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Jan 11 2013

“Love Yourself”: A Beautiful But Flawed Idea

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.

22 comments

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  1. 1
    Stubborn Blonde Warrior

    I really appreciate this approach to it. I never necessarily viewed it as “privilege” before, but that seems like a proper descriptor for it, now that the context has been given.

    In my mind, a huge problem with this and catchphrases like this, besides what you mentioned, is that nobody seems to actually tell people HOW to love themselves. To some, that might seem like a silly idea, like “well duh, you just… do it.” But you don’t. It’s a process, and a very gradual one, just like recovering from any other hurt. Nobody mentions that it doesn’t just happen overnight.

    To learn to love your body, you don’t just look in the mirror one day, go “Fuck yeah, I’m so awesome” and be done. You have to train yourself, like a type of mindfulness almost, to find the good things. To focus on them, instead of the negative. And it won’t make people feel better all at once. One day, it’ll be “well, at least I like my eyes.” And it may take years to get to “good morning, beautiful.”

    Our culture has a tendency to minimize the effort it truly takes for the average person to achieve a lot of great things (I like to call it the “montage mentality.” Scrawny, clumsy, and unable to defend yourself? Here’s a little five-minute mashup of clips of you in a dojo. BAM. KARATE MASTER.) And I think people really need to be reminded, as a whole, that it’s TOTALLY OKAY to be bad at stuff, especially when just starting out. Like, seriously, you’re a noob, and you’re going to be a noob for a while. And that’s okay, because practice–sometimes years of it–will eventually make you slowly, slowly better. Obviously, we need to focus on the fact that not everyone CAN put forth that effort, and in the case of eliminating harmful ideas of self-worth, work on giving real support to those people, instead of just throwing around “You can do it!” catchphrases.

    /ramble

    I love your blog and this post. Keep up the awesome!

    1. 1.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Our culture has a tendency to minimize the effort it truly takes for the average person to achieve a lot of great things (I like to call it the “montage mentality.” Scrawny, clumsy, and unable to defend yourself? Here’s a little five-minute mashup of clips of you in a dojo. BAM. KARATE MASTER.)

      All of this is SUCH A GOOD POINT. It’s very similar to how some people go on and on about how people need to “grow a thicker skin” and “learn not to be offended” and how women need to “learn how to say no” without ever a single suggestion as to how to begin to do that.

  2. 2
    Tetyana

    I agree with you on this topic, though, come to think of it, I must say I haven’t thought much about it.

    An important thing I think you omitted in your post is how the “love yourself” (particularly “love your body”) mantra applies to trans* individuals. I’d imagine that if I didn’t feel like I was in the right body, I’d be really frustrated upon hearing that I should just “love my body.” (I’m guessing here.)

    I walk by a store that has an ad that says “Be yourself,” with an image of a woman with cucumber slices in her eyes and some cream on her face. On the bottom of the ad is a list of mainstream make-up brands like L’Oreal and Maybelline. Ironic, or just really smart marketing?

    I view the “love yourself/your body” stuff from the perspective of someone with an eating disorder, as I’ve been told that many times. From that perspective, it is also very frustrating because my eating disorder, personally, had nothing to do with not loving myself or my body. I actually hated it when I was really thin (and I didn’t even realize just how thin I was). I do know others for whom this sort of stuff did help, so, I know not everyone feels the same way I do.

    Maybe it is useful to reframe the “love yourself” with “be okay with yourself”? I don’t know. Just a thought. I mean, I don’t really LOVE my genitals. I just, don’t think about them, other than about their function or health.

    I don’t particularly love my body or my face, or anything. I don’t really think about it. I don’t really care. I like myself and I think I’ve always liked myself as a person. But I don’t think it is because I’m awesome, as much as it is probably in part because I have that personality of not really caring about what other people think and probably partly to do with the fact that my natural set weight is at a “normal” weight and my face is pretty normal looking too, I suppose. I didn’t fight hard to be here. Whereas other people have to fight REALLY hard to be where I am. And I think you are very right to point that out: it is not some character flaw to not be able to really love yourself.

    1. 2.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      An important thing I think you omitted in your post is how the “love yourself” (particularly “love your body”) mantra applies to trans* individuals. I’d imagine that if I didn’t feel like I was in the right body, I’d be really frustrated upon hearing that I should just “love my body.” (I’m guessing here.)

      That’s a really important point that I decided not to address because it’s not my experience, but it’s worth pointing out that most of the writers I’ve seen criticizing the “love your body” dictum framed it in the context of their experience as trans* individuals. For instance, see (e)m’s comment below.

      I view the “love yourself/your body” stuff from the perspective of someone with an eating disorder, as I’ve been told that many times. From that perspective, it is also very frustrating because my eating disorder, personally, had nothing to do with not loving myself or my body. I actually hated it when I was really thin (and I didn’t even realize just how thin I was). I do know others for whom this sort of stuff did help, so, I know not everyone feels the same way I do.

      Definitely a common misconception. I’ve known people whose EDs did start with feeling fat and/or hating their bodies, but it rarely stays that way.

