The whacked narcissism of self hatred
I was reading an article the other day, and one of the commenters accused people who say their love their bodies of narcissism. I thought that was interesting. Is loving our bodies narcissistic?
Maybe for a few people, but body hatred is more so.
When I think about the narcissism of body love, I think of the scene in a gym locker room in Toronto, described to me by my husband: naked (and probably gay - it was the right neighborhood) men posing and flexing in front of mirrors, showing off to each other. It sounded funny; maybe even a little sweet. Made me wish I was a fly on the wall. My husband, who is a small, non-musclebound dude and was just changing into shorts to play squash, did not feel judged or denigrated. It was a fundamentally a benign show of narcissism.
Meanwhile, I was in the women's locker room. While the men were loving their big, strong bodies, the women were not. Stepping onto the scale. Looking disappointed. Hiding behind towels and changing one half at a time to avoid nudity. Can you imagine women posing naked in front of mirrors, in public, silently admiring their bodies? I can't. Because although we women are socialised to be vain, we rarely view ourselves positively and if we do, there's a stigma against expressing it.
The thing is, negativity is stickier than positivity. Loving the way you look doesn't imply hating how someone else looks. Only a sad and paranoid person would hear "I hate your red hair" in "I love my brown hair." But when someone with thinner, leaner, firmer arms than yours says "I hate my arms! They're huge and disgusting. Look how they jiggle!" then it takes a strong person and a conscious effort not to hear the logical extension of that: "if my arms are ugly, your arms are unspeakably horrible."
Yes, yes. It's your issue, not mine. You were not thinking about my arms when you said that. You see your body in a more negative light than you see others' bodies. Of course, that's how it almost always is. That was almost certainly not a passive aggressive, indirect criticism aimed at me.
And it usually isn't meant as indirect criticism, but it certainly could be.
Negativity is sticky; it's adhesive; it gets all over other people.
Although applying a set of standards to one's own body, clothing, or even achievement does not mean that those standards are meant to be universal or to relate in any way to the standards others set for themselves, the language can tell a different story. It's difficult to use negative and judgemental language - even about ourselves - without sounding self righteous as well as insecure.
But we women tend to be perfectionists, we hate it when we don't live up to our own standards, and we almost never do. We see this in our mothers and other role models; this intolerance towards self; this idea that anything less than perfection (however that's defined) is unacceptable and makes us worthless. And at the same time, we're meant to be much more tolerant and understanding toward other people.
This is not a good thing.
We could blame it on the patriarchy. It definitely weakens women. It keeps us obsessed with insignificant details, and that prevents us from being as active as we could be in business, politics, and discourse. But, it is a form of self absorption, and it is narcissistic. Who are we to expect perfection from ourselves? Is being flawed human beings not good enough? So many women are so busy; so weighed down with responsibilities. There's a need to give ourselves some personal, mental and emotional space. Why do we wrestle these precious bits of time and attention from our busy lives, only to waste them spreading around this negative, self hating muck? And demanding perfection of ourselves gives the negativity so much more power.
Loving our bodies isn't necessarily vain. I've heard that the English language has too few words for love, and perhaps people associate the idea of body love with romantic love; starry-eyed new relationship energy. That does seem a bit over the top to me. But isn't body love - self love in general - more like loving a family member or a very old friend? There's familiarity, a deep history, tolerance for quirks and foibles, steady affection, and an ability to forgive. Mature love isn't about perfection or the elevation of an idealised object. It's about respect and understanding. Don't we all owe ourselves that?