Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Deborah Tolman

Committee Members

Michelle Fine

Maria Torre

Subject Categories

Gender and Sexuality | Psychology | Social Psychology


confidence, confidence culture, youth development, adolescent girls, Feminist research


In the popular imagination, confidence is thought of as a positive or healthy state. Yet there is also a pervasive belief that adolescent girls are at risk of losing their confidence or of not having enough confidence, particularly compared to boys. The larger field of youth development theorists and practitioners see confidence as a positive, normative, and measurable aspect of healthy adolescent development (e.g., Lerner et al., 2015). Conversely, critical feminist scholars assert that confidence has become hegemonic, mandated, and commodified (e.g., Banet-Weiser, 2015; Gill & Orgad, 2016)—taken up by a neoliberal, post-feminist climate as a technology of the self (Foucault, 1987; 1988) and turned into a moral imperative, integral to the performance of idealized femininity (Gill & Orgad, 2016).

Against these theoretical tensions, I interrogate the construct of confidence, engaging in a critical construct validity (Fine & Torre’s, 2019) and critical historiography (McClelland, 2010) to examine how it is defined, assessed, and deployed in psychology and in youth development. I then shift to querying how adolescent girls experience and understand their subjective experience of confidence while immersed in the context(s) of a girls’ empowerment organization that priorities confidence. I conduct a reflexive thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2013, 2022) using extant survey data from a girls’ empowerment organization (“GEE”)— delving into the responses of 2,447 geographically, racially, and ethnically diverse middle and high school girls’ short-answer responses to the qualitative question, “Can you give us an example of how [GEE] has helped you feel confident?”

Results indicate that girls deploy the confidence concept in a myriad of ways; describing what it means to them to feel (or be) confident, drawing from a myriad of constructs and concepts in their construction of confidence including agency, competence, voice, and self-worth. Girls construct their understanding of confidence in dialogue with a confident-girl archetype (i.e., a representation of an ideal confident girl), ventriloquating (Bakhtin, 2010; Brown, 1998) elements of neoliberal confidence and empowerment discourses. Other girls describe confidence as rooted in relationships, experiences, and authenticity. I reconcile these different constructions of confidence by theorizing a new framework of confidence as deep or shallow. I conclude with a discussion of implications for theory and for youth development.

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