The Fine Art of Learning to Love Yourself

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon an interesting picture while scrolling through my Facebook page. The words ”You have to love yourself before anyone else can take the role of loving you” were written in large letters. The quote really got to me and for a moment I actually felt an ounce of despair. Is it really not possible for anyone else to love me if I do not completely love myself first?

The first thing that came to my mind was the definition of the words ”loving yourself”. Does it mean that you should put yourself first or is it more about self-confidence?

In Sweden we sometimes talk about putting ourselves in “the first room”, but in English I guess you would refer to it as putting yourself first. Often when talked about, the first room is something good and an absolutely necessary thing to do to improve your personal welfare. When applying Cognitive Egoism to your life, you allow yourself to do things that bring happiness to your daily life.

“By making yourself the first priority, especially by doing things that makes you happy and makes you feel good, you get energy. That energy is needed while taking care of a job, a home and taking care of others.”

Cecilia Kärvegård, Swedish Behaviourist in Aftonbladet Wellness.

I do agree with this form of loving yourself. I actually do believe that by putting yourself in the first room and treating yourself right, you get the energy to be able to let yourself be loved by someone else as well.

If by loving yourself means that you have to create a spot-on self-confidence or self-esteem, then I disagree with that. Self esteem has to do with the feeling you have of yourself, it’s the version of yourself that you wish other people see. When growing up, I lacked a lot of self esteem. When I look back at the way I used to feel about myself, I honestly feel heartbroken. I did not consider myself beautiful nor did I feel good enough, because I had people telling me that I was not. I believed them, completely, which dragged my self-esteem down a lot.

Today I look at myself in a very different way. I may not consider myself beautiful every-time I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror, I may not be great in every single thing that I do. However, what I do know today, that I didn’t know a couple of years ago, is that I am totally and completely good enough just the way I am.

Today, the number of young people living with a mental illness is rising. The Swedish National Centre for Suicide-research and Prevention of Mental Illness presents numbers of young people in Sweden living with a mental illness. The amount of young Swedish women hospitalised for trying to take their own lives or for self-destructive behaviour, has increased by large numbers since the early 90’s. It’s also a fact that the number of adolescents suffering from anxiety has increased by three hundred percent in Sweden over the last twenty years.

The question many people, including myself, is asking themselves is why this is happening now. Why is it that more young women try to take their own life today? One aspect of the problem might be the immense pressure created by our society today, on how you are supposed to look and act. The idea of what is considered beautiful and successful suddenly narrows down quite a bit while scrolling through social media. I often catch myself blaming society for these ideals, when in reality, society includes all of us. We are all capable of changing the ideals we find lousy – we are all capable of changing society.

I don’t think that you need someone else to tell you that you are beautiful before you realize it yourself. You are fully capable of realizing that on your own.

From my own experience, it’s easy to fall into some kind of idea that there is only one type of look or some characteristics that society find appealing, which is utterly and completely wrong. How much of a cliché it might be, everyone is in fact beautiful in their own way. I don’t know if I will ever love every single part of myself, but that is okay, because even my less attractive parts makes me, me.

Featured photo credit: Aki Tolentino

Sisterhood Unfulfilled: Liberated from Grief

This is the final blog post of a three part series written by Abby Tseggai.

Moments before Fana landed at JFK airport, in New York City, she made her mind up that she would cut her hair in the days to follow; just like the two black women sitting right in front of her. Their Afros resembled liberation in her eyes.

It had been a long flight, and for the first half, Fana struggled to accept that she was actually leaving the safety and security of her parents and homeland. The burden of her family’s suffering combined with the pressure she felt to make her parents proud was intense, to say the least. But as she neared the final destination, Fana finally made an agreement with herself. She promised herself that no matter what it took, she would triumph all the tragedies she had experienced in her short 18-years of life. She was determined to adapt to a whole new world and all the things that come with it. In that moment, she found the confidence she needed.

