The fact that we inhabit a moment in history during which celebrities' new tattoos–even small, uncontroversial ones on generally public body parts–generate headlines is itself scary. It's part of the Twitterization by which nearly all writing now amounts to "Hey, look @ this!" Which is what tattoos amount to, too. So a headline about a celebrity's tattoo is a "Hey, look @ this!" within a "Hey, look @ this!" regarding someone who makes a profession of "Hey, look @ this!"
This observation adds a fourth concentric "Hey, look @ this!" layer, which I perpetrated consciously, implicating myself in the destruction of language, literature and the very meaning of meaning itself. Which makes me want to stand in a corner facing the wall, but so does everything. Having recently written a book about low self-esteem, I know firsthand that it puts in the minds of those whom it afflicts a tape-loop that says: "Hey, look @ me! Hey, don't look @ me!"
Which brings us (because hey, don't look @ me) to Selena Gomez. According to Page Six, Billboard, Glamour, TV Guide, Ryan Seacrest, Access Hollywood, Fox News Latino, Yahoo South Africa, US Magazine, the International Business Times, the Christian Post and the Huffington Post, she has a new tattoo!
It's on her back, below her right scapula, and according to Bang Bang McCurdy, the artist who inked it there, it says "Love yourself first." In Arabic. Because…why?
But now "why" goes concentric. Why choose this particular message, to begin with?
It's an exhortation. Set aside "first" for a moment. The message's first portion, "Love yourself," is problematic enough: As cited in my new book Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself, scientific studies show that affirmations–e.g., "I'm beautiful; I love myself"–not only don't help people with very low self-esteem but often make them feel worse about themselves, because such statements seem extreme and impossible, thus reciting them feels like telling lies. Which makes some of us hate ourselves more.
"I'm OK; I accept myself; at least I'm not an arsonist" are the type of midrange affirmations we can embrace.
Selena's exhortation goes one step farther: Not just "Love yourself," but "Love yourself first." First? Before what? Before loving someone else? Before doing anything else? Before eating Funyuns? Before hating yourself? Not to joke about self-esteem -- OK, yes, to joke about it, but honestly: "Love yourself first" is a huge, stratospheric command whose implications are almost way too diverse. Presumably Selena knows what she means it to mean. Presumably she discussed this with Bang Bang.
But then: To whom is this huge, stratospheric command addressed? If it's a message from Selena to herself, then why have it inked on her back, where she cannot see it except in mirrors or photographs? Ah, but maybe she enjoys seeing herself in mirrors and in photographs. Presumably, as a celebrity, she does. In which case she already loves herself and doesn't need this message.
If I were to have an affirmation tattooed on my skin–which I never would; a portrait of Alexander Pope wearing a Prussian helmet while smoking a cigar would come before any affirmation on my must-have tattoos list, and "the 18th is my least favorite century" –it would be on a body part that I could see easily and frequently. An ankle, say. Or a wrist.
Having "Love yourself" inscribed on a body part that can be viewed only via two processes–mirror-gazing and being photographed–that people who don't love themselves revile is either (a) incredibly clever, because it forces such people to challenge their revulsions, or (b) a big fat gigantic lie, because if you already look at yourself in mirrors and photographs so frequently that it doesn't seem weird to have an affirmation inked on a body part that you can see only in mirrors and photographs, then you don't need to be told to love yourself because you already do.
Option (b) suggests that, since you already love yourself and need not be warned to love yourself, first or otherwise, this message is meant not for you, the tattooed one, but for others. But, yet again, why?
Why suffer the physical pain and ostensible permanence of having "Love yourself," much less the cryptic "Love yourself first," tattooed in a place seen mainly by others? Does Selena really want everyone who views her back to love themselves? Seriously? Why? What if some of them actually are arsonists? Such an exhortation inked on a back also suggests hubris, e.g., "Ye who follow me, obey."
But another question seethes. Even if Selena Gomez, about whom I know virtually nothing and on whom I wish no harm, does or doesn't have hubris and/or loves and/or doesn't love herself–at least, not "first"–and even if any of all of these reasons justify this tattoo, why is it in Arabic?
Nothing against Arabic as one language among many. But can Selena speak or read it? Can most of her fans? If not, then neither she nor they nor we nor I can benefit, was benefit even possible, from this tattoo's cajolery. Arabic readers might benefit, sure. But only them. Does Selena feel so deeply for her Arabic-reading fans, and only them, as to place permanently on her skin a missive meant only for them? This seems exclusionary and insensitive. Why not Tamil? Or Cherokee? It also seems almost a form of mockery to place this message on a body part which some Arabic-speaking societies frown on females baring publicly.
Or is the fact that it's in Arabic not an earnest outreach to Arabic-speakers but rather a trick: e.g., because it's in Arabic, which most of her fans can't read, we must discuss it amongst ourselves?
Are we all meant to know what Selena's new tattoo means not because we can read it–and if we can't, it looks only like lovely swerves and dots–but because we've been told? By Page Six, Ryan Seacrest, and the rest–including me–who said, "Hey, look @ this!"
I suspect so. Which really does destroy the meaning of meaning itself.