Toxic self-love is the girlbossification of mental health
Feeling kind of crap about yourself? Wrong! In the immortal words of RuPaul, “If you can't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
There’s a scene in season two, episode two of Euphoria where Kat (Barbie Ferreira), arguably the show’s most relatable character, is alone in her bedroom, spiralling into the depths of self-hate. She’s interrupted by various super hot femmes regurgitating cheesy motivational one-liners that have populated social media over the last few years: “You have to smash the beauty standards,” says one. “Kat, this isn’t you talking, it’s the patriarchy,” stresses another. At this point, Kat is basically smothering herself with a pillow in an attempt to drown out these voices. “I don’t care that society makes me feel this way,” she says, “I feel like shit.”
The scene reminded me of the many nights I’ve spent trying to tune out the same overwhelming voices. The only thing worse than feeling bad about yourself is being reminded that those feelings are the result of years of patriarchal beauty norms – and there’s nothing you can do about it.
As someone who struggles with body dysmorphia and spends an embarrassing amount of time on social media, I’m often confronted with similar self-love campaigns that leave me feeling riddled with shame. The fact that, in those moments, I’m succumbing to societal ideologies that I know I should “rise above” only makes me feel more inadequate. Introducing toxic positivity’s sneaky younger sibling: toxic self-love.
As Harriet Frew, an eating disorder therapist and member of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), explains, forcing self-loving thoughts, behaviours or feelings when you’re feeling kind of crap can actually be super harmful. As Frew puts it, toxic-self love can be reductive because “it glosses over deeper emotions and needs, and can also bring about a sense of isolation and disconnection from others.”
It’s hard to determine when exactly toxic self-love became such a big part of our lives. Some professionals trace toxic positivity back to the early days of the pandemic, when we had to collectively push through feelings of fear, mourning and loss. The proliferation of both phenomena, however, are largely due to social media. The rise of TikTok in particular has created the perfect conditions for such messaging to dominate our feed, resulting in the current girlbossification of mental health.
For example, there’s a strand of content on the platform of (mostly) women sharing videos of themselves in traditionally “skinny girl” outfits (cue low-rise jeans), with voice-overs stating “this is my body, it is fantastic and I know it is enough,” or “this is my body and I don’t care what you think about it.” The hashtag #selflove has over thirty billion views on TikTok and, while not all of the content is toxic, it does stand to show the scale at which pseudo positive affirmations are influencing our way of thinking.
Yet this new expectation to consistently feel positive about ourselves and live in a constant state of happiness is simply too much pressure. Sure, negative feelings shouldn’t permanently permeate our lives, but it’s also important to remember that emotions ebb and flow. Having a few hard days – whether they’re because of our relationship with our bodies, our partners, our friendships, or our careers – is normal. They can already be difficult to cope with, without slathering another layer of guilt and shame on top.
The toxicity of self-love campaigns has always existed in some proverbial form. Who can forget the hundreds of women’s magazines we read in dentist waiting rooms, which ironically explained to us how beauty shines from within? Or Ru Paul yelling, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” But our current addiction to social media has amplified this to the extreme. Whether we like to admit it or not, we’re heavily influenced by the content we consume, and the artifice of perfect images and endless motivating captions we’re surrounded by does, at some point, seep into our psyche.
“Absorbing this content can result in the invalidation of emotions, creating a disconnection from others and feelings of failure,” says Dr. Frew. “This ultimately impacts mental health: low mood, increased anxiety, poor body image and low self-worth.”
The proliferation of self-love messaging is also problematic because it phrases structural oppression through a lens of individualism. It tells us that the problem lies not in people struggling because of societal pressures, but in them not finding the willpower to understand their oppression and then rise above it. We’re not only expected to cope with the pressures of modern life, but excel in spite of them, framed as a defiant way to stick it to the man. Yet in reality, bending to accommodate unreasonable expectations only benefits the status quo.
This type of ideology is rampant in many aspects of our post-feminist world (the current era in which feminism is deemed unnecessary since women have “gained” economic and social equality), where we are both the problem and the source of our own solution. Most of us work long hours, get very little rest and spend our free time unknowingly consuming content that is constantly geared towards self enhancement. Self-love, in the way that it’s marketed today, has just become another chore on our endless list for self-improvement.
Notions of what is “normal” in terms of beauty, fitness, productivity, relationships and mental health are all fluid. We’ve seen how they’ve changed over the years and we should know by now that, no matter how hard we work to attain the current ideal, that goal is inherently unachievable. Working towards self-love shouldn’t feel like a race against time. There will always be someone on Instagram who seems to have hacked it when, in reality, it’s a deeply personal journey. And for many of us, it’s a long work in progress.
Dr. Frew has noticed that symptoms of toxic self-love ideology have become increasingly common in her clients. Is there a way that we can distance ourselves from these campaigns without having to do the unthinkable: deleting social media? Potentially – and it begins with following more authentic accounts.
“Following therapists or professionals instead of just influencers is a good start, as it encourages engaging with content that is more focused on authentic and genuine connection,” says Dr. Frew. Ultimately, you want to find content that gives you space to express yourself and your vulnerabilities, where authenticity is more than just a buzzword pasted onto a TikTok video. “After all, social media is only a snapshot [of people’s lives]. No one feels positive or self-loving all the time,” reminds Dr. Frew.
Of course, a lot of our beliefs around health, relationships, work and self-worth are conditioned into us from an early age. Unpacking and unlearning these behaviours is important work to do. But in doing this work, we have to remember to be compassionate and empathetic, not only towards others, but firstly towards ourselves.
And let’s be honest, being positive all the time is extremely exhausting. The last thing we need is to feel bad about feeling bad.