She instantly became fascinated that an Afro was an acceptable style for women in America. Fana had long silky straight beautiful hair, for short hair on a woman was not a societal norm of beauty in Eritrea. It was in this moment she finally allowed herself to experience excitement, for she was actually going to live in “the land of the free.” She began picturing herself with an Afro, and smiled; it brought her a feeling of joy she hadn’t felt in a very long time. Fana was genuinely looking forward to having an Afro, as a daily reminder of empowerment and to symbolize her freedom from grief.

As she took her first steps off the plane, she took a deep breath and said a quick prayer, releasing her worries and fears to God. The host family she was arranged to live with, a young girl and her two parents greeted Fana with warm smiles. The little girl and her mom kept complimenting Fana’s hair the whole care ride home.

It was not until she sat down for her first dinner with the family at their home in Queens, NY, that she bashfully told them she wanted to cut her hair into an Afro, the very next day. Totally against her choice, the mother said, “I can’t take you to do that. Your mother would kill me.” Fana laughed, trying to mask her frustration, thinking it would be a form of disrespect to do it anyways. The father winked at her and whispered in her ear, “Shhh…I will take you.” This was the first time she heard his voice the whole day.

He took her to a salon two days later, after picking her up from an orientation at the school she would be attending the following week. She was so happy upon leaving the salon; she probably thanked the father ten times on their short walk back to the car. The father opened the passenger side door for her and said, “give me a hug.” She did not hesitate, however immediately regretted it when his hand touched her butt. Although she was startled, he played it off saying “it was an accident.” Perplexed in confusion the whole car ride home, her vulnerable innocence decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Much to her dismay, the father would continually stare at Fana in sexual ways and anytime he found an opportunity to be alone with her, he would say inappropriate things. It made her extremely uncomfortable—the freedom she finally found was clouded by this unexpected and unwelcome harassment. But armed with her newfound confidence, Fana knew after only three weeks, she had to leave this living situation immediately.

She did not trust anyone and felt so alone. She refused to tell her parents; she wanted to protect them from any more worry in their lives. But she knew exactly what to do – she had to build relationships, however she could. Fana remembered her father’s voice. Before she left, he encouraged her to call an old family friend who had also relocated to the States. She made that fateful call, and just one week later she was able to escape, when the family friend, Kidane, picked her up and took her to upstate New York. He attended a University that was located near a local high school, he’d already spoke with about the situation prior to her arrival. She was so thankful for him, for now she could finally comfortably get, the education she traveled so far to obtain.

Read the previous two blog posts in this series: 

Media Misrepresentation

Media is a powerful mechanism to spread information. Whether they are fashion models, sport stars or celebrities, the media promotes figures who become role models for young people. This is particularly true for young girls. Celebrities and other “role models” often become a misrepresentation of reality.

Young girls receive mixed messages which often place expectations on them to be beautiful, girly and appear as fragile. In my country of Nepal, young women are flooded with messages from the media pressuring them to have the smallest waist, lovely long hair and a fair complexion. The gorgeous photos of young women on magazines, advertisement banners and other media are beautiful. However, these often unattainable photo shopped images create unnecessary pressure on young women. Young women often go to great lengths to achieve the media’s version of beauty. The result? Many girls develop eating disorders, those with fair skin apply various beauty products while the deemed “unpopular” girls try to reduce the size of their skirts so they will be noticed. Why?

The media sends the message to young women: Our value exists in our bodies.

Media has devalued the existence of women. Women are expected to be flawless. Young women are viewed as sex objects rather than as valuable human beings. I have met so many young women who struggle with depression, lack of confidence and do not believe they can be leaders in our society. In fact, in Nepal, if a young girl exercises leadership she is viewed as someone who is too independent and does not care about her family. Due to the influence of media, men are taught to think they have power over women. While this view is slowly changing, in Nepal media misrepresentation exacerbates existing gender inequalities for young women.

