I love it when women love themselves. I love it when women are learning to love themselves. I love it when women inspire other women to love themselves. -unknown ❤ photo cred: ebony.com
As a start to the New Year, I hope to use this space to encourage myself and others to make more time for themselves and to be more aware of their mental health, the topic of evaluating one’s priorities right seeming appropriate to the way in which I would like to begin 2018. This was all sparked by a chance encounter I had the other day, when I happened to meet a man who had recently moved to the UK from India to study, a conversation that led me to reflect on the culture I am familiar with here in the UK. While fixing my phone, he described in detail his town and friends back home, it being clear that – however many positive aspects there are to the UK- there are certain crucial things that many in this country often neglect to the detriment of their quality of life. In India, so he said, his friends were up for a good time whereas in the UK. they had to be painfully persuaded before they might go out or relax. Newly arrived, he was keen to explore and sought to take a round trip to Scotland, asking his new flat mates to come along. Shockingly, they only agreed to come once he had offered to pay for them, later allowing him to shoulder the entire financial burden as they were too concerned about ‘wasting’ their precious time and money on such an excursion.
This is telling of the attitude that pervades society as I know it, the man aptly using the word ‘conservative’ to describe the British attitude to having a good time. It is important to point out, however, that this may have been because he was a student, hence money and time do become legitimate excuses for not going on lengthy, expensive trips around the country. Additionally, I should make clear that by ‘having a good time’ I am not referring to the culture of binge drinking and burnout that I and so many others, particularly young people, are so accustomed to. Instead, by that term I make reference to things that bring genuine and lasting pleasure, that are conducive to true satisfaction and mental well being, examples including going out (or in) to have dinner with close friends, visiting a museum or art gallery, going for a walk or out to see a movie or a musician perform live. These activities need not be expensive or even particularly time-consuming, encompassing anything that brings joy such as a casual coffee morning or trip to the cinema. Though these sound so simple, my own experience indicates that there are so many things that get in the way which make these practically impossible or even seem like overly indulgent ways to spend one’s time.
Not meaning to make any generalizations, I would ask one to compare this mindset to the cafe culture of the continent or nightlife of central and southern America, where restaurants and bars are open till late and customers often sit chatting into the small hours. It is this that I perceive many in the UK to be lacking, this flexibility and openness to pleasure, particularly among those of my own generation. As cliched as it is, I would say that here we seem to have our priorities wrong, valuing productivity over pleasure, industriousness over indolence and wealth over well-being which we would do well to reevaluate and place more importance on making time and space for ourselves over the coming year.
As someone who works in retail, I come to interact with people on a daily basis, not only to help them with their weekly shop but also to be a listening ear for many people who otherwise would have no social outlet. It is inevitable, then, that I come to meet people who hold views vastly different to my own, a positive thing though not without its difficulties. In the past, I have met a middle-aged woman who, when praising the Austrian burqa ban, remarked that “you never know if they’ve got a bomb under there”. Another woman, when telling me how offended she was to have been followed around the shop by an Asian member of staff who suspected her of stealing, told me of how she mocked them, asking her “you no speaki inglese?”, related to me in a whisper as a black customer was walking down the aisle we were standing in. Examples such as these are no doubt symptomatic of ignorance and circumstance, yet here what I want to explore is my own complicity in the situation when I remain silent. In both instances, I didn’t challenge the women, didn’t even raise an eyebrow, I am ashamed to say, as I feared being told off later by my boss.
Reflecting now, I would say that this cowardice is inexcusable as it facilitates the perpetuation of this toxic problem. These people feel comfortable saying these things to me because I appear to be ‘like them’ i.e. I am a white British female, hence they feel I am familiar, an ally. In remaining silent, I only reinforce this view, maintaining the idea that those of the same tribe, so to speak, are allied to each other, easily remedied by challenging them to shatter this illusion.
