Reclaiming Self-love in an Age of Voyeurism
It is ironic that the social media platform through which I met Ellie is also the thing affecting our capacity for self-love.
Ellie and I followed one another months ago on Instagram. As we started to talk through direct messages, we spoke of performative femininity; the difficulty of knowing which parts of ourselves as femmes truly belong to us, and which parts are projections of capitalism’s puritanical dogma of female submission.
On Monday night she dropped the line “I need to start centralising myself in my own narrative.” The beauty of her insight resonated with my own experiences. The more she spoke, the more I saw that our shadows melded.
She spoke about self-care – how intrusive thoughts battle their way into her brain challenging her with sabotaging questions. Her thoughts begin kindly enough: “I want to have a nice shower and read a book” but an onslaught of negativity creeps in and takes siege of her mind. Her thoughts sidle up to her. “What’s the point of doing that if it achieves nothing?” and furthermore, “what’s the point in doing that if I’m the only one who observes it?”
When Ellie told me this, it struck me with a mortifying resonance. A deep and plaguing concession, which felt vulnerable to admit.
The thing is, I feel that self-voyeurism with the majority of things I do. Behind every enjoyable activity lurk thoughts of “How would others see this if I posted it?” And “does this go with my image? Does it add to it?”
In short, I struggle to enjoy things for myself. Even when I do not post a photograph of my Mediterranean-inspired sandwich that I took time to make for myself with love and attention to detail, with a nose for health, and with an eye for beauty. There are thoughts of what the reaction would be if I DID post it. I have become my own imaginary audience, censoring my self-care.
For some others, it is worse. I recall a girl telling me that she lived out her whole life as if she were being watched: even by herself, she did not do anything differently to how she would if she were in the company of others.
Whilst the idea of being perceived is not as extreme in myself, I still relate. Sometimes I catch myself off-guard, singing a note off-key, and recoil in embarrassment. I then attempt to sing it again to prove to the imaginary audience that I am able to hit the note. Sometimes I crawl naked on all fours to reach something whilst alone in my room, and I feel sheepish, imagining how absurd I must appear. Sometimes when my computer shuts down unexpectedly I swear out loud so as not to appear to take the defeat without resistance.
Emotions such as embarrassment, shame and awkwardness that have come into being in relation to other people, have permeated our psyche so as to police us even when we are alone. Self love has diminished.
I question why this is. When did my need for imaginary validation begin? Was it when I was a child and my mother told me she would know if I did anything wrong? Was it formative experiences of being found out for stealing heart-shaped chocolates, in the back of a taxi, or watching television in secret when I thought I’d get away with it?
Or is it the voyeuristic culture we live in?
A culture where snapshots of celebrities are publicised without their consent, along with a commentary on what they are wearing, what they are eating, to whom they are speaking to and speculations about what their plans are?
A culture of highly curated advertising -where a woman in the supposed privacy of her home smiles a pearly grin and sits elegantly in her bath, lathered up with foam to match her teeth, shaving smooth, already hairless legs?
A culture of security cameras, of data sharing, of live streaming – constant reminders of either the reality or the possibility of being watched. Perhaps some formative experiences have had an impact. Yet I suspect that our voyeuristic culture is the main culprit for the unwitting feeling of performativity that permeates private spaces. The question is, how can we overcome the feeling of being observed when we are alone? How can we reclaim a self-love that is completely contingent on how we value ourselves, and not on how a potential observer would interpret our actions?
For me, the solution is simple. It just takes time to enact.
I need to remind myself of my own mortality. If I do not spend this one life – the only life I will have as Jamila Smith – enjoying myself on my own terms, I will not have lived at all.
With that reminder, I centralise myself in my own narrative. I re-claim self-love – the most transgressive thing one can do in an age of voyeurism.
Images from Jamila Smith