“I hate myself,” might have been the most frequently-written sentence in my prolific journals as a teen (I filled dozens of binders with my tortured teen prose; forcing anyone to read it today could probably be considered legitimate torture in some jurisdictions). If I think back to my own youth, the most common sentiment that rises up above all the others is self-hatred. The standards to which girls hold themselves is harsh and impossible and self-hatred is the only logical conclusion to setting impossible standards for oneself. And so, I am a woman recovering from my girlhood. One of girlhood’s defining characteristics is self-hatred, and I find myself on a daily basis working to undo the narrative damage I did to myself (and also experienced at the hands of others) as a girl.
I’m not doing a good job at undoing that damage. I sat down before the blank page of this essay and the first thing I thought to write is the first thing I’ve always thought to write as long as I’ve been alive. “I hate myself.” Where do I go from there?
I know am still recovering from the stories I told myself about who I was, the stories I continue to tell myself about who I am–that I need to be everything to everyone, that I need to perform my responsibilities perfectly without failure and with a straight face, that I need to avoid being too emotional, but be an emotional receptacle for everyone who suffers, and that I need to look good while doing it all.
I think about my latest surfing project. I’m trying to cross-step and then hang ten at the nose of my surfboard. This surfing trick might possibly be the perfect metaphor for what it means to be a girl. As in, this particular surf trick asks you to do something physically demanding and nearly impossible while also making the whole thing look effortless. That is, the trick requires you to paddle with enough speed to maneuver your surfboard into the most critical part of the wave (while not appearing to put in effort), then, with perfect balance, to cross one foot over the other, while still surfing and keeping the board in the most critical position of the wave, as you walk to the front, all while making sure the board doesn’t slide out from under you (a feeling which is a little like walking a tightrope, while also surfing). It doesn’t count if you don’t look beautiful and stable while doing it. It doesn’t count if you look like you’re losing your balance. It doesn’t count if you look like it takes any effort. If this isn’t a metaphor of what it means to be a woman or girl navigating modern day culture, then I don’t know what is. It’s not surprising that cross-stepping and hanging ten is considered a girl’s surf trick in most surfing circles. Leave the “raw power” to the boys, and the effortless grace to the women… but I digress.
Girls are taught to doubt their own narrative. As a woman recovering from my girlhood, I spend a great deal of time and effort on my own narrative. Perhaps this is why I became a writer. I find myself constantly revising the story I tell about myself. For so long my own story was predicated upon a tale of my own defectiveness. Now my story comes from power, but because I have so few frameworks for this story, I find the writing slow, the narrative difficult, and the power slippery at best. Melissa Febos’s Girlhood, is an illuminating collection of essays that offers a better framework, almost a self-help book for women recovering from girlhood. I’m not sure if I can do all she asks.
Febos writes: “The true telling of our stories often requires the annihilation of other stories…”
I no longer collaborate with the limited framework society provided me, the fantasies powerful men and boys projected upon my body and my desires, and the stories told to me by my mother and other women of what a girl should be. By this, I mean that I try not to be a “good girl.” By this I mean I rock the boat. I am recovering from the collective cultural delusion that defined me.
When I was a girl, I told my mother I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. She said that meant I wanted to be a prostitute. I don’t understand what kind of mental gymnastics got her to that conclusion. The internal workings of my mother’s mind remains a mystery to me to this day. She has suffered from mental illness my whole life. And while I can partially blame her mental illness for her conclusions, I also blame the patriarchy.
And so, when Febos says that certain stories need to be annihilated, I wonder if it’s really annihilation that’s required, but rather a rigorous reframing of all that self-hatred we’ve swallowed and consumed. What purpose does self-hatred serve? Does it serve a protective quality? Is self-denial easier than the denial of others? I’m not fully sure. Febos writes, “We are all unreliable narrators of our own motives.”
Where does self-hatred come from? If, as Melissa Febos notes, “the self becomes a collaboration with other people” we can likely draw the conclusion that much of the self-hatred girls experience comes from outside them. They experience it in their families, the peer groups, in early sexual encounters, and in messages they receive from the media. Girls compare themselves to other girls, and often the comparisons are based on external appearance.