In the United States of America, the average young person watches over twenty hours of television a week. This statistic doesn’t include other forms of media and entertainment. Lack of technology in rural areas of Nepal reduces this number among Nepali young people. However, in urban areas like my home city of Kathmandu young people are heavily influenced by media culture on a weekly basis. Media misrepresentation is a sensitive topic but a crucial one. People must be aware of how the media culture is shaping both young women and men. It is high time we raise our voice against media misrepresentation.

Cover Photo Credit: John Meadows, Flickr Creative Commons

The Ugly Side of Beauty Contests

Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons

Recently, in two national beauty contests held on both sides of the Atlantic, the ugly side of beauty reared its racist head as online racist backlash took over the web.  Nina Davuluri, winner of the Miss America Contest, a 24-year-old North American of Indian descent and Flora Coquerel,winner of the Miss France Contest, a 19-year-old whose mother is from the West African state of Benin, both shocked a fraction of humanity as the question was posed:

How did they win when they are not white natives to their countries?

As a mixed race young woman who has grown up in the UK and exhibits the beauty of Jamaican, Ghanaian and Irish ancestry, I found the racist reactions disturbing to say the least. Here are some of the comments that circulated on Twitter:

The United States of America

I am literarily soo mad right now a ARAB won.

More like Miss Terrorist

This is America. Not India

Congratulations Al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you.

Asian or indian are you kiddin this is America omg

France

I am sure all the monkeys in the zoo applauded the new Miss France 2014.

The mixed race is the cancer of the white race. 

If Beninese people were represented by a Scottish or a Chinese, they would feel similar discomfort.

Photo Credit @FredericLavisa
Photo Credit @FredericLavisa

First of all, these contests are open to any female citizen of any race, background or religion of the countries hence Nina and Flora had every right to win. Secondly, I just have to say this – being Indian DOES NOT make you an Arab! Finally, jury just in – the monkeys in the zoo applauded, along with the elephants, giraffes, kangaroos, most of the French population and myself of course (NOT). The hateful ridiculousness of these comments is toxic and the ignorance embedded within each racist comment is overwhelming.

What I think is most worrying is the fact that these comments were posted in a public domain for the entire world to see. The stupidity of the racists who posted the comments is highlighted in their naivety to not expect attention or to be called out for being prejudice and discriminatory. However, I think this draws our attention to an even bigger problem:

How do we combat racism in the ever growing multicultural societies that exist today?

I have thought about this in great depth and I believe that the solution lies within the question. We must continue to grow multicultural societies and tolerance. As societies diversify, people interact with one another and learn that maybe, just maybe, we’re not that different after all. United States Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. put it perfectly when he said,

We often hate each other because we fear each other; we fear each other because we don’t know each other; we don’t know each other because we cannot communicate; we cannot communicate because we are separated.”

He was speaking during the time of apartheid in the American South and during a time of great injustice for all African Americans. There is a lot to be learnt from the history of humanity and it is clear that, in order to prevent racism,we must communicate – to do so, we have to come together.

Let’s teach tolerance and understanding. Let’s educate our children to accept one another and embrace our differences. It is alarming to think that young girls watch these beauty pageants and then hear and see such racism. What message are we sending out to girls like my 11 year old mixed race niece Kya?

This brings to my mind the words one of the world’s greatest leaders, the late Nelson Madiba Mandela:

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Finally, I would just like to congratulate both Nina and Flora for their victories, the message they send out is loud and clear.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Our Ugly Obsession with Beauty

Beauty has always been one of society’s great obsessions. Since the Ancient Greeks, humans have struggled with an overvaluation of aesthetic appeal. In today’s media-saturated world where we are bombarded by images of what we should look like and what we fail to look like, it is worse than ever.

On a scientific level, it can be argued that there is an evolutionary reason behind our preference for attractive people. Fitter, taller, stronger people have a greater chance of survival. It is natural we are attracted to them in order to give our offspring the best chances of living and continuing the species. However, the extremes to which we have taken the idea of beauty, and the exclusivity of the features which we deem beautiful today are a far cry from traits which carry inherent evolutionary benefit. Conversely, they are having a huge and harmful effect particularly on girls and women.

