This is a simple recommendation, but surprisingly hard to do (and it is not referring to anything one might get up to with a bottle of baby lotion or a Rampant Rabbit, although that’s good too).
In the media, we’re constantly bombarded with images and recommendations of what we ought to look like, what we ought to achieve, who we ought to be. If we believe what we’re told, we should all be supermodel-beautiful, with gorgeous clothes, fantastic jobs and equally desirable partners. And somehow, we have failed as people, let alone as successful members of society, if we don’t achieve all this.
But it’s impossible; the standards are too high, and include things that we can’t possibly achieve (I, for example, am never going to be supermodel-beautiful; I’m too short, for one thing). But constant repetition ensures that we frequently, deep down, believe that we have failed, or that we are ugly or unsuccessful or unloveable, if we don’t measure up to these impossible standards.
It’s not just about teenage girls starving themselves because they believe they’re too fat after seeing size-zero models; it’s more insidious than that. It affects even otherwise well-adjusted, sensible adults, of both sexes. Women are encouraged to believe that if they’re not utterly gorgeous in every way then they are ugly and undesirable; men are encouraged to believe that if they’re not earning loads of money, they are somehow unmanly and thus undesirable (and yes, this is sexist).
And so we strive to meet impossible standards, working longer hours to earn more money, worrying about wearing the right sort of clothes, spending hours agonising over weight and hair and skin, feeling as if we don’t measure up, and being miserable. Then our boyfriend/girlfriend/pet cat leaves us for the next-door neighbour and we wonder why. And, we don’t have far to look. They left us because we weren’t beautiful enough or successful enough or well-dressed enough, so we need to try harder…
We need to stop this destructive cycle. We need to really look at ourselves and our lives, and evaluate dispassionately. Are you really too fat? Or are you just fatter than a supermodel who is a size zero and subsists on a total diet of one celery stick a week? Are you really too tall or too short, and who decides what is the right height, anyway? (An ex-boyfriend once said to me, “You’re not short; you’re compact and bijou.” I always remembered that. And that ladders and tall people were invented so that they could get things down from high shelves for me.) Are you really so unsuccessful in your career, or is it just that you keep comparing yourself to the Fortune 500?
We are none of us perfect. But we need to be able to look at who and what we are, and first accept it, and then learn to like it and finally to love it. You may never be supermodel-beautiful, but that’s not to say that you’re a total double-bagger (that’s where you have to wear a paper bag over your head, and so does the person you’re with, in case yours falls off). Appreciate what you have, rather than concentrating on what you lack.
What will this do for you? Well, it’ll make you a happier person for a start. Dwelling on your successes rather than always on your failures is guaranteed to produce a more cheerful mood.
Secondly, happy people are nicer to be around. Of course you should always support your friends through hard times (someone who dumps their friend just because she’s going through a bad patch is no friend at all) but we’ve all met those people who are constantly dripping about how ugly they are, or how they’ve nothing to wear, or they can’t meet a decent man/woman/cat. Not only do you find yourself sometimes thinking “I’d kill to have your…. you ungrateful bitch,” but also “For Pete’s sake just stop the pity-party.” Self-haters are not, generally speaking, people you want to spend much time with; conversely, if you’re happy with yourself, other people will be happy with you too.
Thirdly, the propaganda-artists will have less power over you. They will not be able to say “Buy this, and become the person of your dreams,” and have you believe it enough to fork out. Or “Do what I say, and you will be a valuable person.” Instead, you’ll think, “Actually, I quite like myself the way I am, thank you.” So many of those who try to force us to do things their way rely on the fact that we don’t like ourselves very much, or we don’t trust our own judgement. My way is better; I know better than you – follow my advice, do as I say. But if you know and love yourself, you can see this for what it is, and you’ll find it easier to structure your life according to what you want, rather than what other people think you ought to want. Thus leading to further happiness, and the feeling of confidence that comes from knowing that you are in control of yourself and at least most bits of your life (except your pet cat).
This carries over to writing as well; as a reader, I pay attention to the characters in the books I read, not just to the plot. A little angst in a character is good; it drives that character to new efforts, new challenges, makes them just a bit insecure, and that can be a good thing. But too much angst? Not good. A character who is written is gorgeous but is always (for some reason totally incomprehensible to the ordinary-looking reader) unsatisfied with her looks does not invite sympathy and understanding: she invites comments like “Get over yourself already!” and “You should try being me for a week and see how you feel about mirrors.” Characters in a book are like everyone else we meet in life: the ones who don’t like themselves aren’t the ones we want to spend time with. And if you read book reviews, particularly about books that are part of a series, you realise how important the reader liking the character actually is. What drives the reader to buy the next book in the series often isn’t the complex plotting or the brilliant use of prose, but that they have formed a personal connection with at least one of the characters, and want to know more about what happens to them.
So loving yourself is good for real people and imaginary people too; go on, try it. I dare you.