      Maybe it is useful to reframe the “love yourself” with “be okay with yourself”? I don’t know. Just a thought. I mean, I don’t really LOVE my genitals. I just, don’t think about them, other than about their function or health.

      I agree. I definitely feel the same way about most of my body.

  3. 3
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Yeah, the “love yourself” thing is a bit like prayer for healing – you’re doing something wrong if your prayers or the prayers of others aren’t actually helping. If you can’t “love yourself” (whatever this means to the subject or expectant others), then you are obviously bad.

  4. 4
    jlstrecker

    As you said, there are zillions of examples of self-love being twisted around by the cosmestic industry, but here’s a fun one: http://imgur.com/r5tZe . Building the self-esteem of your breasts.

  5. 5
    (e)m

    The self acceptance stuff is victim blaming. You aren’t happy because you don’t accept yourself. I have depression. Being told I have to just love myself makes it worse.

    @ Tetyana

    An important thing I think you omitted in your post is how the “love yourself” (particularly “love your body”) mantra applies to trans* individuals. I’d imagine that if I didn’t feel like I was in the right body, I’d be really frustrated upon hearing that I should just “love my body.” (I’m guessing here.)

    Yeah, I’m trans*. It is really frustrating to be told to love your body when you feel betrayed by it. I’ve tried to love my body. I can’t. To quote myself, when people start with the body acceptance speech, they “just make me feel worse about myself, when it is something that is not my fault. Instead of shaming someone for their body, they are unintentionally shaming me because I got the wrong one.”

    1. 5.1
      Tetyana

      Thanks for the reply (e)m :)

  6. 6
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Miriam, the L.A. Times article about self-esteem initiatives was written by Roy F. Baumeister, a notorious MRA. Ad hominem this may be but I’d be careful about trusting anything he wrote.

    1. 6.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Oh, yuck. Thanks for the info. I’ve seen plenty of other books/articles confirming that view so I’ll let it stand, but that’s good to be aware of.

      1. 6.1.1
        Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

        No problem. FWIW I think the “self-esteem movement” was built on shaky assumptions as well, but when a good idea goes mainstream it frequently ends up distorted by, or in order to appeal to, the lowest common intellectual denominator.

  7. 7
    Amorie

    I remember feeling really frustrated with this when I was younger. “It’s not like I have bad self-esteem/hate my body/don’t like myself on purpose!” etc. Hiding insecurities seemed definitely similar duty as putting on makeup and keeping up desirable appearance overall. This post along with the comments articulates it all really well.

  8. 8
    canbebitter

    another wonderful, thoughtful piece.

    1. 8.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Thank you!

  9. 9
    intrigued reader

    Miriam –

    This is somewhat tangentially related, although perhaps could fall under the rubric of trying to come to terms with ones self, which seems at least somewhat what you are getting at:

    Sitting in LaGuardia last week, returning from what will probably be yet another failed job interview, I was reading New York Magazine, and came across an article by Elizabeth Wurtzel, who wrote Prozac Nation in ’89 (I assume you know that, but for the benefit of those who don’t). It was somewhat of a catch-up essay regarding her life now, in which she explores some of the same themes (issues with ones self as she is now, etc.)

    As someone who has written on these themes, and who has also publicly documents struggles with depression, I am curious if you read the article, and/or any of her work, and am basically saying that I would curious to hear your reaction to her work, her type of confessional, etc. It seems like something you would have something to say about, and I am willing to bet that you would be able to find in it aspects and issues lost to most (like me).

    That’s really all I had to say. Interesting read all around, this post. I think part of the issue is society’s tendency to put glossy “slogans” on real problems (usually with good intentions as you noted) as a way to face them, but which then ironically turns the slogan or solution into a similar type of problem to the one it was meant to address. For example, in this case, the “love yourself,” an idea engendered to combat the idea that there is a specific form or ideal into which we should all fit, itself becomes a kind of ideal or model that we all are expected to follow. Perhaps an unavoidable consequence of trying to reduce a complex problem to a single idea, like putting a band-aid on a bullet hole

  10. 10
    Butterflywings

    Just to say thanks for writing this. As someone with low self-esteem (and I hate even typing that) depression and who has suffered on and off with it since adolescence, I am so often told just to love myself as if it’s that easy. This articulates my frustration perfectly.

  11. 11
    Lindsay

    Hi, Miriam!

    I do actually love myself, and my body, so for me, seeing all the injunctions to do so in the popular media weren’t a problem, though I did wonder why anyone would have to consciously *try* to love themselves. There are a lot of reasons why I grew up that way, although school self-esteem policies are not one of them. (I’m older than you, so maybe I missed that. I had actually thought a lot of the sillier stuff — participation ribbons for everyone, homework assignments/class exercises on what you like about yourself — were figments of conservative critics’ imagination, like the “multicultural” college lit classes where no one read Shakespeare or Milton anymore.) What did seem to contribute to me having such healthy (or excessive, depending on your point of view!) self-esteem are 1) having autism and knowing it from a very young age, 2) having perhaps a lesser degree of self-consciousness than most people for most of my childhood, due to said condition, and 3) athletics. Even now, I do not notice changes in how my body looks as much as I notice changes in what it can do — if I tire more or less quickly, what is easy or hard for me to lift, how long I can run etc. — more than I do changes in, say, waist size or visible muscle definition. I know it’s not necessarily true for most autistic people, but I really did have a lot less of an ability to imagine what other people were thinking when I was a child and adolescent. So I couldn’t really “see” myself from the outside, or even conceive of that as a thing I should be doing. So I never developed the critical gaze directed at myself that I have since read that most young women develop during adolescence.

