You know what’s weird? I like a lot about myself. That’s not the weird part—just hold on; I’m getting there.
In the years since I was an awkward twelve-year-old with a disproportionately large chest and a sad, partially grown-out attempt at a Rihanna haircut, crying in front of a mirror, I’ve made a lot of improvements. I’ve accepted things about myself I never thought I would, and even started to see some of them as attributes.
I’ve come to the realization that there’s plenty of me worth valuing that can’t be glimpsed with a once-over glance. And, if I’m being perfectly honest, puberty helped. Life is much easier on me now than it was with that haircut.
The weird part though, the thing that began to confound me the more I thought about it, was the sensation I’ve experienced lately: guilt. Despite the leaps and bounds of progress I’ve made in my sense of self since the dark ages of 2007, I recently realized that when I voice a complaint about my physical appearance—no matter how rare it happens, or how mild the complaint may be—I feel guilty.
When I say I really should start doing upper body workouts because I’m not happy with the lack of strength in my arms, I feel like I’m doing a lackluster job of being a role model for my younger sister, regardless of if she’s nowhere nearby to hear my laments. When I whine to my roommate about my complexion, I feel like if Beyoncé knew, she’d probably be disappointed in me.
And the wonderful, encouraging, positive women in my life, with all their infinite love and good intentions, telling me, “No, don’t say that. You’re great and wonderful and (insert supportive and uplifting adjective here),” sometimes amplify that sensation without even realizing it. I don’t doubt I have a tendency to do the same to them.
It seems to me that in constantly talking about self-love, self-acceptance, and unequivocal confidence, we’ve placed a pressure on one another to feel nothing but unending love for every part of ourselves all the time. This truly strange culture exists where the accepted response to a friend with a complaint about her physical appearance is to pelt her with body-positivity until she’s resigned to agree that she is, in fact, a bad ass bitch with plenty of wonderful qualities and nothing to be down on herself about. While there are definitely worse ways to handle that situation (ahem, Regina George and the Plastics), silencing real honesty in the name of adhering to a policy of self-acceptance isn’t exactly productive.
To put it another way: drowning out women’s voices with a dogmatic approach to self-love does nothing to actually foster self-love. Yes, it’s bold and wonderful to love yourself in body and in spirit. Yes, it’s kind and compassionate to encourage your friends to do the same. But what does it really accomplish when we shut women down from talking about their lived experiences in order to commit to an abstract overly-positive ideal? It’s not actually making any of us love ourselves anymore; it’s just making us feel like we can’t talk about what we see as flaws, for fear we’ll be cast as whatever the opposite of “body-positive” is.
We have to remember first and foremost, that self-love does not have to mean being #1 fan of every inch of your body. You can find the positives in physical traits you never thought you’d like, and value your internal qualities—intellect, empathy, wit—more than the external, and still be able to think of a thing or two about your body that you’d like to improve. Where the self-love actually comes in is recognizing that those attributes do not make you worth any less.
You’re allowed to dislike the jiggle in your arms: the important part is that you don’t believe the jiggle in your arms is indicative of your value as a person in any way, or your deserving love. More importantly than just allowing yourself to dislike things, you’re allowed to look at things about your appearance you don’t like and want to improve them in healthy and constructive ways. That’s it’s own kind of self-love—to treat your body well.
Furthermore, you’ve got to allow your friends and the women in your life to have these same kinds of authentic experiences with their bodies. Even if your natural inclination is to say, “I think everything about you is great and wonderful; you should think everything about you is great and wonderful,” it’s important to remember that if we’re not having these conversations, no one is.
As women, part of building each other up has to be allowing one another to be honest when we just feel like normal, flawed people instead of waking up as confident! Role models! All! The! Time!
Regulating women’s deeply personal relationships with their bodies isn’t teaching us to love ourselves; it’s holding on to a doctrine that claims to speak for us, without allowing us to truly represent our selves or our experiences. Making women feel guilty for not yet reaching a self-acceptance nirvana is just as much bullshit as making women feel guilty for being a size 12 instead of a size 2.
The point is this: most of us don’t have a flawless relationship with our bodies, and we shouldn’t expect to. We don’t expect that kind of perfection from our relationships with other people, so why should we be any different?
Accept as much as you can, and be gentle with the rest. Recognize that you and the other women in your life can have complaints about your physical appearances and simultaneously look in the mirror and tell yourselves that you’re an unstoppable badass bitch who is worthy of love and acceptance. Those beliefs aren’t mutually exclusive; I think it’s time we stop pretending they are, and I bet Beyoncé agrees with me.