In remaining silent, I am essentially shirking the responsibility for solving the issue, leaving it up to those who are the victims of ignorance and intolerance. Can one really be said to be not racist, not sexist, not homophobic if they passively allow these problems to worsen, even if they do not actively contribute to their intensification? Is it really enough to be ‘nice’ to others when this has no real effect in combating the root problem? If one were to watch someone being mugged, for example, it would be ludicrous to suggest that the responsibility for resolving the situation lies with the victim instead of the silent bystander; in the same way, it is ridiculous to suggest that the buck stops with the receiver of the abuse alone.
Clearly, then, remaining silent is an ethically inexcusable act, the implication being that I did wrong when I didn’t challenge these customers. In the same way, society does wrong when it doesn’t confront these issues head on but claims to be liberal and unprejudiced. Next time, I will definitely be tackling this bigotry rather than feeling a vague sense of guilt in remaining silent as it seems obvious that this is the only moral reaction to an immoral situation.
“I can’t buy those flowers just for me – I don’t deserve them“; “I’m a failure – I don’t deserve his support“; “I’m tired but I don’t deserve to rest – I have work to do“. The way I see it, many people today partake in a ‘deserving culture’ where any positive thing in your life must come from graft, even from necessity, to justify its place there. We seem to project our ideas about right and wrong onto non-moral features of the world, which come to embody our vulnerability, our profound insecurity and leave us with a negative view of the self and our personal worth.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of women, who are praised for actively denying themselves things that bring them pleasure or joy, as this allegedly speaks of their strength of character. For decades, we have been living in a diet culture where the expectation is for women to cut out certain foods that might derail their progress in weight loss or fitness, the result being that the food you chooses to eat becomes an issue of personal virtue. It’s not difficult to see this if one is only to look at the way that so-called ‘bad’ foods are labelled and marketed, companies using words such as ‘indulgent’, ‘naughty’ and ‘sinful’ to attract guilt-ridden customers. The implication here is that people – particularly women – should generally be abstaining from such treats as they are one manifestation of a kind of moral weakness, that they might only be consumed as part of a ‘cheat day’ or if they go on to spend three hours at the gym. In a similar way, those that work excessively and leave little time for themselves or their personal life become the object of admiration, of approval, as the phenomenon of “busy bragging” clearly suggests. It is thought that these people have their priorities ‘right’, that choosing to eat a donut on the way home or have a couple of hours to yourself at the weekend is somehow a failing, a moral shortcoming. As far as I can see, this affects most people that I know and extends to all areas of life, money being only one other example. My personal philosophy is that I should save every penny, only spending anything when absolutely necessary or for the benefit of someone else, an attitude shared by many I know that is only conducive to guilt and self-punishment.
On the surface, it seems as though this lifestyle promotes hard-work, self-restraint and abstemiousness – undoubtedly a positive thing – though it’s not difficult to perceive how this might feed into an unhealthy outlook on life as well as the perception of your self-worth. If we are constantly telling people that they must deny themselves that which gives them pleasure, that which brings them joy – however fleeting or superficial – we instill them with the idea that they must deserve these things to justify having them, the implication being that they are intrinsically undeserving or unworthy.
This phenomenon is nothing new, however, discernible in many philosophies and religions of the past which have certainly had an impact on the attitudes of people today. Inscribed at the Ancient Greek Oracle of Delphi, however, is the phrase Meden Agan or ‘Nothing in excess’. Rather than punishing ourselves for feeling or desiring certain things, we ought to embrace these desires and cut ourselves a bit of slack, as long as we retain the right balance or equilibrium. This is when self-affirmation becomes so important in bolstering the way one feels about oneself, it being essential that this self-denial does not come to dominate the way we see ourselves. Rather than making ourselves feel lesser or not good enough, we ought to treat ourselves with the respect and dignity that we would give to others, requiring both thought and action. Eat that donut if it’s what you fancy, as long as you have an otherwise balanced diet. Actively try to carve out a few hours jut for yourself within the week, whatever you can, as some respite from a hectic work life. Get enough sleep. Drink enough water. Sometimes, be selfish. Such an attitude is imperative to maintain a healthy and sustainable work/life balance as well as mental and physical health. Make an effort to incorporate small things into your life that oppose the mentality that you are undeserving and do things, however small, that bring you joy.
