Writing and artwork by Jessie Li
I was twelve years old the first time I practiced self-hate.
I stepped in front of my bathroom mirror, buried my toes into my fluffy pink bathmat, and began. Starting at the very top of my head, I carefully scanned every inch of my face. I was searching for flaws–for reasons to hate myself. It only took a few minutes for me to dramatically distort my self-perception. All I could see when I looked in the mirror was a collage of imperfections: frizzy hair, an abnormally large forehead, and a few dark spots of skin. It made me sad, but I was proud of that sadness. It meant I was fixing myself.
For my whole life prior to that day (and for a little while after), I thought I was beautiful. Somewhere along the line, I learned this was a bad thing. I learned that confidence like mine was abnormal and unattractive, especially for a girl, and that having any positive feelings toward myself meant that I was conceited. My opinion of myself didn’t change; I just learned to hide it. But when I was twelve, I got caught.
A boy in my class sent me a text that read “Do you think you’re pretty?” The question caused my cheeks to flush and my heart to quicken. It felt intrusive. It felt like a trap. In answering the question, I would have to choose between telling the truth and preserving my reputation. After several minutes of flipping back and forth between my options, I finally determined that there was less harm in the lie. I was wrong. I didn’t realize it at the time but my confidence was a secret rebellion, and I lost my fight the second I sent that two-letter text. A silly text from a twelve-year-old boy showed me the shame in high self-esteem. And the shame in lying. So, to redeem myself, I decided to realize my lie–to practice self-hate.
It’s true what they say about practice making perfect. Over time, it became easier and easier to find more and more things to hate about my appearance. I didn’t even need to try. By the time I was fourteen, I could list at least one thing I hated about every part of my body. The hate I had for my appearance spread to deeper parts of me. I felt that I was somehow less than my peers–less valuable, less capable, less important. Being so insecure affected my life and my relationships for the worse. My increased sensitivity led to fights with my parents. I let my “friends” mistreat me because I could not see that I deserved better or even that better options existed.
When I was fifteen, I was stumped by a question yet again. My homeroom advisor asked our female-only advisory to go around the room and name one thing we liked about our bodies. Like before, my cheeks flushed and my pulse quickened as I scrambled to find an answer just in time for my turn. Feeling all the eyes of my advisory on me, I sheepishly said “my dimples.” My advisor said: “Let’s see them!” And then I smiled. It couldn’t have been a great smile; I felt embarrassed and awkward, and I exaggerated a bit to make sure my dimples actually showed. But still, I smiled. And I kept smiling.
I was fifteen years old the first time I practiced self-love. When I got home from school that day, I stepped in front of my bathroom mirror, planted my feet on a newer, grayer bathmat, and began. This time I was searching for things to love about myself.
It wasn’t easy at first. But it’s true what they say about practice making perfect. Now, at 20 years old, I can proudly say that I love myself! I still feel some of the damage I did to my self-esteem all those years ago. I still wish I didn’t have such a large forehead or those dark spots of skin. The difference is that now, I do not let such things stand in the way of my confidence. I can look in the mirror and say “I’m beautiful,” even with my flaws. My flaws do not make me any less valuable or any less capable or any less worthy of love. I am so much more. I am proud of who I am, and I am grateful for my body. It took me years to get here, and I still have bad days. But I work hard to keep myself in check. When insecurity creeps in, I do what I can to make sure it knows it is not welcome.
For the last few years, I’ve been trying to figure out why so many of us were under the impression that we were wrong to believe we were beautiful. Why did we think that nobody would ever love us if we loved ourselves?
Part of it is due to miscommunication. We need to understand and teach the difference between confidence and cockiness. Confidence is believing in yourself and your abilities. Cockiness is excessive outward pride and involves belittling others. Similarly, the distinction between self-love and narcissism can be unclear. Self-love appreciating yourself, recognizing your positive attributes, and giving yourself the respect and care you would give to any other loved-one. Narcissism is excessive self-concern, lack of empathy, and viewing yourself as superior to those around you. Thinking highly of yourself does not have to stop you from thinking highly of others. Thinking highly of yourself does not have to mean that you are self-obsessed or that you think you are better than everyone else. Somewhere between narcissism and self-hatred lies a happy medium. Find it and thrive.
Our society’s romanticization of female self-hate is also responsible. Our popular culture is littered with songs that credit a girl’s beauty to her low self-esteem and movies in which the Hot Male Lead falls for the shy, insecure girl and the only female characters that show any positive feelings toward themselves are ditzy bullies. Why? I can’t be sure, but my guess is that a strong, confident woman wields too much power. She intimidates her male counterpart. She can not be pushed around. Generally speaking, girls with low self-esteem are more compliant. They are easier to manipulate. They won’t stand in your way. Well, I refuse to weaken myself to strengthen another person’s ego.
You have to live with yourself, so you might as well love yourself. If you are confident and happy in your body, it will shine through and positively influence the way you interact with the world and the way the world interacts with you. When you love yourself, you can unlock your full potential, become the best possible version of yourself, and make your best possible contributions to this world.[share]