Illustration: Julia Pustet
Why self-love on social media (mostly) annoys me.
“I’m in tune with myself, you fuckers.”
The three top results under the hash tag “Body positivity” show beautiful, white, wealthy women laughing into emptiness. Maybe they are happy about the kinky villa atmosphere, underwear for 300 dollars, 5000 likes or they’re simply laughing about the simple people. Just normal Instagram content. Only that the ladies are overweight. With which they even take on a special role under the hash tag “Bodypositivity”, because the further I scroll, the more photos of sports butts in expensive functional clothing can be found in the feed, entwined with aphorisms, muesli, yoga content and – strangely enough – dogs.
If I enter “Selflove” into the search window, the number of results increases tenfold to over 20 million. The share of inspirational quotes increases significantly. Abdominal muscles, dislocations, sun visor effects and before and after photos dominate the feed. I feel body negative somehow.
Is this really self-love or just the joy to have made it?
When I went to school, people bragging about their abdominal muscles without being asked were seen as show-offs. Anyone who stood in front of the class every day to read from dad’s stock portfolio had to reckon with a beating. And anyone who complained to school management that the new SUV did not fit in the school car park definitely made it into the “Victims of the Year” section of the school newspaper. Back then, social media wasn’t much of a thing, and the mere bragging about money and bodies was always associated with something embarrassing. Boasting rich children were ridiculed and of course secretly envied – at least by us, the outsiders.
It would be great if #selflove and #bopo would mean that all former outsiders could stand up for themselves in public today. Just like the show-offs of that time, only deeper. As if the magic of the hashtag would suddenly summon the internet community to manically forgive all flaws. But this is not the case. Self-love seems to me, at least on social media, to 90% be a privilege of the self-in love. Anyone who then claimed to be on a luxury holiday or boasted about their new Moncler jacket, increases their self-confidence and prestige on social media additionally with “Selfcare” and “Selflove”, and is still an asshole. A privileged asshole who takes pictures on a green roof terrace while doing yoga.
“If you don’t love yourself, no one else can love you”
Joelle Notte writes in the book: ‘Ask. Building consent culture’ insights into life with mental illness in the polyamory scene: “Many people don’t love themselves. They can’t. They won’t ever. Simply telling them that they have to do that before they can have the love of anyone else not only is cruel, but can backfire dramatically. […] Acting out selflove doesn’t leave much room for weighing real wants and needs.”
Notte’s statements can easily be transferred to social networks. Here, boldly exaggerated self-love sometimes functions as a ticket to success. But for those who just can’t love themselves, a mantra doesn’t change anything. And whether one manages to love oneself does not only depend on a “positive attitude”. Inspirational self-love slogans and determined hashtags ultimately offer self-affirmation to people who already experience this confirmation from others. For those who have to fight for it, they are a farce.
Empowerment or intimidation?
#bodypositivity, #selflove and #selfcare may be great empowerment, but still do have extremely reactionary elements. The decision to stand up for oneself can and should of course encounter resistance. The public living of this decision can mean standing up against discrimination and devaluation, but also against prevailing norms of beauty and body. Social media can help people from different backgrounds to break down shame and make the range of vulnerabilities and self-doubt tangible. That´s important, and it´s great. But in its present forms, however, the confessions and calls for self-love fuel one thing above all else: the compulsion to continually optimise oneself – even in those areas of life in which one should “only” be oneself. They create the dictate to think pleasingly positively, to take care of oneself, to stand by oneself and to accept oneself without end. You shall embrace your body, but not your issues. If you´re not able to get rid of them all, you´re a failure.
Stay positive, bitch!
Body positivity is an often called “movement” hashtag, behind which there is a basic correct approach: To understand what is often called “flaw” as a facet of beauty. The media norm of the thin, white woman is to be broken by images of proud, self-confident people in all their diversity. #saggyboobsmovement aims to normalise sagging breasts rather than see them as flaws, the #EDwarriors want to fight eating disorders by celebrating realistic body images, accounts like @andigetsdressed show street styles of women of all body types and skin colours.
All this is not only great, it’s necessary. It’s so necessary that I get angry when people celebrate big brands like H&M for including normal-weight women in their campaigns. What bothers me the least is that #bopo has obviously become a marketing tool – that’s the tragic way things are in our world. What bothers me more is that for those who are really struggling with body schema disorders, mental illnesses, eating disorders, hardly anything will change. Because to become a social media star or plus-size model is more in demand than the banal fact of having a BMI over 20: If you have the wrong face, the wrong body composition, the wrong social rank or just not enough social and cultural capital, you´re still a loser.
