Ever since the 1990s, we–especially women–have been hearing about the importance of self-esteem. It’s associated with better mental health, relationship outcomes, academic achievement, career success, you name it. It’s part of what it means to be a mature and emotionally developed person. Much time and resources have been expended on the development of children’s self-esteem–I remember all the participation awards and being required to summarily tell my parents what I’m “proud of” about my schoolwork at a parent-teacher conference–and I’ll have to write about these initiatives some other time (spoiler alert: they’re mostly failures, and those correlations I listed above may not actually be true).
Along with all this are constant entreaties from various sources–friends, advertisements, PSAs, motivational posters–to “love yourself” and “love your body.” Sometimes this is painfully ironic, like when it’s in advertisements for beauty products or weight-loss aids, but usually it’s earnest and well-meaning. There are plenty of blogs and books and organizations dedicated to helping people (especially women) foster love for themselves (especially for their bodies).
Before I criticize this concept, I want to reiterate that I understand that it’s coming from a good place. It’s meant as a rebuttal to a culture in which people’s flaws, especially their physical ones, are magnified and used to sell as many fake panaceas as possible. A culture in which plastic surgery is $10 billion industry, in which people are getting their genitals surgically altered to be more “attractive,” in which the majority of teenage girls are unhappy with the way they look. I could go on.
Furthermore, part of the reason women are so unlikely to express positive feelings about how they look isn’t just that they don’t have positive feelings about it, but probably that they face social rejection for doing so. The pressure not to seem like you think you’re “all that” can be strong, and “fat talk” is one way women bond socially. Given this, encouraging women to “love themselves” and their bodies can be a way of fighting back against these norms.
But the problem is that when we prescribe ways of thinking or feeling, failing to follow them becomes stigmatized. Not loving yourself and your body isn’t just unhealthy anymore, it’s uncool. It’s immature. I wrote once a long time ago about how a classmate told me that loving yourself is actually a prerequisite for being a good person–implying (accidentally, I hope) that not loving yourself means you’re not a good person.
Not loving yourself means you have Issues and Baggage and all of those other unsexy things. It means you just haven’t Tried Hard Enough to Love Who You Truly Are. Loving yourself and your body becomes the normative state, not an extra perk that some are able to achieve. For instance, someone wrote on Tumblr in response to an article I posted about makeup that “girls should learn to love themselves before fucking around with eyeliner.” Loving yourself is a requirement, according to this person, for something as basic as putting on makeup.
Maybe this would be fair, except for this: according to our society, we are not all equally worthy of love. We are all pushed down in some ways, but some are pushed down more–and in more ways–than others. You can tell a woman who isn’t conventionally attractive to “love her body” all you want, but if everything she encounters in her daily life suggests to her that her body isn’t worthy of love, these are empty platitudes.
When it comes to loving the entirety of yourself–not just your body–the concept breaks down even further. How easy is for a child of neglectful parents to love themselves? How easy is it for someone subjected to a lifetime of bullying for being LGBT? How easy is it for someone who grew up in poverty and was blamed for being “lazy”? How easy is it for a victim of assault or abuse?
Our society pushes certain types of people down, and then mandates that we all “love ourselves”—and if we fail to do so it is our fault.
Yes, loving yourself is great. I wouldn’t say I love myself, but I do like myself quite a bit. But the only reason I’m able to do that is because I haven’t been told for my entire life that who I am is fundamentally unlovable because of my weight, my skin color, my sexual/gender identity, my socioeconomic status, my politics, my personality, whatever. Although I’ve definitely hated myself at times (thanks, depression and college), overall I’ve been raised in a loving and supportive environment and consistently told that I have worth as a person.
I have (mostly) been free of societal persecution. I have never been falsely accused of a crime because of my race. I have never felt like I’ll never find someone to love because I can’t come out. I have never been taught that because I don’t believe in god, I deserve to go to hell. (Except for a few evangelical Christians, but they were easy for me to ignore.)
Loving yourself is a privilege that not everyone gets to share.
I do think there are things that anyone can do to cultivate self-love even when it’s been consistently taken away from them. I don’t think anyone has to “view themselves as a victim” or whatever buzz-phrase people are using these days. But if you do feel like a victim sometimes, honestly, I wouldn’t blame you.
As well-intentioned as these body positivity and self-esteem campaigns are, it starts to feel very alienating when everyone around you is busy Loving Themselves and you just can’t seem to get there. With every injunction to “love yourself” comes an implicit blame if you do not.
I’m not saying that “love yourself” is a bad concept. It’s a beautiful concept and a worthwhile goal. But we should be aware of the unintended consequences it can have when shouted from the rooftops ad infinitum, and we should also consider that “loving yourself” may not be necessary, important, or even possible for everyone.
Instead of “love yourself,” I would say:
Try to be okay with yourself. Try not to listen when the world tells you that who you are is wrong. Loving yourself and your body can wait, and besides, it’s not necessary for a happy and healthy life.
Edit: Paul Fidalgo responded to my earlier Tumblr rant on this subject and said in a paragraph what I just laboriously tried to say in a thousand words:
Whenever I’m told I need to love myself, I feel like I’m being asked to lie, to pretend to feel something I don’t. I spent most of my adolescence being informed continuously that I was lowest of the low and unworthy of even human decency, let alone love, and I learned to believe it. Messages about what it is a man is supposed to be in the media were not at all helpful. And other things happened, too. So I really don’t feel like “loving myself” is a fair expectation, not in any immediate sense.
Yes, this exactly.