), Matt Barnum makes two points I disagree with.
First, he points out that self-esteem campaigns are essentially delusional, attempting to convince us that true beauty is on the inside, when everyone knows that physical beauty really is important. I agree that focusing on the importance of physical beauty over "a good personality" has fallen out of vogue recently—or at least out of politically correct conversations. The only way to mention it now is part of a "natural" aspect of "evolution" or "biology."
Meanwhile, in private conversation, I doubt the importance of "beauty"—much too clean a term for what I'm referring to—has ever really changed. Everyone knows that "what's outside" matters. But as much as I'd like to tell myself that just as many people know "what's inside" matters, it doesn't quite ring true. The point of self-esteem campaigns isn't to convince us that the second is more important than the first; it's to make us aware of the second in the first place. Except Dove's campaign, the aim of which is to sell soap.
Second, Barnum argues that thinking well of yourself does not help you in life, it only deludes you into thinking that everyone around you must be as pleased with you as you are with yourself. Here, I think that Barnum is confusing "having self-esteem" with "being self-centered." People who, as Barnum puts it, have "no understanding of reality" are the ones so wrapped up in themselves that they don't realize how they hurt others. To prove his point about how self-esteem is deluding, Barnum makes a reference to "That Kid" in Sosc class—the one who doesn't know how annoying he is. But talking about how "annoying" certain people are does not prove anything—anyone can be annoying, and anyone can be annoyed by anything. Going through life apologizing for your presence in an effort not to annoy anyone is just a bad way to live.
Maybe instead of saying "ugly people aren't always beautiful on the inside, and good-looking people don't always have bad personalities," as Barnum does, we should be saying that people who are happy with themselves don't always have to be self-centered, and there is no guarantee that self-centered people are happy.
Class of 2010