I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had some issues in the past with my mental health. One of the ways in which this manifested was in seriously poor low self-esteem – bordering on the obsessive. I wasn’t able to say anything good about myself. I wasn’t able to even *think* good things about myself. At my worst I felt that something really bad would happen if I ever did say, or think, anything that was even close to being good about myself and so to forestall the really bad thing happening I would have to immediately say something bad about myself to balance it out, or pull an ugly face – or even worse sometimes I physically hurt myself to punish myself for daring to think well of myself.
At one point, I couldn’t even capitalise the letter ‘I’ when referring to myself in a written sentence, because I had somehow got the idea that I didn’t ‘deserve’ a capital letter, and I didn’t want people to think I was so above myself that I would dare to use a capital letter. Of course all it did was irritate my friends who are sticklers for correct grammar who couldn’t understand why I was able to correctly punctuate and spell all other words. I wasn’t able to explain to people why it was so difficult to capitalise the ‘I’.
Compliments were like kryptonite. I couldn’t accept them. I didn’t know how to. I craved them and feared them in equal measure. On the one hand compliments from other people were validation – wonderful validation – that maybe I *was* ok, that I looked alright. On the other hand I wasn’t able to believe the compliment, because that would be to think well of myself and I can’t do that or BAD THINGS will happen, and the other person will think I think I look ok and that would be being vain and there is nothing worse in the world than vanity. Of course, this just made people pissed off that I would never accept a compliment. One friend once just said “you know, when someone compliments you, you should just say ‘thank you’ and move on. Don’t tell them why they are wrong”. It hadn’t occurred to me that rejecting their compliments in the name of my own obsessive low self-esteem could actually push people further away.
It did drive one significant other away. He became increasingly upset by my difficulty in being nice to or about myself, and with my constant putting myself down. “How would you feel,” he asked me, “if someone who looked and acted exactly like me came into this room and started saying really horrible things about me? You wouldn’t put up with it, would you? Well that what it’s like when you put yourself down. It’s like someone who looks like someone I love, being needlessly mean about them. Why do you do it?”
I don’t know quite how I came to develop the conclusion that to be seen to be vain is the worst thing you could ever do, and that thinking or saying nice things about yourself or allowing others to say nice things about you is the path to extreme vanity and friendlessness. I remember Mother RDP telling me that when people complimented her on what a beautiful child I was she used to say things like ‘shame about her ears’ so that I ‘wouldn’t grow up vain’. I suspect that’s part of it. But perhaps the wider context for it is built right into our culture. As was pointed out in the feminism event I went to, women find it extremely hard to be proud of their achievements. Even when those achievements are real and tangible, many women find it hard to say, “YES, I did that. I did it well. That makes me pretty awesome.” So many aspects of our society, our upbringing, the media around us, tell us that you’re not meant to be like that. You must be meek, you must bashfully and modestly accept your compliments, but never compliment yourself.
It seems strange to look back at those times and remember how I thought. Of course, as low self-esteem goes, this was a pretty extreme case. But I am not alone in having felt this way, and the more I talk about it, the more shocked I am to discover how many of us have gone through similar thought patterns as we’ve grown up – if perhaps not taken to such extent as self-harm and refusal to follow a rule of punctuation. We’ve assimilated messages that say be confident, but be modest. Be pretty, but don’t know it. Be strong, but gentle. Be smart, but don’t let people know. It’s so confusing trying to learn to enjoy being yourself when there are so many conflicting messages out there which simultaneously tell you that you are both fine just as you are and that you are inadequate.
There’s an episode of My Little Pony’s ‘friendship is magic’ all about this exact theme – where Twilight Sparkle becomes terrified of revealing how talented she is to her friends in case they reject her for it, because boasting is bad. Being Friendship is Magic it actually deals with this theme rather well, by drawing a line between making shit up to get people to admire you and just actually being good at something and being proud of that. But I couldn’t help identifying with the message that it can be scary to put yourself and your talents out there, and that sometimes it’s hard to find that line between positive self-affirmation and something that looks like boasting.
All of this has come to mind because of a Halloween costume I put together for a club night last weekend. Regular readers will have been following my body positive journey over the months that I gave up sugar, lost some weight and gained some confidence. I still surprise myself sometimes when I put something on and look in the mirror and am able to go ‘hey, I look good’, even though the days of (literally) beating myself up about thinking I look good are long past. So I surprised myself with this Halloween outfit, which was part Zatanna, part witch, mostly covered in spiders. The outfit pretty much consisted of lingerie with a tight jacket and a top hat. And about 100 spiders.
Since I opened the leotard floodgates I seem to be getting more and more comfortable leaving the house with my body actually visible, and feeling pretty confident that I look ok. That no one is going to point and go ‘fat chick in a leotard’ or ‘your bum is too big for that’ or ‘put it away love’. And even if they do, I have the self-esteem to go “meh, your opinion, my body. I win.” I made a point of telling other curvy women at the club in equally revealing outfits how wonderful they looked, and what a great body they had. It meant a lot to me when people said it to me.
When I saw some pictures of me from the weekend, I had a weird moment. Whereas previously I would have been picking over the picture picking where the jacket was crumpled, my shorts askew, my thighs chunky, my spiders in the wrong place – this time I thought ‘wow. I look great. Look at my waist! It’s so small! I look like I am wearing a corset, but that’s just me. I’ve never had a reaction like that looking at a photo of myself before. Briefly, I wanted someone to ask me if I was wearing a corset, so I could be all NO. THAT’S ME. MEEEEEEE. Then I realised – I don’t need someone to ask me. I am proud of this. Proud of not only looking but feeling good. I can just SAY IT.
Sometimes, saying something good about ourselves can actually make us feel better. We all should be allowed to give ourselves a boost. To say “I did this thing. I am proud of this thing. I did it WELL” without fearing that others will think we’re Boasty McBoasterson from Vainville.
I wonder if we’ve not got a twisted idea of what ‘vanity’ means. We use phrases like “god, she really loves herself doesn’t she” or “he’s good looking, but he knows it” as insults. But surely loving yourself is a good thing? We should celebrate people loving themselves, and allow people to talk about their achievements, or things that make them happy, and celebrate that they are able to do so. As Rupal says, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?”.
Give it a go. Every day, give yourself a compliment. In the mirror, or to a significant other, or out there in the world as a tweet or a facebook status. Celebrate yourself. When a friend compliments you, believe it. Smile and say thank you. It’s ok to say nice things about yourself, it doesn’t make you a bad person and might make you feel good.
And never underestimate the power of 100 plastic spiders.