We entered the woodworks aisle at Goodwill from opposite ends, me with a cart and him wandering through. I tried to make room for him by pushing my cart to the side and waiting until he passed. He slowed down instead. I had to watch as he bowed his head (low enough that I could see the top of his brown unkempt hair even though he was taller than me) and gawked at the neckline of my summer dress. So transfixed was he that he walked into the shelving, knocking things over. He only looked away to pick up what he dropped.
I do not walk out of my house unafraid. The fear is not constant, but I know it is there when a stranger catcalls me or when ugly eyes stay transfixed on my chest. And the fear is always familiar, because I know what they want when they stare. I know how powerful they think they are. I know how the image of me fits into spectrums of gender, class, race, color, age, sexuality, citizenship, ability, etcetera. I mourn the structures that instill in people (mainly men) their arrogant disregard for my public safety and comfort. Their violation sickens me. His violation sickened me.
When I got home that night, I stared at myself in the little Kirk closet mirror for about two hours. He was not the first to stare – this has been happening since I was 11 – but the consuming hollowness of his eyes stayed fresh and terrifying in my mind. I felt my skin burn, but I stood there in front of that little mirror and did the only thing I could think to do: I affirmed myself. I styled my hair, I played with my lipsticks and I modeled the fabulous clothes I got from my thrift run. I took selfies that I didn’t post.
I survive. I am beautiful, I reminded myself then and now as I write this. I love. I am loved. I will always remain beloved.
Nothing is more salient to me than the politics of self-love. A politic of self-love guides me through both my most vulnerable moments – like that disturbing Goodwill run – and my most routine – like going to class, doing homework and hanging out. Self-love helps me survive and thrive as me for me within the communities I hold dear. I know I may sound like I’m writing from a soapbox, but I do so unironically and unapologetically because self-love matters to me.
What makes self-love difficult to promote, however, is that it is not a definite philosophy, but rather a serious reflection about your own needs, wants, vocation and participation in the world around you. Any firm, universal definition I give would be limiting in the same way because what it means to be loving differs so much from person to person. For example, self-love goes beyond a list of relaxation techniques or coping mechanisms, a list I’ve encountered too many times to count. “Take a warm bath! Eat chocolate! Read a book for pleasure! Get a massage! Do yoga! Sit in nature! Watch an hour of trashy TV!” I believe these are examples of self-care and not necessarily of self-love. These are actions that for some people heal, give pleasure and recenter them. But they do not content everyone equally, they cannot be accessed by everyone, and also, personally, I hate massages; stop trying to convince me I need them, people who write self-love definitions.
We all have a responsibility to ourselves to consider how elements of self-love manifest in our own lives. But, to start a conversation, I will offer my reflections. I personally define self-love as a compassionate enforcement of one’s own worthiness. It means I reflect on my desires, I understand the parts I play in my communities and I seek the affirmations I need to survive and love. Even with all my efforts for self-love, I fall into old, negative, self-hating habits. But my regressions do not eliminate the self-love as a process I developed so far. So yes, my anxiety ain’t leaving anytime soon, and I constantly, viscerally feel the consequences of living life as a survivor of violence. I can still turn to my core of self-loving reflection to ground me and guide me. I have placed myself with loving communities, I have reached out for accommodations and healing where needed and I have learned again and again that my experiences do not disqualify me from love.
I completely understand if phrases like “you are worthy of respect from others” and “you are worthy of care from yourself” sound like cheesy platitudes to ears unaccustomed to them. But I will continue to say them and support them with utmost seriousness and sincerity. Because as I enter my senior year and my third year of Bringing Sexy Mac, I have been truly humbled to learn how much the Macalester community needs more radically loving, sincere, brave affirmations. We need them especially now because, whether new to campus or not, a different campus welcomes us all. We each have changed and we bring with us this transformation. I am renewed and exhausted by this process. Such huge shifts can pose a challenge to how we conceive our self-worth, self-love and the performance of who we think we were, are and should be. Questions about our place here and self-doubt undoubtedly arise: Do I deserve to be at Mac? Did they make a mistake choosing me? Why am I here? Should I be somewhere else? Did I make the wrong decision? Can I really make it another year? Will I be ready to leave it when the time comes?
And we need affirmations because violence occurs and is remembered here. Goodwill guy was just one example of my body being compromised off-campus, which I shared because it felt right. But the exchange represents just one instance out of a tessellation of violence, disrespect and systems of oppression that does not somehow disappear once I set foot on campus. Over the next year, our campus as a community and institution will be the site of pain, violence, stress, anxiety and hate. We will be the cause for someone else’s dehumanization, we will be unable to support those who might need it the most and we will give up on some and punish others unjustly. These truths are a facet of how I must envision Macalester to honor the stories I have heard and shared. I love Macalester and am thankful I am here, but I cannot deny the fact that my love for this community includes by its nature the potential and eventuality of violence.
I cannot answer the questions I listed earlier for you, and there is only so much I can do to prevent the kind of violences I just described. Nor can I tell you how to gain self-love, because as I said, I consider strict self-love guidelines a futile effort. But I hope that over the next year, this column will continue to be a space for the learning, support, love and reflection necessary for self-love. Because, while this is the end of this article, this is not the end of the conversation.