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What's Behind Beyoncé's #WhatIsPretty Project?

An expert's two-word response to the pop icon's new campaign.

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Beyoncé has just launched a new self-esteem-raising campaign.

Centered on the hashtag #WhatIsPretty, the project encourages fans to post selfies and videos to Instagram answering that question. Some have posted pictures of nature, but most post images of themselves. (That this campaign might boost sales of Beyoncé's song "Pretty Hurts"—sample lyric: "Perfection is a disease of a nation"—is, uh, purely coincidental.)

This and other high-profile efforts to raise self-esteem among various population sectors are well-intended, and I hope they work. The fewer human beings who suffer from depression or eating disorders, or due to the rampant delusion that is on the face of it so ludicrous—"I think you're a bad person." "OK, I believe you."—the better.

I'm unqualified to treat anyone, and my new book about self-esteem offers no affirmations as such. Seeing all this self-esteem coverage in the media, I think: The superstars and experts have got it all covered. They're doing a great job. I should limp into the closet, shut its door and shut up.

But maybe that, in fact, is exactly what I have to say—and I mean "have" in both senses: possession and necessity. Low self-esteem is the overwhelming desire, against all odds and despite all apparent circumstances, to shut oneself up—again in both senses of the term: confinement and silencing. After years of therapy, years of struggle, and the writing of my new book, Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself, what is it my impulse to say? 

Shut up.

Which I guess is the point.

A lot of people talk about low self-esteem, but most of those who discuss it are fortunate enough to be doing so only from conjecture—to label it as a bad thing that unlucky people possess, which it certainly is. I have the great misfortune of knowing firsthand exactly how self-hatred feels. I am its poster child, its spokesperson, the brand ambassador for wanting to vanish into thin air. But by any chance can my connoisseurship help those who want to help those who hate themselves? Can speaking for those who shut themselves up get them to start speaking for themselves, once they know they're not alone?

What anyone living or working with people who hate themselves should know, and what self-haters themselves should know, is this: Gaining self-acceptance is not either/or, yes/no, black/white, present/past, or sick/cured. It is certainly attainable, and this fact alone is one of the world's most magnificent miracles. But it is a hard, bitter, and often lifelong battle requiring daily bravery, and better days but sometimes worse ones. It becomes a blend of arithmetic and faith as better days accumulate and make you tell yourself: I want more of those. I want their relative peace and grace, in which at long last I can think of something—anything!—besides myself. I want more such days and can make them. Which we can. And that's what it comes down to. Day by day.

I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this grand accomplishment might never, for we who have hated ourselves, be continuous or instantaneous or by default. We who have loathed ourselves for any reason, for however long, might very well require constant commitment to our new, self-saving set of practices and rules, whatever they are and however arduous and strange they feel, forevermore. 

This is what boosters of self-esteem-raising campaigns should give to those whom they aim to save—long-term plans and long-term tools that will grow with their users, who can expand upon them and reinvent them year upon year, life-phase upon life-phase.

Self-loathing is a prison cell that seals itself. Saw through its bars, step out, but if you're not careful, if you start badmouthing yourself again, you're sucked back through that hole you sawed and those bars self-repair, with you inside. This cell is composed of the past, and habit. The trick is inventing ever-better saws, constructing them, learning to wield them, then like earnest journeymen practice-practice-practicing the non-badmouthing bit so that with every jailbreak we can wander farther from those cellblock bars, farther from their strength and their steely treachery.

This is, more or less, my prayer.

Anneli Rufus is the author of many books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and Stuck: Why We Can't (or Won't) Move On.

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