Especially for women, the emphasis on physical attractiveness is detrimental to mental (and sometimes by extension, physical) health. The effects of the media on young girls’ development has been well-documented, and has led to a rise in eating disorders, early sexualization, low self esteem and depression.

A much more insidious side effect is our own unwitting digestion of the idea of beauty as a woman’s single most defining feature. Recent examples in pop culture of the extent to which we’ve assimilated this message into our underlying estimation of a person’s worth are both striking and disturbing.

Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, while praised by many, came under fire because of a short film in which women described themselves to an artist, who drew them based on their descriptions. After, they were made to meet other women who had participated, and these women then described each other to the same artist. All women were presented with the two renderings, and unsurprisingly, the pictures based on another woman’s description were far more flattering than images drawn based on the women’s own descriptions of themselves.

Dove’s message was simple: you are your worst critic. Immediately, it was lauded by women across the web and shared through social media – but after an initial ecstatic surge, some where quick to point out a disturbing undertone to the ad. As one blogger explains:

“Brave, strong, smart? Not enough. You have to be beautiful. And “beautiful” means something very specific, and very physical. — It doesn’t matter what other merits a woman posses, if she is not conventionally attractive, she is essentially worthless….And my primary problem with this Dove ad is that it’s not really challenging the message like it makes us feel like it is. It doesn’t really tell us that the definition of beauty is broader than we have been trained to think it is, and it doesn’t really tell us that fitting inside that definition isn’t the most important thing. — All it’s really saying is that you’re actually not quite as far off from the narrow definition as you might think that you are.”

Image courtesy of Flickr user David Shankbone
Image courtesy of Flickr user David Shankbone

Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls presents another example; her character Hannah has a short-lived fling with a man played by the handsome Patrick Wilson. The audience’s vitriol towards the storyline was noted and commented upon by many. The furor was not caused by the sexual content or short-lived nature of the relationship, but mainly by the suggestion that a character as plain as Hannah could ever catch the interest, sexually or otherwise, of someone who looked like Wilson. The very idea of a beautiful man being within reach of a woman deemed less attractive became borderline offensive to some viewers.

Men too are affected. Dustin Hoffman teared up in an interview when discussing something that women have known for years. He was discussing his role in the comedy Tootsie, in which, after dressing up as an unattractive woman, he found himself largely ignored. Speaking to AFI, he explained that he had said to his wife:

“I said I have to make this picture, and she said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because I think I am an interesting woman when I look at myself on screen. And I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character because she doesn’t fulfill physically the demands that we’re brought up to think women have to have in order to ask them out.’ She says, ‘What are you saying?’ And I said, ‘There’s too many interesting women I have … not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed.'”

When our obsession with beauty is pointed out as obviously as it is in the cases of Dunham’s and Hoffman’s, people are eager to offer their support. Wilson himself was stunned by the reaction to the episode. Dunham responded by rightly pointing out, “There’s so many forms of human capital, and they’re not all looks.”, while Wilson’s wife got involved on twitter, angrily stating, “His wife is a size 10 muffin top and he does her just fine.” As for Hoffman, his video went viral, with well over 2 million views and many applauding him for vocalizing a very real problem.

If we haven’t already, we are breeding a society that equates external appearance with intrinsic value, a dangerous assumption. If we’re to allow our young girls to value themselves for the traits we want to encourage: strength, courage, dignity, kindness – it is going to take a thorough examination of the messages we send to them, and a serious overhaul of our own assumptions and values.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr user Luc Viatour. Image listed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike.

Can Online Videos Change the World?

Women and girls around the world are increasingly raising their voices online in an effort to enhance women’s rights.  This is a compilation of a few of our favorite recent videos. If you know of other inspirational videos, we would love for you to post them in the comments section below.

On Women in Movies and Television

On Child Marriage

On Gender Inequality in Toys

On Music

On Domestic Abuse

On Street Harassment

On Feminism

On Reproductive Health 

On Women in Sports

On Real Beauty

On Breastfeeding