Melissa Milkie, Ph.D. Department of Sociology

For adolescents, having a strong Self is an important component of entering into adulthood successfully. Research suggests that despite living in a society often hostile to them, Black adolescents have Selves that is at least as strong as Whites. Using Add Health data, a nationally representative sample of Black (N=652) and White (N=1592) girls I explore racial differences in self-concepts in U.S. adolescent females. Drawing on Rosenberg’s contextual theory and Black Feminist theory, this study posits that black mothers’ unique socialization of their daughters may help to explain Black girls’ advantaged Selves. Black girls are significantly better off than white girls on measures of the Self, and mothers’ socialization may help explain some of the race differences. Black mothers were found to be more supportive, more encouraging of daughters’ independence, and to have higher academic aspirations for their daughters. These factors were found to positively influence aspects of daughters’ self-concept.


Adolescence is a critical time for the development of the self-concept. During adolescence, individuals experience significant physical and cognitive changes that affect one’s self-image. Physical changes brought on by puberty and the increased capacity for introspection requires young people to adjust their thoughts and feelings regarding their bodies (Richards, Boxer, Petersen, and Albrecht 1990) and their self-evaluations. Research has found considerable disruptions and inconsistencies in the self-concept of adolescent girls, with females experiencing a significantly more disturbed self-image as they move through adolescence than males (Zimmerman, Copeland, Shope & Dielman 1997; Block & Robins 1993; Harter 1993; Simmons and Rosenberg 1975).

Concern about the well-being of adolescent girls has permeated both academic and popular discourses in recent years, with some groups contending that as girls move through adolescence they experience declines in self-esteem and body image (Gilligan 1982; Pipher 1994). Supporters of the “girlhood crisis” purport that young girls growing up in a patriarchal society are denied full expression of their authentic selves, which in turn has detrimental effects on the development of a strong self-image (Gilligan 1982). The proliferation of the girlhood crisis throughout both popular and academic discourses has led to the use of this crisis as an explanation for numerous social problems that plague some young women today, such as eating disorders, promiscuous behavior, poor grades, high school drop out rates and teen pregnancy (Pipher 1994; Orenstein 1994).

One of the major critiques of the “girlhood crisis” is that it has proliferated within popular discourses, despite little scientific evidence to support its claims (Hyde 2005).