Recently, I was at a series of “healing workshops” with a diverse group of ten teenagers. At one point they were all handed printed portraits of themselves. What happened next shocked me and the other adults in the room. Each of them looked at their portrait for two seconds and then quickly turned it over as if they were caught doing something shameful. When I walked around and told them how stunning the photos were, they either sheepishly said ‘thanks’ or decided to correct my naivety by pointing out all of the things that they didn’t like about themselves.
I couldn’t help but think, “Isn’t this the selfie generation? Don’t they love sharing photos of themselves? Why would they be so ashamed of these objectionably beautiful portraits?” And then I remembered psychotherapist Susie Orbach’s book Bodies (2009) where she argues that in this era of late modernity, rather than using our bodies for production (to make things), our bodies have increasingly become sites of production and commerce in and of itself. In other words, our bodies are the things we are making.
While Orbach admits that we have always modified our bodies in order to fit in with certain cultural values, until recently, we have largely accepted that the body we are born with is the body that we must live with. That expectation has changed over the past thirty years or so with the growth of businesses that give us endless ways through which we can alter our bodies; for example, through dieting, exercise, spiritual endeavors, cosmetic surgery, beauty products, gene modification, pharmaceuticals, and every type of crazy fad imaginable. Now we no longer accept our bodies or even any body as a given. According to Orbach, this shift has created a cultural climate in which improving the way the body looks and functions is seen as a crucial personal responsibility.
Her point makes sense when we think about our consumerist culture that necessitates us always wanting more. As a growth-based system, capitalism must create new needs, wants, and desires in order to expand. “The merchants of body hatred,” as Orbach calls the $100-billion diet industry and other self-improvement enterprises, have a lot of profit to gain by ensuring that we are never satisfied with ourselves.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with trying to be healthy. We absolutely should exercise, eat right, meditate, etc. The point is that even with living a healthy life, how many of us are actually able to look in the mirror and say “Yes, I’m exactly how I want to be!” Instead, we chant “I am enough” just to fool our brains into believing that it’s true. And then we reach for the next fad that promises to cure us of ourselves.
Our bodies never get to just be because the sense of self-worth necessary to accept ourselves fully, for exactly who we are in the present, is incompatible with capitalism’s growth model. Businesses profit as generations of youth (and adults) are made to feel increasingly anxious and self-critical.
Through this reflection, I realized that the type of narcissism that the glimmering selfies and the perfectly curated Instagram stories represent is far more pernicious than I once thought; it’s not about being overly self-admiring, but rather overly self-hating. The implications of this are enormous. If we hate ourselves how can we be expected to form loving relationships and functioning communities, work environments, and governments?
In searching for solutions, Orbach wonders what it will take to turn our bodies into a “place we live rather than an aspiration always needing to be achieved.” She suggests that this shift can’t happen on an individual level. Instead, we must change the environment that causes it. But what would an environment that promotes self-love look like?
If at the crux of the issue is a capitalist system that’s based on growth, then perhaps we need a system based on sustainability. A growth-based system values that which has not (yet) been achieved; however, a sustainability-based system would value that which exists in the present. In valuing the present, it would value life in all its forms, and it would create the structures necessary to support life.
For me, this is what differentiates socialism from capitalism. In a capitalist system, a person can die simply if they do not have enough money — and this is not even getting into the death produced by entire systems of destruction that prioritize profit over life (e.g. wars, drug epidemics, climate crises, the prison industrial complex, etc.). It’s a system where we must constantly prove our worthiness to merely exist. In every way imaginable, it is a system that is antithetical to self-love.
In a socialist system, we wouldn’t have to prove our worth because the things that will truly satisfy us and make us feel whole — economic security, access to quality housing, healthcare, education, time for leisure, etc. — would be provided to everyone.
Simply put, a society that would allow for self-love is one in which the social conditions sustain and nourish life. No number of mantras and self-help books will bring us to this point under capitalism. We need to work towards a socialist future by building up the institutions that support our collective well-being.
We try so hard to convince our kids that they are good enough exactly how they are. But we are lying to them. And they know it. Let’s learn from them and create the type of society that allows for self-love.