Self-Esteem: America’s Favorite Idol

Most American women (and maybe some men) are a bit surprised and very relieved that our culture is starting to rewrite its long-standing definition of beauty, that which was affixed by the media and beauty industry. This is evidenced by recent promos from companies such as Hanes (who recently began featuring models of different shapes and larger sizes) and Cover Girl, boasting curvy stars Drew Barrymore and Queen Latifah as spokeswomen.  While perfectly toned and exotic models still frequent videos, commercials and magazines, the glamour media is casting its net wider (size 12 perhaps) to promote a healthier, more realistic idea of the beautiful female.

Arguably leading this charge with their proactive approach is Dove Incorporated, who developed the Campaign for Real Beauty. One of their most poignant ads features an elementary school-aged girl, captivated by a billboard featuring a model: flawless skin, very little clothing, fat-free limbs and a seductive pose. A rapid-fire sequence of images ensues on the bill board, with more perfect bodies and words like “hot” and “diet” being seen or heard. Abruptly, the girl is back at home, sitting in her living room, staring at the television which continues a sequence of ads. This accurately illustrates the uninvited and inescapable onslaught of impossible standards for beauty cast upon young girls at every corner.

After this scene, Dove steps in with the remedy of self-esteem workshops. Dove boasts that “2 million girls have begun to see themselves as beautiful.” They emerge victorious over the mannequin mentality with applause for the young girl (with whom viewers have been trekking), who vows into the microphone at one of the workshops, “I promise to think of myself as a beautiful person.”  For America, this solution is timely and satisfying. For Christians, this solution should cause us to put our hands to the plough. Physical beauty has a shelf-mate on the shrine: the non-physical self.

Dove is no small corporation and I applaud them for taking action when they could easily and quietly follow suit with the likes of commercials for AXE Body Wash and Hardees cheeseburgers (the unfortunate but contrived drop of sauce landing on Padma’s long leg, to mention one). Their campaign has required vision, effort and advertising dollars. They recognize the danger and the effects of the 20+ year campaign for American beauty on both adolescent and mature females. Further to their credit, they have rightly discerned three biblical truths:

1. Beauty is fleeting (Isaiah 40:8, Proverbs 31:30)

2. Exercise/physical care is only of some value (1 Timothy 4:8)

3. The heart of a person is more important than their appearance (1 Samuel 16:7)

While their diagnoses are accurate, their cure is lacking. The solution of self-esteem boosting does nothing more than turn the idolatrous pursuit from the outer self to the inner self, an equally empty and detrimental path. Both idolize the self by putting hope in one’s own ability to attain peace, joy and happiness.

Self-esteem is not a new concept in our culture; studies show that while American 5th graders have nearly the worst math scores among developed nations, they actually feel better about their math scores than any other national group of students their age who outscore them. Why? Because America has exerted great effort to fix our youth with self-esteem boosting programs, hoping that all of the racism, bullying, ugliness, self-doubt and troubled childhoods will be overcome by “liking” or “believing in” themselves. We see this in the gyms of elementary schools, where children are still playing games, but no one loses…everyone wins. No one has to go home with their feelings hurt. The problem with this methodology is that young people are blinded from the reality of their failing, sinful selves.  The focus on self-esteem appears less shallow and more noble than chasing vanity, but both are poisonous though different flavors of idolatry, which lead to pride.  Well-meaning parents, wanting the best for their daughters might ask, “How can you suggest that self-esteem is bad for my little girl? She’s doing the best she can with what the world offers her.”

Eve also thought she was doing the best with what she was given. The serpent began deceiving her in Genesis 3:1 by challenging the authority (and content) of the commands God gave to Adam only a few verses earlier in 2:16-17(a tactic that has not changed in the few thousand years that separate us from the garden). He asked her, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” His agenda is further revealed in 3:4-5“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of [the fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” The serpent took God’s perfect instruction and tricked Eve into believing that there was a better way for her to live her life. In essence, the serpent was asking, “Eve, do you really need God?” Champions of both physical perfection and self-esteem pose similar questions: “Do you actually believe you need God? You can be beautiful, talented and sufficient in and of yourself.” Eve went her own way and tried to gain identity, knowledge, power and sufficiency in someone other than in God. Most are keenly aware of how this ended for her (and for us).

Affirming the cultural norm of self-esteem and teaching it to our young girls and then later trying to convince them that they need Jesus too is nonsensical: “If I have me, why do I need a Savior?” This mentality nurses pride and leads to disappointment. The self-esteem doctrine will fail, just as the pursuit of physical beauty has failed so many in the form of anorexia, bulimia, self-mutilation and suicide. Self-esteem might sustain one for a short while, but what happens when it runs its course? Unfortunately, all the workshops in the world will not prevent the indiscriminate ins and outs of life: She doesn’t make the cheerleading squad. She misses the game winning free-throw. She does not place in the science competition. Her top choice college rejects her. Classmates laugh at her speech. She no longer sees herself as beautiful. She gives in to cutting.  Her father abuses her. Mom and Dad divorce. She is raped. What does the message of self-esteem offer to these circumstances? To which savior does she turn? Will self-esteem provide sufficient peace and joy to press-on, if there’s any left to be had?

