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Opinion The consumer-driven concept of self-love has little to do with real self-respect

Niamh Jimenez looks at the pressure on us to be externally perfect and suggests we should be looking a little deeper.

MY TEENAGEHOOD WILL forever be haunted by the magic of the L’Oréal hair flick, followed by the model’s tantalising four-word invitation: “Because you’re worth it.”

More compelling than my memory of the advertisement was my discovery that, after chemically straightening my hair, lathering it with L’Oréal shampoo and blow drying it to perfection, I was no closer to finding genuine self-love than I was before I started.

During those coming-of-age years, our search for self-love is complicated by social pressures to conform and to belong to the so-called “tribe.”

One UK study highlights the unsettling “commodification” of self-esteem, where teens who fail to have the “right” look at the “right” time can face social exclusion and, inevitably, a decline in their intrinsic sense of self-worth. In Ireland, recent research has revealed alarmingly low levels of self-esteem, specifically body esteem, amongst teenage girls.

Selling perfection

Regrettably, the obstacles that lie in the way of loving ourselves do not magically disappear as soon as we become fully-fledged adults. While the intense anxiety of purchasing the “right” brands may subside by our thirties, we continue to search for self-love and belonging through the consumption of products that make us feel good: a mocha latte, a manicure, an “oatmeal avocado” face mask.

By this prevailing standard, self-love not only supplies us with a warm feeling but can be purchased without much emotional or psychological effort.

In a world where our lives are often fragmented by competing obligations, from navigating the murky politics of the office to raising children and trying to preserve the spark of intimate relationships, it is not surprising that we elect to conserve our energy.

And so, our relentlessly busy lifestyles have given rise to a kind of “convenience self-love”- the wellness culture’s equivalent to fast food – which is now available in pretty subscription boxes.

beautybloggerwomanfilmingdailymake-uproutinetutorialnearcamera Social media is leading the product-driven understanding of self-worth. Shutterstock / Artie Medvedev Shutterstock / Artie Medvedev / Artie Medvedev

The booming beauty and personal care industry, valued at $571 billion this year, tends to promote materialistic self-care as the hallmark of psychological well-being. Buoyed up by a captive audience on social media, giant high-street brands capitalise on self-esteem and self-love campaigns, not only to boost their profit margins but to persuade us that indulging in their products is our birthright.

Self-respect and self-worth

Etched in my memory is the mix of horror and pity that I evoked in one confrontational sales assistant as she peddled “a limited collection” of skincare cleansers. In response to her question, “What do you use on your face?” I committed what could only be described as an act of self-care heresy by confessing, “Just soap.”

She spent the next few minutes presenting me with ludicrously priced lotions and potions, seemingly determined to rescue me from the depths of what she perceived as my deprivation.

The irony is that, more often than not, the fleeting thrill of buying self-love is swiftly punctuated by an emptiness that begs to be filled, yet again, with another shiny object – a deep cleansing face mask infused with charcoal and volcanic ash, perhaps.

It took me almost two decades to grasp that self-love, along with its essential ingredient of self-respect, cannot be bought through skin care cleansers, hair products, butt-shaping pants, or silent negotiations with other people.

Choosing this consumerist route is equivalent to groping around in the dark, not just for that elusive state of self-love, but for the reflection of our own worthiness in the eyes of other people: wives, husbands, best friends, anonymous passers-by.

The truth, however, is that if self-respect had anything to do with the approval of others, we would live forever at the mercy of their ever-changing whims and fickle opinions – something which the American writer Joan Didion suggests, is more symptomatic of self-alienation than self-respect.

authors-joan-didion-left-and-her-husband-john-dunne-are-shown-during-an-interview-in-their-malibu-home-ca-in-december-1977-didion-made-the-best-seller-list-with-her-fourth-book-a-book-of-com Authors Joan Didion, left and her husband, John Dunne, in December 1977. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

In a 1961 essay in Vogue, Didion declared that self-respect, the core ingredient of self-love, has nothing to do with external forces and everything to do with our own actions, choices and conversations with ourselves.

According to Didion, genuine self-love has to be cultivated, similar to a discipline or an art form: she described it as “a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth.” For Didion and perhaps the women of her generation, self-respect sprang from the old-fashioned concept of “character,” defined as “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life.”

Doing the work

Didion’s model of self-respect sits jarringly next to the messages that I and other millennials have long internalised.

Not only does it violate the teaching of self-love as an exercise in buying comforts, but it also appears to go against the almost universal expectation that loving yourself is the product of a kind of passive self-acceptance.

While I grew up thinking that self-love would simply arrive one day as if by some spontaneous chemical reaction, Didion’s version of self-respect demands hard work, self-honesty and an ample dose of critical reflection.

Although she never applied a face mask or took a bubble bath in her life, It is likely that my grandmother had what Didion called “character.” At the age of six or seven, she staged a protest against her parents’ decision not to send her to school. After what she describes as a year-long temper tantrum, my great-grandparents succumbed to her resolute spirit.

The scars on her legs as an older woman told the story of her barefoot walks through sugarcane fields to get an education. After completing her high school education at 20 and spending a couple of years at a secretarial college, my grandmother travelled on her own from Puerto Rico to the United States, where, with a heart full of ambition, she became a schoolteacher.

Building character

It is only now, with my revised understanding of self-love, that I recognise my grandmother as the exemplar of an almost forgotten ideal. While she overcame extreme poverty and held herself to the highest standards of academic achievement, her self-respect resided in the everyday choices she made and her unwavering commitment to her own convictions.

In the face of conflicting family values and expectations, she possessed, from the age of seven, a resolute clarity about what she wanted in life.

She understood, if even unconsciously, that if she was ever to look at herself in the mirror, she had to align her actions with her deepest values. She understood that, although her choices would alienate her from the community she knew, she had to shoulder responsibility for the consequences, both good and bad, of living authentically.

Despite the immense effort, courage and discipline required to cultivate genuine self-respect, there is no greater gift than being in charge of one’s own life. Without genuine self-respect, we risk forever trying to fit inside other people’s projected fantasies of who we are, becoming enslaved by external circumstances and being buried alive beneath a mountain of eyelash combs, hair perfumes, facial masks and scented candles.

Niamh Jimenez is a freelance writer and online journalist covering racial inclusion, mental health science and digital therapeutics. She is also currently undertaking a master’s degree in humanistic and integrative psychotherapy.  

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