"Love thyself" has become the mantra of the modern woman. According to the current gospel, i.e. women's magazines, the path to a healthy relationship is blocked until you love yourself first. But it's hard to figure out exactly what that means, although there is no shortage of people who think they've figured it out. The answer, for women who are looking for a simple fix, comes in assortment of self-help checklists meant to impart romantic enlightenment. After sifting through the blather, the only consistent message is a covert one: your personal responsibility in society is to make a relationship work and if it's not working, it's your fault. It has been all too easy for women to feel trapped in this double bind.
What has made this message so powerful and also left it relatively uncontested is the isolation of modern day life. Left alone to find their way, women are ripe for any sage advice. The media happily obliges with many--often uneducated--forays into pop psychology. The common wisdom of the day emphasizes that not just self-acceptance but self-love is essential for happiness. But a thread throughout this entire blog is that there is only one reason in our society that a woman can truly love herself: if she stays thin. So the fundamental message equates thinness with suitability as a mate, and the media's attempts to rescue women's self-image actually leads women, obsessively, back to the scale, desperate to shed the pounds that will magically land them in a happy relationship.
What's so backwards in this philosophy is that our own self-image is grounded in relationships., not in loving oneself. Historically and psychologically, that is the cornerstone of how people, and especially women, see themselves. To arbitrarily separate oneself from one's relationships is akin to tearing away the essence of our humanity.
Fundamentally, we have always had a social nature. The successes and downfalls of the human race rest largely on our sense of community, and much of our intellectual pursuit has focused on the dichotomy between our sense of individuality and our social existence. We have attempted to understand our innate need to relate to others through philosophy in the distant past, but in the last century the mode of inquiry has been scientific, namely psychological and biological.
Some of the most basic understanding of human relationships has come from studies of the mother-child bond. Our identity originally forms in a symbiotic way with the mother. A trove of psychoanalytic research explores every nuance of a baby's transition from literally being one with its mother in utero to learning to differentiate between itself and other objects, also initially its mother. But it's startling to recognize that when a baby first looks at its mother, the baby identifies her as part of itself! And seeing oneself as an individual comes not days but a few years into life. Our sense of being independent is an outgrowth of living in the world and not at all an innate part of our psychological make-up. If that's the case, then "love thyself" as a mantra to adopt in our little bubble ignores the basic facts of our dependence on others. No wonder such an artificial way of living ends up being translated into something so concrete and meaningless as "stay thin."
Further research into child development places increasing importance on parent and peer relationships as the central mechanism a child uses to learn who he or she is. The child studies these reflections from others to learn how to become a fully independent person, also one of the goals of parenting. But if the most powerful tool to foster independence is the relationship with a child, then perhaps the goal is not complete autonomy at all. In a social society, a fully functioning adult learns to hold up her end of the relationships in her life. So the idea is to exist in a web of people and know one's place in one's own network. Maybe that's how to become a mature adult.
The difference between these two philosophies--love thyself or live in a network of relationships--can help direct a confused, at risk adolescent either towards an eating disorder or a healthy self-image. At this stage of life, a child is struggling to form an identity and, as I discussed in a previous post, is routinely trying on different hats to see if they fit. Outside of appearance and weight--things children this age universally criticize--a teenager will see little else in the mirror, so advocating the impossible edict to "love thyself" will only stoke the flame of the self-hatred.
Adolescents use all of the relationships around them to shape their sense of themselves and are susceptible to be quickly influenced by the people around them. For further proof, anyone can remember poor decisions of that time of life, and these powerfully emotional memories are always tinged with shame and the shock of being so painfully vulnerable. But these events remain defined markers of when we learned about ourselves. The positive and negative consequences of those relationships signify the process of coming to know who we are.
The critical importance of relationships to personal development in adolescence leads to an obvious step for parents. The key is to use the personal relationship with children to reflect who they are and what they mean in the world. It's a mistake to think children will acknowledge the information as an adult would. In fact, a child will look in that mirror again and again to be sure of what they saw and often challenge it for years before accepting this reflection. But if adults help the child learn who she is, then she won't end up relying on food and weight as the only barometer. We can only love ourselves as well as we have been loved. Ironically, we best see ourselves in reflections of others than in the mirror.
I want to switch gears for next time. In an early post, I discussed the pros and cons for residential treatment for eating disorders. I'm going to revisit that topic and speak about some alternate treatment ideas.