As a follow up to my last post, I would like to give some tips for taking care of yourself that I have found and continue to find helpful as someone who is by no means out of the woods yet. I just hope that others might find the same comfort and solace that I have, to whatever small degree that may be.
As difficult as this one is, it is important to try to convince yourself of your worth, of the fact that you deserve, that you matter. This takes a lot of practice and should even be done when the belief may not be there: be patient.
- Forgive yourself
Remember that change cannot happen overnight, so show yourself compassion and forgiveness.
- Make time for yourself
At this time, you are the priority. Listen to your feelings and remember to push yourself, but be forgiving if it’s too much at once, going out and socializing being a good example.
- Do things purely for the pleasure of doing them
Buy small things for yourself not because you need them, but because they bring you joy. Watch movies that you like. Listen to positive music. You deserve to enjoy all of these things.
- Take care of the basics
This one simple but easy to overlook: get enough sleep, food and drink. Take care to nourish your body and remember that you deserve to have all of these things.
Though it may not feel like it, tell yourself that things will get better, as that may be all you can do until you’re in a better place. As I myself have trouble following my own advice, I understand how difficult self-care can be but recognize that it takes a lot of time and effort before a difference is felt. So, persevere.
The next topic comes from my own inability to understand society’s obsession with perverting the image of the mentally ill, a topic close to my own heart who has been hospitalized for a severe eating disorder. Some illnesses, such as schizophrenia, are demonized while others, such as depression and anorexia, are glamorized. If one were to receive one’s entire education on mental illness from films, tv programmes and sensationalist news articles, one would get the impression that those with schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder were inherently dangerous, or that anorexia, anxiety or depression were trivial fashion trends, for example. From the impression I get from the public treatment of mental health, it seems as though society likes to create an image, an archetype, depending on one’s diagnosis. As previously mentioned, those with schizophrenia are ‘dangerous’ whereas those with anorexia are vain young girls ‘dying to be thin’, that those with depression are ‘mysterious’ and ‘troubled’ (particularly in regards to beautiful women who suffer), or ‘over-sensitive’ and a ‘burden’. In 2009 the BBC revealed that a poll by YouGov indicated that over one in three people perceive those with schizophrenia to be ‘violent’. In 2010, Urban Outfitters released a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Eat Less’ emblazoned on the front, only to later feature another top by the fashion brand DEPRESSION with the company name scrawled all over it.
Clearly, then, there are certain tropes, certain ways in which society stigmatizes mental health issues that are not just erroneous, but downright harmful. The film released this year on Netflix about anorexia, named To The Bone, has rightly borne the brunt of much criticism as it not only fails to portray this dangerous mental illness faithfully but also distorts it and romanticizes what it is like to suffer from this debilitating illness. Firstly, it misrepresents many of the symptoms that sufferers commonly exhibit, such as the scene where she eats and spits an entire meal while out with the film’s love interest, Luke. For a sufferer, this behaviour is common and excruciating, as not only is it shameful but also something that one tries to avoid at all for calories left of the food that remains in the mouth. These behaviours are not something to laugh about, as they both do, but rather to be treated with compassion and dignity. The casting of Lily Collins also only perpetuates the obsession with the beautiful, troubled woman, something indeed that only leads to further public misunderstanding and the fetichizing of such an illness, perhaps responsible for the pro-ana movement that causes so much damage to young, vulnerable people. Most crucially, however, it does not adequately reflect the complexity of such an illness. When I was in hospital, there was no one person whose issues could be simply chalked down to a traumatic childhood or a dissatisfaction with one’s body image; in fact, anorexia often came hand in hand with other mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, OCD, anxiety and depression.
To The Bone, however, is only one of countless examples of the way in which mental illness is trivialized by the mainstream media which is ultimately damaging to those who are sufferers in their complex diversity. Terms such as to be ‘triggered’ or ‘depressed’, for someone to be ‘OCD’ about something only reflect how lightly mental illness is treated by those who have no experience of it. All I can hope for is that people might better educate themselves as to the true nature of these conditions and the inevitable consequences of such irresponsibility, itself not too much to ask. Indeed, it is not those with severe mental health issues who are a danger to society but rather, as the activist and writer Emma Goldman famously put it, “the most violent element in society is ignorance”.
