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.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.