Thursday, 14 January 2016

Why You Must Love Yourself First

I have this distinct memory from around three years ago of sitting in my bedroom at home, on my laptop, scrolling through Tumblr.  I was feeling like shit.  I don't know exactly what had happened to me that day, but I remember a feeling of complete emptiness, sheer terror, and this intense hate for who I was, and how I looked.  My screen filled with images of beautiful women with beautiful bodies and beautiful faces, I felt so lost within myself all I could do was cry, and scroll, and cry.  This memory, as it is, is no significant one - when I was younger, even now sometimes, I am aware of my own capacity to feel a horrible, crushing self-consciousness; a longing to be a million things, and a resentment of all the things that make me different from the idealistic images of who I believe I want to be. 

My childhood was characterised by this sense of longing.  In primary school, I grew faster than everyone else.  I was taller than most of the boys by year 5, and started getting spots around the same time, too.  I felt clumsy and gangly and ogre-like, and wanted desperately to be petite and delicate and baby-faced like some of the other girls in my class.  I longed for a boyfriend, even at the tender age of 11, and would steal into the bathroom 2 minutes before leaving school to rummage through the cabinets and find my Mum's mascara, haphazardly coating my eyelashes before running out the door.  I constantly felt like I had to compensate for my differences - I thought if I wore mascara, then maybe no-one would notice that I was getting bad skin, or that if I curled my hair, it would make up for the fact it was a plain, boring brown.  

Secondary school was a rollercoaster of insecurities.  My skin got worse, and I got acne on my back and chest, too.  This, combined with a succession of bad haircuts and the inevitable weight-gain many girls see during puberty meant my self-confidence was pretty shabby by the time I was into my teens.  I watched my beautiful, popular friends get asked out by boys and have first kisses and wear size 8 clothes I couldn't fit into, by brands I couldn't afford.  All I wanted was to be, and look like these girls.  I would never wear tops without sleeves and high necks because I didn't want anyone to see my acne, and religiously wore foundation to hide it on my face.  I told myself constantly I needed to lose weight and that if I did maybe I would be asked out by a boy, too.  I longed to be thin, to be pretty, for bigger boobs, longer legs, to be funny, flirty, confident... the lists I made in my head were endless, and never satisfied.  

It got worse as I got older, and I really started to suffer a poor relationship with food when I was about 15.  I believed that being thin was the only way I could be happy with myself, and lost a lot of weight in a short amount of time to the point that I hated the way I looked, even then.  I remember that year, after Christmas my New Year's Resolution was to be healthier and eat 3 meals a day, as my parents were worried about me and a lot of people had told me how thin I looked.  As I started to eat more, of course, I started to gain weight.  Even though I was still unhappy with how I looked when I was thin, this was far worse, and I felt completely out of control.  Instead of restricting myself and my food intake, I would binge eat in horrible cycles, punishing myself for gaining weight by eating very little, then bingeing, at first because I wanted comfort, but then because I hated myself and felt I didn't deserve to be happy.  In sixth form I was depressed - although my binge eating wasn't so bad anymore, and I was doing well in school, I was also at my highest weight and felt incredibly distant from and disgusted by my body.  It was a really hard time for me.  I couldn't hold down relationships with anyone - I broke up with my kind, supportive boyfriend at the time, as I felt I didn't deserve his love and I was too embarrassed to tell him the extent of what was going on inside my head.  I would stay up at night, writing pages and pages about the hate I felt towards myself, the depression that was eating me up from the outside in, and longing for the bitter comfort that sleep provided.

And it was one of these nights that brings me back to where this post started.  It was this night that I came across words which resonated with me on a level beyond anything else I had experienced until that point - 'you must love yourself first'.  I had been so focused on what I had been and what I wasn't, what I wanted to be and still what I wasn't, that my sense of self had become like a set of disparate images hung up in a gallery somewhere very separate to where I sat.  It was an important realization for me that, in fact, I couldn't recover, grow and finally be happy until I learned to love who I was first.  It was my self-resentment which was propelling me further and further into the sadness and isolation I felt, and the same resentment that had made me lose completely any sense of who I was.  It wasn't easy, but it felt like a breakthrough for me, and I remember then crying with a sense of relief so acute it was overwhelming.  I switched my laptop off and went to sleep.

Since then, an awful lot has changed.  With the endless support of my parents, and regular counselling, I no longer felt depressed, had an improved image of myself and focused on doing well in my A-levels and applying for university.   I made some really strong friends who were great to me, and met my boyfriend who helped me to feel more comfortable with myself and confident about who I am.  I still have days, weeks, months, even, when I feel low about myself.  January is always difficult.  

This year I decided to get 'you must love yourself first' as a tattoo (written in Arabic as I first saw it), to remind myself of exactly that, and what I have learned from trying to implement it.  But I also wanted to share exactly what it means to me, and how and why it became relevant in my life.  And this blog might seem a slightly strange place to do it, but I also feel it's a very important place to share my experience with my self-esteem and self-image, as that is so much what blogging is about.  After reading Charlotte Fisher's post on her mental health story, it became even clearer to me that blogging is a world saturated with images, images which can depict you at both your best and your worst, and that suffering with poor self-image is not rare, it's common, even.  As I've got older then, and the more I've reflected on the idea that 'you must love yourself first', it's become a mantra of-sorts.  It's become, for me, a way of having a more positive outlook, a hunger for living, a desire to do the things I want to do, and a reason for doing them.  Instead of comparing myself to, and being jealous of others, I should appreciate others instead, and learn from and be inspired by them.  And instead of criticizing what makes me different, I should appreciate my individuality and uniqueness, which deserves my own recognition and attention.  I've realized over the years that life isn't easy.  Life is so fucking hard and there will probably be a million more struggles to face, even more than growing up.  But it's so much harder when you don't like who you are.  You can not like what you're doing, but don't not like who you are, because that's all you've got.  If you love yourself first, you will do things because you believe you deserve success, happiness, satisfaction, whatever it is.  You will do things with an aim to improve and better yourself, (in the words of L'Oreal) because you're worth it.  You will realize that in fact, you're enough, just as you are.  I'm not saying it's easy, by any means - I too will almost definitely continue to long for better skin or thinner legs or bigger eyes, and wish the things that made me different from what I would like to look like didn't exist - the freckles on  my face, the scars on my legs, the stretch marks on my hips.  But this year, by loving myself first, I'm hoping that I can turn that longing into admiration, and turn the realization of difference into the realization of beauty.

And honestly, if one person can read this, and relate to even an inch of it, then I feel it was worth sharing.