There’s a lot of media and social media content about self worth these days. Google Trends shows the term particularly taking off around 2009, and increasing in searches ever since. It’s an important trend because it involves understanding that just for being humans and living creatures we deserve to be cared for, respected, and to take up space. But all the content I have seen has focused on our individual responsibility to be okay. The 10 Thought Habits of People With High Self Worth, reads one title. How to Build Self-Worth and Start Believing in Yourself Again, reads another, while on Instagram there is image after image of helpful though quite simplistic phrases like “Heal, so you can hear what’s being said without the filter of your wound.”
Most of this advice is useful. The problem is that it puts all of the responsibility on us, rather than also looking at the social and economic patterns generating such rampant low self worth among the global population. It also focuses entirely on individual healing, and ignores collective self worth and growth, as though we all grew up in isolation from the world, and our ways of being, coping, and our identity had no connection with our surroundings, stories, history, and communities.
When our people – be that our sexual diversity community, our workplace, continent, or our town – are humiliated, brutalized, abused, or silenced, that affects our self worth, whether or not we are personally victim to the mistreatment.
When the media, advertising, and entertainment industries objectify women for example, portraying us as the trophies for the racist hero in Bond films, or as headless adornments in billboard ads for car repairs – this mentality, this hegemonic ideology, affects our relationships, our job prospects, and the way we view ourselves, whether or not we have directly been a victim of the violent manifestations of that ideology, like sexual assault, rape, femicide, body shaming and so on.
But while it is totally useful for us to individually do the work of being aware of these dynamics and understanding how pathetically illogical and destructive sexism is, why shouldn’t the media industry also be held accountable? Why are the perpetrators – individual or systemic – so rarely the ones doing the heavy lifting here?
Well, largely because the perpetrators, from transnational corporations to the US government, to Hollywood, to Amazon and its exploiting, to men in their relationships with women, to white people, to colonisers, and more, are the ones with the power, while the ones with low self worth usually have little power. And the powerful people depict themselves as the heroes in this dynamic.
Not only that, but they are the ones who set the parameters for valuable beings. A decent human being, in this unequal, unjust, pro-capital and anti planet economic system, is one who is compliant, who is privileged and popular, and productive (to the benefit of a CEO or to others).
Self worth is political because for so long it has been taken for granted that women, workers, poorer classes, and most of Africa and Latin America shouldn’t live for ourselves. Our lives belong to bosses, husbands, family, and foreign corporations. So this idea that we are allowed to live for the sake of it, allowed to thrive, to see the outcome of our own existence as important (and more important than Shell and Constellation Brand’s profits) is a rebellious idea. And while a lot of the work in valuing our own lives is personal and varies according to our experiences and circumstances, it is essentially a political and collective act to say actually, humanity’s priorities shouldn’t be about enforcing global inequality through closed borders, and about profit and destruction and politician wank fests at luxurious and pretentious climate conferences, while the majority of us just have a week or a few days a year to properly rest. We, us strange little magical humans, are meant to be incredible, to explore, appreciate, and yes- to nurture and produce, but on our own individual and collective terms.
Self worth is believing we deserve to be free of domestic violence, deserve to have a peaceful home, deserve clear communication and honesty. It’s acknowledging the importance of down time, the creative role of boredom, the necessity of healthy foods and lots of colourful salads. But that means it is also demanding and organising for a world with healthy and democratic food production and distribution systems. The mass junk food generation system where companies fatten their pockets by selling us non-nutritional crap packaged in plastic, taking advantage of the fact that we are overworked and need quick food solutions, has got to go.
Given that, the discourse, discussions, and practice of self worth should contain a huge political element. A collective organising of communities where we stand up to the privatisation of our spaces, where as regions and countries we stand up to US intervention and to the industrial free-for-all contamination of our rivers, where we refuse to give any more of ourselves to private workplaces while the biggest corporations sustain climate destruction, where we cordon off police stations in order to challenge racism and murder with impunity, where we march and stop traffic and strike and meet and dance together in festivals and articulate our desire to have respectable working conditions. That too is self respect.
A good bath, a new pair of comfortable shoes, – is okay. It really is. It can be a super-useful positive first step, so long as it doesn’t fall into the logic and addiction of consumerism. But when the media ignores most news about Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, that sends a gut-wrenching message to people about their value as human beings. And so it really does feel like a battle with reality to convince ourselves that we do matter. And that battle won’t be won with a few choice purchases. That battle is so much about getting to a place where we can be informed and brave and collectively stop tolerating so much impunity and justice. Stop worshiping the people who harm us. Yes, I mean the toxic partner or the parent we were told we have to love no matter the abuse. But also I mean the colonisers, the CEOs profiting from a pandemic, the other CEOs pretending to be green while doing nothing to shift away from nonrenewables, the rich fuckers sending rockets up into space while here in Mexico we haven’t even had time to mourn the roughly 800,000 dead from the pandemic and all the disappeared and all the femicides and all the lives wasted and lost to poverty.
I know that many of us want to stop tolerating, but don’t quite know how. Just like its not always clear how on earth to get self esteem and overcome beliefs that we are ugly even though we are so damn incredible as we try so hard to be okay despite it all.
So another important first step is overcoming the self destructive belief that politics is for the politicians and that the rest of us have to be neutral – ie silent, in the face of injustice. The myth that politics should stay out of psychology, learning, classrooms, spirituality and growth. Hell no. Politics is really just about the structures of inequality and we have the right and the duty, collectively, to demand dignity, and to be heard.