    The other aspect of it related to my autism is that, because I could talk, I was always in an Explainer role with teachers and other adults who were curious about autism and what it meant to have it. So instead of being stigmatized, I was always having people ask me about how I saw things, and learning that what I said mattered. Lots of autistic people have criticized this role, the “self-narrating zoo exhibit,” as being another way we learn to Other ourselves, but for me it seems to have been mostly helpful, teaching me to advocate for myself and know what my special needs were, and know how I was different and that being different is not Bad.

    However, I still think your criticisms are totally valid. I’d also add that people with physical disabilities are another kind of person for whom “Love Your Body” is problematic — how’re you supposed to love something that’s causing you pain, or that doesn’t work as well as you might wish it did?

    Also, I still managed to develop depression in college. It wasn’t at all characterized by feelings of being worthless or anything, but I was sad, I did cry all the time, and I *was* obsessed with killing myself. So sky-high self-esteem, in my case, doesn’t seem to have had any protective effect.

    I think this is my first comment on your new blog … I had been worried I’d need to create a new user account just for FtB and didn’t want to mess with that, even though I’ve often commented on your posts in the past. It looks like my WP account is working, though, so you’ll probably see more of me!

    1. 11.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Hey Lindsay! Glad to see you here. I think your points about autism and athletics are really interesting, though I obviously can’t agree or disagree since I’m not autistic or an athlete. It does go in line with what I know from talking to people and reading, though.

      Disability is another interesting area of intersectionality. I know that some people with disabilities eventually end up taking pride in them, but that probably doesn’t make the “LOVE YOUR BODY” injunction any less alienating.

      I think that good self-esteem can protect against certain causes of depression but not others. Sometimes people are subjected to levels of stress that they just can’t deal with and depression is the result; other times relatively minor negative events can kind of tip someone over into depression, and maybe that wouldn’t have happened had they been more emotionally healthy to begin with.

      Personally, I had really low self-esteem for all of my childhood and adolescence, but once I started recovering from depression it started getting much better. Trying to raise my self-esteem didn’t work and it didn’t help me recover, though. It had to happen on its own, I think.

  12. 12
    rizarosetteRiza

    As a teenager, I went through a pretty rough depression- I hated myself, absolutely. And it sucked, because depression does that.

    I got through it with three words. “I love you”. I made it a point, to tell at least three people, every day, that I loved them. And hearing it back got me through it.
    If you hear something over and over, it’s natural to start to believe it. Hearing others say “I love you” every day instilled in me the belief that I am loved, and loveable- and over time I grew to love myself.

    My self-esteem isn’t perfect, but it’s improved. And I have more “I’m fantastic” days than not.

  13. 13
    Fiona

    For many of us, our ability to ‘love’ ourselves or not has a lot to do with our experiences growing up. How can a child who is abused, bullied at school because abuse meant lack of adequate basics for life and shyness, who constantly misses out because of the home problems and so on – how can they learn to love themselves? There are many out there who experience something like this. If you are brought up treated as and told over and over that you are worthless, that is your reality. No amount of looking in a mirror and trying to accept what you see there or being okay with yourself can change that. it takes years in therapy to even chip away at it. No amount of self esteem classes at school will reverse the damage done at home and by your peers. And it’s not an outer inferiority alone. It’s a feeling of complete utter ‘wrong-ness’ to your very core. Like you are an alien in this world.
    I think the best preventative measures we can do are look after and look out for our children.

  14. 14
    meistegeist

    The biggest problem I have with the “loving yourself” concept is that it tends to imply that you can never, ever think anything negative about yourself, or it means that you don’t love yourself. And that’s just counterproductive. So when I get into a funk (which in my case tend to last 2-3 days), it’s just my way of rebooting. Loving yourself means being OK with the fact that you’re not going to love yourself, or even like yourself, all the time–and that’s OK.

  15. 15
    AdmiralSakai

    What I find really, really creepy about these campaigns is their insistence that the target audience (specifically younger women) must “love their bodies”in order to feel happy with themselves. Apparently, if a woman is unattractive, it doesn’t matter how strong or intelligent or personable or otherwise capable she is.

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    [...] doesn’t think loving yourself is such a good idea. No, it’s not about [...]

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    [...] “Love Yourself”: A Beautiful But Flawed Idea [...]

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    On Learning To Love Yourself – Ozy Frantz's Blog

    [...] had some really interesting things to say about self-love, which has started to get me to think about the problems I have with the [...]

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    [...] “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.” “Love Yourself”: A Beautiful But Flawed Idea – Brute Reason [...]

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    [...] often write about very well-intentioned principles or campaigns that have blind spots and negative [...]

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