But hasn’t self-esteem worked for some? What is there to say to those who do not seem to experience the rougher ins and outs, the small group of adolescents who are living the envied life void of failure and disappointment, who have been given all the attention, protection, clothes, activities, vacations, electronics, parties, trophies, acceptance letters and accolades one could want? They seem to be missing nothing. In 2007, Barna reported:

Most young people admit that they feel as if they do not receive sufficient attention from their parents; do not have enough good friends whom they can count on; are unsettled about their own future; have personal spiritual perspectives but not much of a sense of spiritual community; lack role models; and do not feel that they have intrinsic value.

The CDC reports that 14.5% of high school students reported seriously considering suicide in past year; it is the 3rd leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds. Prescriptions for anti-depressants are at an all-time high for teenagers with 8% having experienced a major depressive episode. These numbers represent every teenager. Emptiness does not discriminate, and the mask, be it a workshop or soccer scholarship, does not fix it.

Self-esteem is a sophisticated name for pride; it is not a virtue. Paul warns the Corinthians: “Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10:12).” Here, Paul was referencing the struggle to overcome temptation and how easy it becomes to believe we (in and of ourselves) have it beaten. This verse in its context still applies to our issue. When we teach young girls that they have the power within themselves to overcome culture’s pressures and to live up to culture’s standards, we’re saying, “You, just by believing in yourself, can conquer anything that comes your way”. There is no amount of positive thinking, inner goodness, hugs from friends, talent or beauty that can combat against the schemes of the enemy: “Be sober minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).” Frankly, the sober-minded are not seeking higher self-esteem. What we perceive as seemingly harmless things are sometimes powerful tools in the enemy’s arsenal.  He knows Christians will run from MTV, but who would run from a workshop?

In reference to one’s own ability to attain righteousness, Paul again tells the Philippian church, “For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:3).” Clearly, we are to be confident and glory in Jesus and not our own flesh. Today, confidence in the flesh is expected and encouraged. There are more self-esteem books and workshops than can be listed here; employers expect you to sell yourself and your abilities in an interview; teachers tape posters to their classroom walls, listing 100 Ways to Praise a Child; Hollywood and ESPN survive on the looks and egos of athletes and stars being the prettiest and the best. America is an incubator for self-esteem and self-confidence. For the Christian, Scripture is clear on where our confidence is to come from:

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, ‘Let one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” – 1 Corinthians 1:26-31

Does all of this mean that we need to ignore, even loathe, the grace God has given us in both who we are and our gifting? Absolutely not! We are made in His image (Genesis 1:27), we are a wondrous creation (Psalm 139: 14), crafted by God to do good things (Ephesians 2:10); we are children of God and coheirs with Christ (Romans 8:17); we are friends of the Son (John 15:15) and no longer slaves to the world (Galatians 4:7); we have been forgiven (Acts 10:43) and been made righteous (2 Cor. 5:21)…how can our joy not take the shape of confidence? It is because of these truths that we worship Him, He is glorified and the lost come to saving faith. Paul reminds us that there is no condemnation for the redeemed (Romans 8:1), so it is certainly not God’s desire that His children continually live in sackcloth and ashes, dwelling on their sinful natures; this does not speak the truth of the gospel anymore than the idolizing of physical beauty. The key to understanding and living out the truths listed above is the knowing the source from which they come and where the praise should go: God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit, not Me the Beautiful, Me the Smart and Me the Talented.

Children will not one day abandon the Christian faith and pledge allegiance to the enemy because they had parents who encouraged them: ice cream for good grades, a pep talk before a competition and comforting words after being rejected are simple ways to offer the tangible love Scripture teaches all Christians to have and share. It is only problematic when we fail to include Jesus with these gifts as the One who empowers, heals, and satisfies. Parents must find a way to balance nurturing their children in their abilities and navigating life’s circumstances while putting Jesus before them as the true Savior, worthy of all the glory.

At some point, be it in a classroom, a living room or a great hall, every girl will be given the microphone. My hope is that when their moment comes, rather than promising to always think of themselves as beautiful or worthy of praise, they would think of someone else entirely: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”  – Psalm 73:26

“Not to us O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” – Psalm 115:1


6 thoughts on “Self-Esteem: America’s Favorite Idol

  1. Finally.

    This article touches on something I couldnt put my finger on before. I kept wondering why this whole “Believe in yourself” just seemed wrong and completely unbiblical…

    Thanks so much for putting this up, I pray it will open someones eyes.


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