Low self-esteem is real. Sometimes I even think a self-loathing epidemic grips the land, making millions suffer needlessly: a mass delusion, like those millennial terrors that sent medieval Europeans screaming down the streets, scourging themselves bloody with barbed whips, certain that the world was about to end.
But to say a self-loathing epidemic exists is to say self-loathing is a sickness, and I always hesitate to call states of mind sicknesses. I am not qualified to diagnose. But having struggled with self-loathing all my life, having -- albeit only recently -- realized how widespread this state of mind is, having written a book about self-loathing (Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself, due out soon from Penguin), I know self-loathing hurts, I know how it can creep into all corners of a life and lurk there literally forever, tainting everything you say, think, wish and do with shame, fear, regret, panic at the perpetual threat of punishment which like as not will be exacted not by others on you but yourself. I see this everywhere and so do you: Self-loathing silences the articulate, stills the lithe, and kills whomever it can get its grips on.
So is it a disease? Not for me to say.
The public knows low self-esteem exists. We constantly see overwrought articles and programs aimed at raising self-esteem among this or that age group or size group or gender or other demographic.
This is all well and good, but what happens here as with most good intentions is that sometimes assumptions send everyone sprinting, despite their well intentions, down the wrong track.
And sometimes the people whom the public assumes "should" hate themselves do not. While the people whom the public assumes "should" like themselves hate themselves.
After her appearance at the Golden Globes last weekend, plus-size Precious star Gabourey Sidibe was targeted by tweets mocking her weight. Oscar nominee Sidibe, now starring in American Horror Story, quickly parried with a living-well-is-the-best-revenge-esque tweet:
"To people making mean comments about my GG pics, I mos def cried about it on that private jet on my way to my dream job last night."
Meanwhile at the inquest over the death of Tallulah Wilson, a fifteen-year-old dancer who put herself in the path of a speeding train at London's St. Pancras station, is revealing that the teen kept a diary which was found at the scene of her suicide. In its pages, this slender Emma Watson lookalike with luminous brown eyes and honey-colored hair scrawled, over and over, "I am fat," and filled pages with the words "ugly," "fat," and "worthless." I know all this because the inquest has been covered in The Guardian and other major media. But why? Children die all the time, some tragically. Tallulah's case is news because it is "surprising." Because oh my gosh, who would expect a pretty girl to hate herself?
Had a teen less blessed in the standard manners -- a teen stricken, say, with raging acne or hypertrichosis which spawns massive, all-pervasive body hair -- committed suicide, his or her death might not make headlines, because ostensible ugliness "should" spur self-loathing, Q.E.D.
But many out there who feel horrible about themselves are not the ones you would expect. Some of those who hate themselves appear very ordinary, even great. They do their best to function in this world without calling attention to themselves because they believe they do not deserve attention and because they are embarrassed easily and feel invisible. Their functionality is their disguise. If we want to help those who hate themselves hate themselves less, we need to recognize the true identifying factors, the actual clues, however subtle. First hint: It's not always about size.
Accompanying photograph by Kristan Lawson.