It can often feel like society gaslights folks when it comes to the issue of low self esteem or being insecure. There is this notion that someone can cure their low self esteem by just believing in themselves, loving themselves, being confident etc. However, it really isn’t that simple. Self esteem isn’t just an individual issue that can be addressed in a vacuum but speaks to greater societal and cultural structures. Understandably, many clients that come to therapy struggling with self esteem, self love, and/or any insecurities, have a desire to get over their insecurities and learn how to love themselves. However, before we can get there we have to talk about desirability.
When we consider something to be desirable we understand it to be worthy, pleasing, and wanted. This becomes complex when discussing people and how we relate to each other.
In her article, The Politics of Desirability, Atinuke offers, “Desirability politics creates a hierarchy of existence and determines who deserves love, care, benefits and basic human rights based on seemingly individualistic ‘preferences’ that are rooted in bigotry and biases.” Atinuke is describing how when it comes to society, desirability impacts not only how we treat one another but even what resources we have access to. Desirability goes beyond romantic and sexual relationships but permeates all aspects of our lives.
There have been many examples of how this plays out via research, pop culture, and many people’s personal experiences. One psychological experiment, mostly known as the famous doll test, where researchers use identical toy dolls, with the only difference being the skin color of the dolls, were given to a group of children. Through this experiment they found that over half the children preferred the white doll over the black doll. This experiment has been duplicated several times in various ways and the result remains the same. This shows that even at a young age we start understanding who is perceived as desirable and who is not.
Recent research and analysis continues to show how even our access to healthcare is impacted by desirability. Black women continue to highlight how their pain is not taken as serious, their complications during pregnancy are less likely to be addressed, and they are more likely to be surveillanced. Queer, fat, and disabled people continue to discuss the ways that medical discrimination impacts their access to health care.
We don’t have to look too deeply at popular culture to see how desirability is at play, however, it is something to consider how much of the media we consume that centers on desirable people. A strong emphasis on social media, where we often see instagram models and influencers being put on display. How do you think that impacts how you see yourself and others?
I think we often underestimate how these things shape the core narrative we have about ourselves and our place in the world. Desirability has a profound effect on our mental health especially when it comes to self esteem and insecurities. Here, it’s important to hold space to the reality that how people perceive us directly impacts our quality of life, we can begin our healing journey toward self love. We are able to shift the conversation from “why can’t I love myself” to “how does desirability impact me and how do I push back against it.” The first question aligns self love as an individual undertaking and can set client’s up for failure. If you’re struggling with low self esteem and self love you could experience this as a character flaw within yourself. Then you are lead to believe that you need to convince yourself that you are worthy and lovable and then boom, self love. However, the second question aligns self love as the relationship between one’s self and their environment. It asks us to consider the ways we have been taught how to not love ourselves and invites us to manage, challenge, and grieve.
While self-love as a concept is not a scam, how we as a society often view it or talk about achieving it certainly can be. Underneath our insecurities there is a core understanding whether conscious or conscious that my desirability or perceived desirability will gravely determine how I am able to live my life. That is not an individual issue to be solved by “believing in yourself” but a societal issue that we have to collectively address. So I invite you to explore your core narrative around desirability as you continue on your journey towards self love and building your self esteem.