Recently, I’ve been getting into listening to “chick lit” while I drive. Sometimes I have to be in the car for long hauls, and listening to a fluffy book on a C.D. distracts me from worrying about all the weird sounds that my car makes, and there is something about a pleasant voice telling you a story that is so comforting… regardless of how shitty the content actually is. The chick lit genre contains the stories that ultimately get picked up in “chick flicks”/romantic comedies, and they have all of the same ridiculous tropes (which Mindy Kaling nails in this post) and clichés that we expect from a move starring Hugh Grant.
Anyways, one of these clichés, which is of course not confined to chick lit, is the idea that women, before they can love anyone else, have to “love themselves”. This popular psychology is everywhere. It is the type of vacuous statement that well-meaning people give away freely. And when they do, they somehow convince themselves that they’ve said something profound. Good for them, I suppose. By the way, I have eavesdropped on entire conversations that consist exclusively of exchanging similar clichés, and have noticed that both parties seem genuinely stimulated. Kind of like this:
Converser 1: “Well, everything happens for a reason.”
Converser 2: “What goes around comes around; karma’s a bitch.”
Converser 1: “Well, it is, what it is.”
All of these clichés drive me bonkers, especially the first one, but I’ll save that for another post.
Returning to “love yourself”, I started to think about what that actually means, and what it means for women in particular. I, like other sociologists tend to conduct an informal ethnography every time I see my facebook homepage. I am starting to see a horrifying trend among some of my friends and acquaintances, who I think are trying to do just that; love themselves. And, I don’t fault them for that.
My homepage is literally littered with fitspiration. Some of it is outwardly hostile, like this one. But, what concerns me more are the messages around fat-shaming, and the encouragement that women (and men too) are given to exercise to the point of physical illness. Further, one doesn’t have to have acute critical thinking skills to look at this fitspo tumblr account and notice that it looks a lot like a pro anna (pro-anorexic) community website. Just google it. There is essentially no difference in terms of the message or the imagery used.
Fitspo sends a dangerous message about what it means to care about yourself. What these memes really encourage is putting one’s current body through pain and anguish, in the hopes of obtaining a body that is worth your own love.
At best, fitspo doesn’t work, and it keeps women’s attention focused on their appearance and away from larger public issues. It is a fact that women whose primary focus is on their appearance have very little political efficacy. To have political efficacy is to possess the belief that you can make an impact the world around you; that you are a valuable and active citizen. Naomi Wolf was talking about this shit in the 90’s. She called it ‘The Beauty Myth’, and it is tragically more relevant today than it was then. At worst, fitspo/thinspo is absolutely triggering for anyone who has, or is on the verge of struggling with eating disorders. It has the power to normalize and idealize some very sick and unhealthy tendencies.
Ultimately, this isn’t about “loving one’s self”. In fact it encourages us to be unhappy, distracted, and limits our capacity to be politically engaged.