I’ve learned one important lesson while raising small humans: we adults teach our children virtues we don’t follow. We tell them to be kind to people who are different. We encourage them to be who they truly are. The lie detector test has determined: THIS IS COMPLETE AND UTTER BULL. Of course it’s ideal that people should be special individuals who love themselves as they are. But we gradually socialize them to be who we want them to be. Such doublespeak is exactly how people pretend to want romantic partners to be themselves while trying to make them into someone else. Here is the truth: we want people to be who they are only within the confines of the cultural norms we choose.
(First of all, know that I will make one or more generalizations in this discussion. Here’s one: I’m primarily discussing relationships that are healthy, not ones that are toxic or abusive. We good on that? Cool.)
True: We think it’s a good thing when people love themselves…
Most people expect you to have some kind of emotional self-love about you before you go trying to get some other love in your life. I once heard a pastor say, “How can you love your neighbor as yourself if you do not love yourself? I don’t want some of y’all treating me the way you treat yourself.” And in certain respects, I understand that. Adequate self-love can keep you from self-destructive behavior. And a similar self-preservation can halt you from harming others. You may not care about someone else as much as you fear the consequence that might come from hurting them. It’s the bottom basement of courtesy, really.
On a physical level, you also hope that your lovers will have some measure of satisfaction with their bodies, as well. Certainly, it’s rare that a person likes every single part of their figure. They don’t have to think of themselves as Tea Cake, fine as frog’s hair. Just enough self-regard to stop them from questioning every five seconds why you chose them.
Nevertheless, I disagree that we must have a complete handle on self-love prior to receiving love from other people. You can sit with yourself and be okay that you aren’t the most attractive, or the most intelligent, or the most paid. It’s okay to consider yourself appallingly mediocre and still desire to be loved. You deserve love exactly as you are. Even if, like fictional Celie or Christopher Wallace, you consider yourself Black and ugly as ever, it’s important to have some positive self-image. The beholder within you must see beauty in that resounding, resilient “however.”
Also True: …but we don’t like it when people like themselves too much to change for us…
Here’s how I know we’re lying when we tell people to be themselves. Even if our quests for love seek to draw people to our inner selves, our social mores demand that we make ourselves outwardly attractive to “catch and keep” a mate. So when an individual presents himself or herself in a manner that goes outside of cultural beauty norms, there’s an instant backlash. How dare you opt out of the game we’re all trapped in? Someone will inevitably tell the offender that they cannot find love looking like that. But wait…I thought we wanted people to be who they are? The truth is that we think worse of people for not trying to appear attractive than for being comfortable with their current level of attractiveness.
If a celeb with a crooked smile declines to get their teeth fixed once they pop off, trolls will ask them if they haven’t made enough money for the dentist yet. One of my favorite online arguments happens when a woman takes a picture where she shows off, rather than hides, her body hair. Especially if it’s pubic hair, the vitriol from both men and women is astonishing.
“No one (male) will want you with all that hair on you.”
“Ya’ll be taking this natural thing too far.”
People haaate it when someone refuses to alter their grooming ritual or appearance to attract a mate.
This contradiction also applies to couples who have already acknowledged each other’s mutual attractiveness. It’s a point of contention when one refuses to acquiesce to their lover’s aesthetic requests. When I first thought about going natural back in 2006, before it was widespread, word on the street was that Black men didn’t rock with natural hair. Black women who disobeyed this norm were warned that they risked losing brothers’
lust adoration because they looked like boys. Indeed, my boyfriend at the time declared, “Afros are ugly.” My mother gave me a bit of conventional woman wisdom and suggested I compromise. What if I transitioned a long time instead of doing a big chop? Instead, I cut my hair to an inch short. My relationship soon fell as limply as my strands of hair. Daah well!
Also True: …and we still ridicule people for altering themselves to feel more attractive.
So let’s get this straight. We are supposed to love ourselves as we are, yet still be willing to conform to attract someone else. But on the off chance you think you would like yourself better if you looked different, that defection will also earn you side-eyes. You’re too thirsty if you’re obviously trying to be attractive.
A funny thing happens when someone make a cosmetic change that other folks disagree with: they accuse you of self-hatred. For example, Black women who wear weaves are often roundly and soundly accused of hating themselves. Women who pursue plastic surgery and Brazilian butt lifts get regarded with pity and scorn. I’ve heard so many men claim they can’t take women who wear makeup “seriously.” (Whatever that means). Men like natural women, the guys grumble. (Caveat: see above example about pubic hair).
And I haven’t even touched on quirky hobbies. If your interests fall outside the acceptable spectrum of “normal,” you gotta hide them or give them up. Be who you are? Not if you’re a cornball! No one is going to like or want you if you play video games past the age of X, like a little LARPing on the weekend, or indulge in a geocache or two monthly.
All these conflicting rules of attraction form an impossible tightrope we all walk:
What is the appropriate balance between self-respect and accommodation?
If we must give something up to get something, how much of our authentic, natural selves is up for negotiation? To be honest, that compromise varies per person. I decided long ago
never to walk in anyone’s shadow my comfort with the way I present my body is non-negotiable. Whether I cover it up or reveal, cut or grow out my hair, my self-love dictates that I ask myself first and last. My personal autonomy is my deal-breaker. And I love that I found a man who accepts that deal–and me–without rancor.
The beautiful secret about love means there is someone out there who can love the way you love yourself without asking you to change for them. Honestly, most of us don’t care if others truly possess self-love if it doesn’t serve our own self-interest. Our calls for people to love and be themselves are disingenuous if we ask them to sacrifice that love on the altar of attraction.