The central problem is the significance of beauty is still unchallenged by most bodypositive bloggers. Beauty even seems important enough to be reclaimed for everyone. It makes perfectly sense that bodypositivity is a mainly female phenomenon: Traditionally, how one looks is just more important when it comes to women then when it comes to men. Very few #bopo-activists come up with the revolutionary idea of just not valueing beauty so high anymore. The most empowering quote when it comes to bodypositivity is from the US-American powerlifter @megsquats. She ends a video about her own history of the perception of her own body with the simple words: “How you look is the least important thing about you.”
“Now I’ve shown you so much goodwill and you still can’t make it.”
#Bodypositivity is empowerment. But it’s also an extension of the old “anyone can make it” lie. Just as it was once believed that every dishwasher could be a millionaire through hard work, today everyone should be able to become an influencer or model by virtue of their mediocrity – or at least accept themselves. In social media, #bopo also suggests that radical honesty would be rewarded. With likes, devotion, recognition. But that’s not true. No one would post “Instagram vs. Reality” pics showing the same ass in two poses (one of which is “mercilessly honest”) if there was no measurable recognition for it. In spite of everything, “making it” can only be achieved by those who have been very lucky: with the mental condition, the right environment, the right face, the financial possibilities or a lot of chance. All the others fail because of an ideal that pretends not to be and that rubs under their noses: “Now I’ve shown you so much goodwill and you still can’t make it.”
No hash tag is strong enough against anorexia
I suffered from anorexia years ago. Even at that time I was occasionally confronted with photos of women of different body types. And I could also find normal to overweight women beautiful. I just didn’t want to be one of them at all. I didn’t starve to be beautiful. It’s to stay in control. My self-esteem did not grow from positive reinforcement – a “how beautiful you look, you have gained a little weight” would have hit me hard. When I met people who had gained ten, twenty kilos after overcoming their eating disorder, I thought to myself, “Looks good. I just hope that never happens to me.”
What is often forgotten is that the reasons for eating disorders cannot simply be reduced to the spread of certain ideals of beauty. Important factors in the development of complex disorders such as sports addiction, bulimia and anorexia nervosa can be early childhood experiences, the relationship to the original family or various psychological conflicts. Experiences of sufferers who have overcome their own eating disorder can support some sufferers. It is questionable, however, to what extent photos of women of normal weight who are shared under the hashtag #EDrecovered (“healed from eating disorders”) offer acutely affected or endangered persons an identification surface at all.
After all, anorexia in most cases causes the fear of being cured: For many anorectic women, recovery would mean to break the rules they set for themselves. Gaining weight means losing control. It can take a long time, till images of ED recovereds lose their horror on those, who are still struggling with recovery.
To take care of yourself is a claim that was watered down until it became a skin cream.
Where #bopo stands, #selfcare is not far away. The fact that there is an industry behind the much-discussed term is particularly evident in social media: A large proportion of the more successful self-care postings basically advertise products, face masks, spa visits, luxury trips, detox teas and overpriced dark chocolate. Paradoxically, “simplicity” became the ideal of a beautiful life: pastel-coloured products in a minimalistic design are presented on simple wooden tables and marketed as “essentials”. Every cheap discounter soap bodes “pure joy” or “simple moments” In reality, however, simplicity does not mean solid wood, but pressboard. And let’s be honest: There’s not much left of the appearance of the tender gesture towards the self when we imagine a single mother taking care of her children’s homework in the prefab apartment, while the strawberry mask of Balea sinks in. That’s what it looks like, the simple life.
Self-love without solidarity is worthless.
The flood of self-love products should not obscure the view of a political tradition of the term. The Afro-American activist, feminist and writer Audre Lorde wrote sentences in 1988 that were often recalled in the course of recent debates about self-care and self-love: “Taking care of yourself is not a personal luxury. It is self-preservation and thus an act of political warfare.” For Lorde, self-care means caring for oneself in order to be able to continue the political struggle. Self-assertion also functions as a means of fighting against those who attack one’s own self. Yashna Padamsee of the “National Domestic Workers Alliance” understands the concept of self-care of Lorde as a means to counteract “activist burnout”. She asks: “What is the purpose of your self-care? Is it to do this for all of our lives, not just yours?”
What applies to #selfcare can also be applied to #bopo, #selflove and Co.: They have their value where they are solidary, honest and combative. Where one is aware of the fact that not all women have to fight the same battles, and personal obstacles and hurdles are not fairly distributed.
I myself don’t think I have a special relationship with my body. I’m neither bodypositive nor bodynegative. I am rather body neutral and that is enough for me. My fights against anorexia and it-girls are long gone and almost forgotten. But I think: self-love and a healthy relationship to one’s own body are not a mantra, they are not a product. Loving yourself is not something you just choose to do. It is the result of long and complex processes that you have to get involved with. And these processes and struggles look as different as the people who lead them and the struggles in which they are involved.
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