This post is gonna be about body politics – how self-love interacts with the critical gaze we can turn on other people, or even ourselves. Some discussion of body hate and unattainable beauty ideals.
On my journey (ooh, cliché phrase alert!) I have learnt many things about loving myself and loving others. I don’t mean in any particular romantic sense – rather, I mean that I have learnt to accept others without immediately and always rushing to pick apart how they look and what they could have done better. It used to be quite a vicious habit, I think, because I may have prefaced what I was saying with “Well, if they’re happy… but still…” but I never really meant it. I was just measuring another person by the beauty standards pressed upon us by (the patriarchy and commodification of our appearance by industry!) our society, which we have all internalised to some degree or another.
I didn’t really care if they was happy or not, I simply wanted to pick apart what someone else had done wrong and right by some arbitrary standard.
Part of this is just a learned habit – you see this discussion of people’s appearance – and especially a woman’s appearance – pretty much anywhere you go (in magazines, on tvs, between friends/family) and you think it’s normal. Part of it is performance – “Yes, I do know the way I should look, act and present myself! See, I can demonstrate how they deviate from the standard! I know that deviation is negative and must be shamed! Gosh, just look at that belly overhang!”. Part is defence – by pointing out someone else’s flaws, maybe no one would notice how ugly and badly dressed I was.
None of that is healthy.
By learning that actually, there is nothing inherently wrong with my body or anyone else’s, whether they are fat, thin, healthy, unhealthy, etc. etc. I’ve also learnt that tearing people down for how they look is almost always rooted in sexist/classist/racist/transphobic/ableist/sizeist beliefs which I’ve internalised, for whatever reason. I’ve learnt to (mostly) stop opening my mouth the second I see something “wrong” with someone’s appearance – because now I know to examine why I think it’s wrong and fix whatever hateful thought is within me.
There is another damaging aspect to constantly critiquing your own or another person’s appearance – and that’s the fact that we tend to forget a person’s apperance is very rarely a good indicator of their true identity. When you judge a person on whether they’re beautiful or not, you so often reduce them to one aspect of them and fail to take in the whole of a person. By placing beauty as the ultimate ideal, it’s easy to overlook kindness, generosity, intelligence, acceptance, etc. etc. – all of which I think are far more important than the way you look.
And finally, to me, it cheapens my own self-love. What is the point of loving myself, working hard to accept myself, breaking away from beauty ideals that I could never reach, if I turn around and still hold others to them? What a selfish person I would be if I only wanted myself to know the happiness of body positivity and self-love.
This isn’t to say I don’t look at photos or outfits and think about what a person is wearing – in fact I pay quite a lot of attention to clothes, but I don’t look to tear people down anymore. I don’t care if someone has a belly overhang or VPL. Are they happy? Do they look like they’re enjoying their clothes? Have they chosen something interesting – some shoes, an accessory, a dress or anything else that stands out?
Don’t get me wrong – there are fashion choices people make that baffle me and of course I have personal preferences when it comes to clothes – for example I just don’t get khaki slacks, I think people often choose weird hem lengths on dresses and skirts. But instead of jumping to tear someone down, I might suggest something that I, if I were to wear the outfit, would do differently – an extra bangle here, or a certain colour of accessory to tie a look together. Discussing clothes and outfits is something I enjoy doing – the difference between me now and me before is that I try to be positive, because negativity may lead to a few funny sarcastic comments but I think for the sake of breaking out of a mindset imposed on me by our society and avoiding the kind of poisonous loop of criticising others which leads to criticising myself, I will always try to make the effort to show love and acceptance towards the fashion choices made by others.
To some of you, this may seem ridiculous. Who cares this much about clothes and appearances? Well, the kind of person who for years hated herself, who hid herself, who didn’t think she was worthy of love, who could not (no matter what) meet up to beauty ideals, who would never be worth anything because she was too fat, too ugly, too hairy, too disgusting, might take a different view. To take pleasure in my appearance and in the appearance of others – especially those who smash through standards and ideals – is a way of reaffirming my love for myself and spreading positivity to those who may not yet be at the stage of self-love that I am. Remembering the pain I have been in because I do not match up to any beauty ideal means that I really know what those vicious comments can do to a person (even if you aren’t being discussed, there will no doubt be some issue that you have being torn apart).
No one deserves to hate themself because they can’t attain an ideal, and I no longer want to be part of a discussion that promotes a society of self-hate and insecurity by tearing someone else down.