By Vanessa Lewis of TheBodyIsNotAnApology.com. Photography by Eric Michael Ward.
Look, the act of self love ain’t never been no easy thing — especially when you’re experiencing copious amounts of scarcity, shame, disenfranchisement, or loss. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a 10 billion dollar skin-lightening industry in countries where the world’s darkest people reside. Forty-two percent of voting women wouldn’t have voted for Donald Trump (an anti-choice, anti-union, anti-poor, pro-war, sexual harassment enthusiast).
And I, processing yet another anguishing break-up with someone who’s made it overtly and painfully clear that they no longer want anything to do with me, would be focusing more on healing, pursuing my goals, and moving through grief, rather than spending my days staring at his facebook page, miserably pining for his affection and attention, and desperately reaching out to him even when I know better.
That’s not to say that folks who use skin bleaching cream or vote for fascists don’t feel love for themselves. And I’ll put it on all that’s holy and sacred that I love and treasure every ounce and texture of my tender, sensitive, butter-cup of a heart.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes struggle to like myself, especially when I disappoint myself. And to be clear, I am disappointed with myself. Not because of how intensely I feel grief — I think that’s a beautiful and uncomfortable part of being courageous enough to love people sometimes — but because of the choices I’ve made as a result of that grief. This current situation is nothing new.
I have a history of repeatedly contacting my ex’s to work things out and try to re-establish some sort of connection, sometimes even after they have directly told me to back off and that they are happier now that things are over — like my last ex did 2 weeks before I last contacted him.
That choice not only hurt me, but it’s easy to see how it’s deep in alignment with rape culture — I intruded on my ex’s personal space against his wishes and prioritized my feelings and desires while disregarding the needs and boundaries he very clearly expressed.
Immediately afterwards, I was so disappointed with myself that I fell asleep that night wishing that I was someone else. Me. The person who screams self-love and radical self-acceptance all up and down the internet.
It wasn’t until I stopped myself from writing a facebook status about wanting to not be me that I paused. That wasn’t the message I wanted to send into the world, it wasn’t what I wanted to internalize for myself, and it sure as hell wasn’t a viable solution to my problematic behavior.
Self Love Is Not An Achievement — It’s A Practice
I don’t want to be someone else; I want to be a version of myself that’s conscientious and intentional about learning from my mistakes rather than shame-spiraling into self-loathing. I want to take such good care of myself when I’m hurt, angry, or grieving, that I have a self-nurturing practice to keep me accountable when my anguish makes wisdom and integrity less accessible.
I had to remind myself that the relationship that I have with myself can and will change, evolve, grow, heal and even deteriorate at times as the circumstances in my life shift. That’s ok. That’s what it means to be human, alive, not static.
Self-love is not an achievement. It’s a practice. A tedious and difficult practice. It’s easy to love yourself when you’re coasting, when you’re not in emotional pain, when you’re not fucking up.
It’s when we fuck up, when we’re distressed, when we experience scarcity, when things hurt so much its damn near impossible to breathe that it is most important to have a practice of self-love, of self-compassion, of nurture, of forgiveness. Those are the handlebars that help us make choices rooted in both collective and personal liberation in the first place, and that enable us to be introspective enough to take the risk of naming our wrongs and correcting them internally — and on someone else’s terms — when we mess up.
It Is Critical and Revolutionary That We Talk About The Mistakes We Make
Those of us committed to social justice activism, liberation, and collective love rarely, if ever, talk about our mistakes, the harms we cause, and how those harms impact people — especially people in our intimate sphere and families — publicly. That sort of radical transparency, self-reflection, and accountability, in my opinion, is what’s missing from the public arena and discourse of social and transformative justice.
We celebrate the accomplishments of our movement workers. We sometimes glorify our hardships and create identity out of our pain and oppression. We laud perfectionism through call-out culture, where we’ve literally created a whole stage to heckle people’s inability to know the most up-to-date language and theory.
But we rarely talk about the often painful, rugged, confusing road we took to get here. We rarely talk about the time we said that unintentionally cissexist thing to the trans or non-binary cutie we were trying to cruise, or when we made the ableist joke about ourselves and hurt our disabled co-worker, or how we got defensive after being told our respectability politics are actually internalized white supremacy.
And if we can’t name the ways we perpetuate oppression, then how are we going to actually change oppression?
Holding Ourselves Accountable Is Difficult AF, But Self-Love Makes It A Lot Easier
While I’m definitely not proud of the different microaggressions I’ve done or the harms I’ve caused, I am so grateful to all the people who have spoken up and named my behavior. I know that I wouldn’t have learned to grow or how to do better, if I let my shame keep me from really acknowledging my role in said mistakes. And I know I wouldn’t have the beautiful relationships I have now if I hadn’t done the work to hold myself accountable, apologize, and learn new behaviors.
But there are a lot of folks who don’t do that work when they get called out for some mistake they’ve made or some harm they’ve caused. Some folks become so ashamed that, instead of taking the critique as an opportunity to look inward and sift through some oppressive socializations and make some different choices, they internalize it and create an identity around that mistake.
Rather than doing the hard, messy work of learning to do better, they become defensive, claim we are too difficult to please, that we are snowflakes who forced people into voting for Trump.
The issue is not that we’re too difficult to please, but we don’t actually have loving models of growth and redemption, of forgiveness and accountability. We rarely honor the tedious space of learning and unlearning.
We want people to see us for the radical activist we are now, but not the dynamic, messy journey full of missteps it took to get here. We like to pretend that once you’re there, you’re done. But that’s simply not true.
More TBINAA Radical Reads: How to Make Mistakes Without Beating Yourself Up
Transformative Healing Is A Lifelong Venture and Deeply Dependent on Support from Community
There’s a reason why religious folks go to church every week. There’s a reason why people go to therapy more than on one occasion. And there’s a reason why people exercise or practice their passion regularly.
Transformation is a lifelong process. It’s going to happen whether you are intentional or not. So we need to create the spaces and structures to support each other with that transformation, to encourage each other when we feel hopeless or stuck, and to celebrate each other for the beautiful potential that lives in every mistake we make.
And for me, at least in this article, it feels most important to remind each other that we deserve to love ourselves, and to be loved by others, even in the midst of our mistakes and fouls — it’s the only thing that will help us get through the ugly parts.
I can be mad at you and still love you. I can be mad at myself — as I am right now — and still love myself. That’s what makes love brilliant, it’s full of capacity. What makes love magic? Its ability to transform.
For those of us committed to self and collective liberation, it is when we fuck up that we need love the most.
The Body Is Not An Apology is an international movement committed to cultivating global Radical Self Love and Body Empowerment. We believe that discrimination, social inequality, and injustice are manifestations of our inability to make peace with the body, our own and others.