Cover Photo Credit: Claire Fountain photographed by Margaret Pattillo
Somewhere between the end of myspace and the birth of IG stories, self-love became trendy. And not trendy in the we all love ourselves type of way, but trendy in this elusive thing we all needed and could only achieve by posting images of ourselves on social media platforms. As if our confidence was not enough or real unless someone else could see it and validate it for us.
Back in mid 2013, I started posting images of my yoga practice to instagram. After splitting from an ex who told me there should be no pictures of me or my yoga on social media, I took the new found freedom to post what I felt was not to be shamed or controlled. Instead it was a strong representation of a practice that had saved me at multiple times in my life. Within a year I had amassed over 200,000 people following my Instagram handle @cbquality. Watching social media over the last five years from the inside has been an exploration of human nature, perception and what female empowerment and integrity actually means alongside how it is represented.
"I heard once, body confidence is not about thinking your body looks good, it is about believing your body is good" (Photo of courtesy of Margaret Pattillo)
My own self-worth story started long before instagram. My initial comfort in posting my yoga practice has plenty to do with my teenage year dealing with a life threatening eating disorder and finally having made peace with a body that I mistreated for so many years. Through yoga and many years of therapy (along with other healing methods) I had blossomed into a woman who was not to be defined by my body or what I looked like. During my years working through issues around depression and anxiety that had become an eating disorder, I was often confronted with concepts of self worth. Not self-esteem, not self-love, but self-worth and even self-efficacy. I had to do the not-so-fun or comfortable work of figuring out my core beliefs about myself that were deeper than what my body looked like. In this way, I've thought about self-worth as this more internal conversation that we must have before we even think about navigating a space like social media.
Due to my size and build, I was quickly lumped into body positivity movements and “body reclamation" narratives. Yet, something felt off. I recall wondering how I could show “empowerment" without showing my body. How could I show how confident I was in who I was (factors that had nothing to do with my body) in images that were around my body? How could I do this in a world that still valued women's bodies over women? I started to become torn as what I was seeing under #selflove images were more about what bodies looked like externally, not what they could do or what incredible women they housed inside of them. The problem with body positivity, outside of the fact that it no longer belongs to whom started it, is that it is still about what a body looks like. It is still about a specific form of beauty when it should be more about accepting and respecting one's body. I heard once, body confidence is not about thinking your body looks good, it is about believing your body is good.
The social media that is claiming to promote positive self-esteem in the communities I'm in is the same social media that is crafted to be a glorified popularity contest of the attractive, the privileged, the fit, the desirable and/or the easy to mock. Social media values the short attention span and conditions us to think our value must be in the superficial. It is easy to get lost in the competition and comparison while we scroll through the contrived lives of others; or we find those we deem less than us and use our feelings of superiority to cushion a faltering self-esteem otherwise.
The more I saw from where I was positioned in the social environment, coupled with my other work in the mental health space, I started to see that we don't need another work out program or a more ways to get abs in our living rooms. We don't need more makeup trends or fashion bloggers. We do not need more ways to compete with one another, even if that competition is in who can be the most authentic or the most relatable on a #nomakeup picture. What we need to do is change the conversation about women. We need to change what women are valued for, how we interact with one another on a fleeting and all too often feigned content platform and how to develop confidence that has real world implications. I want women to no longer get mired in staring at the lives of others on phone screens and analyzing themselves against strangers. We have to learn how to develop true self-worth in sustainable ways and to achieve this, we have to give self-compassion a shot while we're at it.
Looking at self-love and self-worth as things that have to be sustainable allows us the space to be human. I have been asked, how am I going to love me if I don't even like me? To understand how we think of ourselves it is more than skin deep and socials can cue these feelings as well. We assume we know the person's happiness and that they are not dealing with anything we are judging ourselves for. We assume they make more money or their spouse loves them more (or that they even have a partner.) We compare our insides to others' outsides and never measure up, as we are not doing the work on ourselves to be able to see others for something beyond societal conceptions of happiness.
Self worth goes deeper than self esteem. Self esteem is often built around what we have accomplished. It's a feeling that grows with what we can do or have done. Self worth is based in knowing we have worth and value because we do. Self worth is connected to intrinsic factors and characteristics.
More often than I'd like to admit in my life I've sat back and thought, would I be doing this if I loved myself? Would I be making these decisions if I valued myself? Would I be doing what I'm doing if I felt I was worthy? Would I be allowing the people in my life I do and would I be engaging in the relationships I entertain so willingly? I question my own internal dialogue. These are the types of things that end up coming up when we really get down to why we don't feel good enough.
Even with this deep self-analytical dive, we then have to assert self-compassion. We have to be good to ourselves even when we screw up. To continue to believe we are worthy just because we are not because we of what we do. By accepting we are humans (as is everyone we see on social media) we can start to repair our own inner dialogue, craft affirmations that actually help instead of hurt and live a more peaceful self-actualized life that is feels free and honest.
So how do you develop self-worth in a sea of hashtags? You start by moving the conversation back to yourself. Observe what your automatic thoughts are for you as you scroll on social media or any time you start to feel not good enough. Begin to label these emotions if you can.
