Towards a less Selfish Self Love
Self Love Club
(in which I reveal my own hypocrisy)
It's one of those phrases that has exploded all over everything. You want a self love club t shirt? A self love club sticker? A self love club instagram post? A self love club tattoo? Internet feminism has got your back. Amazing how quickly even our own relationship with ourselves can be repackaged and sold back to us at profit.
Even I, queen of non-offensive feminist sloganry, feel a bit ick when I see it on a sweatshirt from Boohoo. And not just because I also stock a self love club sweatshirt design (awks! I am a hypocrite?) . I kinda like the Boohoo version. It’s got twist text which is super fashion and Y2K, and it’s cheap for a hoodie!
Self love can be selfish.
Of course, that cheapness is some of the ick. Boohoo’s human rights abuses and modern slavery investigation have been well documented. We are mostly savvy enough to know that fast fashion at cheap prices means that someone pays the price down the line. But I think I reserve full ick for the combination of a woman emblazoned with the message of SELF LOVE while other people suffer so she can wear it. Is there anything that encapsulates the toxicity of white feminism better? White feminism focuses on our own personal freedom at the expense of more marginalised women, Rachel Cargle explains far better than I could in this interview here how harmful it really is. Boohoo are selling a self love club tee and, I believe, a cynical message deeply entrenched in the racist, capitalist, patriarchy. Self love can be selfish.
And yet, there is something so radically life changing, and I will argue so radically community changing about really really exploring self love. I really think that it is one of the tools that can start to dismantle oppressive structures.
NOW, do not get me wrong. I am NOT saying that everybody learning to love themselves will fix the problems of the world. I do NOT believe that social justice can be entirely brought about by introspection and consciousness raising and a good self care routine. At some point direct action is required. But I do want to reflect on what it really means to act with self love and how radical that really can be.
Radical Self Love.
In the English language we are woefully short of words for love. I’ve sat through enough church sermons to be able to confidently report that New Testament Greek uses a bunch of different words for love: the love you have for your friend, romantic love, family love, and divine love. In our english translations we just get the catch all word - love - to describe all of them.
We use the word love so broadly that it’s become almost meaningless.
Love is a verb, a doing word.
Loving another is nothing to do with how we feel about them. It is about how we interact with them. This is the way that we love our close ones. We demonstrate our love by acting in their best interests. If we only acted in love when we ‘felt it’, very few babies would be fed in the night; my children would certainly never ever get their choice for dinner. This is the way in Christian orthodoxy that we can love both our neighbour and our enemy; we don’t feel it, we DO it. This extends far beyond one religious outlook. You don’t have to believe in a divine being to know in your heart that if the whole world acted in selfless love, there isn’t a problem, personal or structural that wouldn’t be overcome.
So what then of Self Love?
If we are expected to feel like we love ourselves we are yet again, set up for failure. If loving ourselves means feeling wonderful about every aspect of our bodies and abilities we will fail. The tenderness of self compassion is rarely our first response.
Self Love too, then, can only be an action. Or a series of actions. I don’t believe that the self care that is being relentlessly marketed to us as a slogan on stuff we can buy is what we really really need. We need to incorporate practices of self love with the same urgency that we need to be outworking selfless love.
The action of loving yourself is the same as the actions of loving another, it means compassion, honouring their needs, assuming the best, forgiving their worst, acting in their best interests. But here’s a kicker: You can choose to not love someone else, to not interact with them, to not live out the rest of your life with them. Millions of other people on this planet are going about their lives without being actively loved by you.
But you do not have that option with yourself. It’s you and you forever, and not acting with love towards yourself day in, day out, has consequences that affect more than just yourself.
Those who have walked or are walking a spiritual path will recognise the apparent dichotomy between love of self and the necessary death of the ego for transformation. But I believe these things come together, one is part of the other. It is impossible to look wholly honestly at yourself and to live authentically without recognising your unmet needs... and how those unmet needs in yourself manifest as harmful behaviours or attitudes. Harmful for you and for others. (I realise this is going in a strange direction for a blog post about sweatshirts, but bear with me!)
Wake up call for self love
My chronic illness has been a wake up call in my life, an alarm ringing louder and louder for the past 5 years or so. I am ashamed now when I admit to myself that I have been hitting ‘snooze’ on that alarm for so long, even as my day-to-day life became harder and I felt more and more hopeless. Fear that my needs were unmeetable - or Too Much - held me back from really examining them. Fear that once I really started to peel back the layers, that I would be overcome. But hiding away from this necessary, radical, self love, this brutal honest assessment of where my lack is, just keeps me stuck. Re: walking the same paths, playing out the same cycles of self sabotage, unable to fully experience the joy that is abundant in my life, despite its grief and challenges.
So, this Radical Self Love is a call to action. A call to healing. A call to really examine ourselves and to take steps towards a radical acceptance of what is, without self judgement or recrimination. Only from there can we start to treat ourselves with the tender compassion that changes us. It’s not about a ‘self love’ that is a bubble bath or treating yourself to some candles. It's not a self improvement program so you can be fitter, or more productive or learn to love the shape of your thighs. It’s not righteousness or denial, thinking that you are better than anyone else.
It most certainly is not a hoodie of dubious ethics, a simulacra of your own empowerment sold back to you at the cost of the well-being of another.
And that is a self love that is truly radical. Because the self examination that leads to love - compassion and tenderness for our own unmet needs, wounds, and wrongs is humbling. And it changes you. It is impossible to come to a place where you act with that love for yourself, and then withhold it from others.
We often pray in churches to ‘see people as God does’ - this is what I believe happens with this practice of radical self love. We are then given the insight to see the dignity and worth in all people. When we are free from self judgement and recrimination, we are free from the same judgement for others. We have compassion for the ‘difficultness’ of other people as we are not unaware of our own. And we are then truly free to love and accept others, fully, and selflessly.
And this can change you. It can change the dynamics of your family, of your romantic partnership, of your parenting. It changes the way you interact with the world, and your community. I really believe that this can change the world.