Undeniably, empathy is an ingrained part of human nature that we must address with a conscientious effort; to be empathetic to those who are different from us, are Other, by no means comes naturally to us. In this way, empathy for our fellows becomes all the more valuable as it is the product of hard work, the consistent exercise of virtue, all of which serves to arguably better the self. In practicing empathy, one is able to move beyond the confines of the individual and become part of a larger, interconnected community.
Clearly, the problem of empathy is very pertinent to today, perhaps more so than ever. There have been an increasing number of news reports investigating the rise in hate crimes in the UK and US, particularly in regards to Muslim women and transgender people among others, many of whom have reported that they have modified their behaviour or dress to become less of a target. It could be argued that such hate crime has its roots in an inability to empathise with others that are different from us, from an inability to relate. Numerous news agencies, including the BBC and the Independent, have released reports detailing such crime statistics for 2016, most of which indicate that the three incentives for attack were based on race, religion and sexual orientation, unsurprising in an increasingly tense global political climate. Perhaps, when considering causes, our increasingly problematic global political dynamics might be mentioned; the rise of populism; the ongoing international conflicts or even the disconnect resulting from our increasingly digitalized age. Whatever the cause, however, the important thing is that it is addressed, my aim here being to examine the possible negative effects of social difference and potentially, tentatively offer solutions to that issue, as simplistic as they may be.
Refraining from empathising with others facilitates behaviour that would be considered morally reprehensible if committed against a fellow. That the common factor behind the spike in hate crime is difference (in race, religion or sexual orientation, as mentioned) indicates that when one considers one to be the Other, they lose the fundamental sense of fellowship that is key for a well-functioning society. In its place comes fear and resentment, eventually translating itself to hatred and compelling one to act on one’s prejudices. When man feels kinship with another and can empathize with them, he feels obliged to act towards them with consideration and loyalty, at the core of human nature there being an essential sociability. Perhaps this may seem too reductionist in implying that man is essentially an exclusionist creature that places an inordinate amount of importance on tribes, though it should be pointed out that one can learn a lot from the past. Many of the major atrocities of human history have been made possible by this dehumanization, this Othering, so to speak, of unfamiliar peoples. In a sense, however, this carries a hopeful message in that we might learn to treat others with more dignity and respect if only we train ourselves to better respond to the unfamiliar.
Perhaps, however, this proposition is too ambitious, in which case it might be better to distinguish between ‘empathy’ and ‘sympathy’. The former necessitates that there is an understanding, a shared feeling between two parties whereas the latter means that one can appreciate the suffering of another though may not have this same understanding of what they are going through. This is an important line to draw as it has serious implications for its practical application. It seems clear that it would be patronizing, even downright insulting, to assume that we might understand the experiences and struggles of others, particularly in regards to our 3 main factors: race, religion and sexual orientation. As a white female, I cannot in any way pretend to comprehend what it must be like to be a woman of colour, a transgender male or a Muslim in a society fraught with prejudice and intolerance. To do so would be to undermine and devalue the experiences of these other, different people. I might readily admit that I have lead a very privileged, sheltered life without knowing the extent of what that really means and its true implications. Perhaps, then, there are limits to the scope of empathy that rather properly belong to that of sympathy if we are to respect the variant experiences of others.
Does this mean, however, that we cannot empathise with people who are, in some respects, unlike us? Of course not. Though we may be different there remain fundamental similarities that we share which allow for empathy, for fraternity. In this sense, we might empathise with shared, common feeling but actively try to sympathise with the particular experiences of others, with the way in which they experience the world that might be inaccessible to us. By this I do not mean to insinuate that people who are different from myself require my sympathy but rather one should acknowledge that they are unable to truly understand their experiences though still seeks to establish a connection. Each member should actively work to bridge the gap of apparent unfamiliarity to relate to others, whose essential nature identical to their own, while sympathising with that which they may not understand, their form of life. In this sense, it seems as though empathy and indeed sympathy are crucial components of a functional, diverse State, perhaps never more necessary than in our modern, thoroughly divided society.