"We do not need more ways to compete with one another, even if that competition is in who can be the most authentic or the most relatable on a #nomakeup picture. What we need to do is change the conversation about women" (Photo courtesy of Claire Fountain)
Start to ask yourself uncomfortable questions about how you see yourself, how you speak to yourself and what your core beliefs are behind those thoughts. Practice compassion and kindness for yourself as you work through this process. Often we start to judge ourselves for even feeling the way we do, and a never ending cycle of negative self deprecation awaits.
Even from where I am, it's a constant dialogue of perception versus self-concept and hoping the two align. Yet the minute we post something we begin to lose control of it. It can become less what I feel and more of what it made you feel. It becomes what someone else sees and they can add all the supportive or degrading commentary, depending on how they process you and the world. It is less about you and more about them. The way how we end up feeling about ourselves has little to do with the person in the pictures we view.
It's hard for me to be as much of myself as I would like to be. There is an objectification and sexualization that has come with my life on social media. On the surface it can be dismissed, but the larger ramifications of what it does to my sense of self worth linger long after the comments, DM's, forum posts, video edits and email requests. These constant micro aggressions wear on me. They wear on the secure, confident woman I fought to become since I was a teen.
Now, I focus on the message. With everything I do I ask, “does this serve the work?" Or does it serve my ego, my low self-esteem, my need for external validation? I write my values and mission over and over as I affirm myself and the purpose of my work. I try to balance the confidence and intact self-worth. I share ways to help my audience with the negativity of social media landscapes. Sure, we still live in a world where we, as women, are taught from a very young age that our bodies are the most valuable parts of us. Not so much that other components aren't valued, just that physically looking a certain way matters (and the specifics of that vary by time and place). To be something of substance in an otherwise potentially vapid space, feels far more empowering than taking the easy way out.
In the end, it is not about the hashtags. Perhaps they build community but they will not fix us or how we feel about ourselves. Focusing on sustainable self-love and self-worth, all the while never forgetting that true empowerment is not found in hashtags or bikini selfies but in how we stick up for ourselves, talk to ourselves, and how we experience the world-- social media included.
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Victoria's Secret is best known for what it has to offer women. However, a few days ago as I was strolling around the flagship store on Bond Street, I discovered that the store also has a lot to offer men as well. Just not exactly what you'd think.
My experience began like many other shopping excursions, casually browsing for a few practical items. The store was bustling with women who were relaxed but focused on their own purchases. The women in the store all displayed a quiet confidence in knowing what to do and how to do it. My browsing journey took me into another room where I noticed a man behaving quite awkwardly while being guided around by one of the many well-trained twenty-something shop assistants. My first thought was: "Good for him coming in here alone! I imagine it isn't the most comfortable experience for a man." It was clear he felt out of place. His discomfort was obvious by the way he was shuffling around and avoiding eye contact with any women nearby.
This otherwise unremarkable experience sent a spark through my mind. This man was professional and smartly dressed; perhaps he could have worked for one of the many private equity, hedge fund or banking firms in the nearby area. I imagined that he was confident in his own world of work, but in this female haven he was not. He was the only man in the room, and it showed.
This world - that of Victoria's Secret - was not created to make someone like him feel comfortable. In this environment—a store catering to women, filled by women and selling feminine merchandise—the familiar patriarchal dynamics of the world had completely shifted.
This was a world that can transform an otherwise confident professional into an introverted, self-conscious and indecisive man who needed the help of a twenty-something female to make one simple purchase.
I have seen this story play out with the gender roles reversed many times throughout my career in the corporate world. Today, the culture of many companies are built and sustained by men, for men. Traditional male characteristics are still encouraged, rewarded and expected from female professionals, especially if they expect to reach the executive suite. Being the only woman in the room is still an everyday reality for so many women in business; most men do not understand how corrosive this situation can be to a person's confidence.
I have often heard men say that they believe gender inequality is not an issue in their firm. They hire women and now even have some women on their teams. Well, on those terms this man should not have experienced any issue either. There is no sign at the door of Victoria's Secret barring men from entry. Men are allowed to freely enter and buy whatever they choose. No woman in there would tell them to leave or suggest that to get to the front of the queue they must behave in a certain way. So, what was the problem? Why did this man appear so uncomfortable? Why did he suddenly lack the confidence he seemed to have in the outside world?
It's all in the numbers. If that store catered towards the needs of men, or if there were simply more men in the store (either equivalent to or greater than the number of women), then it is likely that man would have felt a greater sense of belonging.
Just because women are allowed into the workplace now, does not mean their experiences are equivalent to those of their male peers. Women, as the minority, simply do not have the same sense of freedom to be their true authentic selves in many corporate environments, even today.
Just like that Victoria's Secret shop assistant guiding the lone man through an ostensibly unwelcoming environment, so, too, do women benefit from the guidance of sponsors, helping them navigate the male dominated corporate world.
Before a man talks about gender parity, perhaps he first needs to take a trip to a lingerie store and experience what it is like to be the only one in the room. Maybe if more men had experiences like this, they may begin to understand what it is to feel so out of place. Maybe they would join us in creating greater gender equality in the workplace.