But self-hatred doesn’t come from appearance alone. Girls hold each other to impossible standards of decorum and emotional availability. I think of a recent falling out I had with a close female friend I’ve known most of my life (I’ll leave out details here), but sometimes the cruelest criticism is the true criticism delivered in the meanest way possible.
Self-hatred exists in the family of self-limiting beliefs, and the universe self-limiting beliefs has real-world implications in women’s lives. Self-hatred might begin internally, but its impact is very real. It affects how we feel about ourselves, the jobs we try to get, the salaries we ask for, the dreams we let ourselves dream, the friendship and relationships we have. It affects what we let ourselves try to do. It underlies self-destructive behavior. I have experienced self-hatred’s many flavors. There’s bodily self-hatred, self-hatred of one’s personality, self-abnegating self-hatred with its self-punishments of excessive exercise, cutting, or starvation. There’s self-hatred that leads to dissociation from self and engagement in activities and friendships which do not serve one’s best interests. There’s self-hatred so rampant, its demands of perfection so exact, it leads to the failure to start anything.
I’ve been told that writing can be a cure for self-hatred. The re-framing of one’s story has immense power. But if writing is a cure, then it’s a very slow cure. I’ve been at it for over 20 years now, and I’m still working on my own self-hatred. Perhaps it is easier to see a solution or truth than to enact or live it.
There are other solutions for self-hatred. Therapy is one. Spending time with positive people has also been noted as a possible cure, but given my misanthropic tendencies, I’m more likely to say hi to the sea turtles while surfing than to say hi to the people in the lineup.
Febos offers a unique kind of self-help solution to the self-hatred problem, one that is difficult to do, but perhaps underestimated. She writes about how, for years, she practiced serial monogamy, and was therefore never really alone for any extended period of time. When she tries it for the first time, she finds it revelatory: “My time was suddenly my own, which subtly but completely changed the texture of being. I ran and slept and taught my students and talked for hours on the phone to my friends and family…intimacy … is a closeness to another person that requires closeness with oneself.”
Writing requires a particular kind of solitude. Unlike other creative acts like music, or even art, the writer can’t really do the work in dialogue with other people, in a collective, or at a party (though I’ve tried).
Girls are taught that they shouldn’t be alone. As a girl, I wasn’t allowed out of the house unless I was with friends. The fear of sexual assault or violence is a specter always lurking in the shadows any time a woman ventures out on her own. When I was a child, my mother’s paranoid delusions had her convinced that we lived surrounded by rapists. We lived in some rough neighborhoods in Miami, and given the prevalence of rape in America, she might not have been wrong.
And yet, perhaps the most important lesson of our recovery from girlhood can come from Gloria Steinem’s advice that we go at it alone, that we take to the road, that we spend time with ourselves. It might be less dangerous than we think. Gloria Steinem, in “My Life on the Road,” writes: “…domestic violence in the United States records show that women are most likely to be beaten or killed at home and by men they know. Statistically speaking, home is an even more dangerous place for women than the road.”
To be alone is to confront one’s own self-hatred directly. Febos notes: “It’s a particularly crushing disappointment to realize again that your problem is yourself.”
After months of quarantine together, my partner and I are only now venturing out. Being alone in the house again is strange. I feel anxious. I sit with myself and I am not always comfortable. I sit down to write, and think about the times when I was younger, when I hated myself more than I do today. I think about the immense labor that goes into building a life. Febos writes that she divides her days into “modules” or “the set of practices of which I make sure to include two or three in any given day, though my best days include all six: morning journaling, a meeting, exercise, meditation, writing, and meaningful contact with friends.” I think about my own practices to build a meaningful life: morning (sometimes afternoon surfing), meditation, writing, art-making, meaningful contact with friends and family.
But being alone with myself is a new feeling in this almost post-pandemic world.
My partner bikes to his studio in Chinatown and I worry about drivers who don’t look when they make left turns. He tells me of friends he’s meeting, about the people starting to venture out again, and I think about how fragile I am here on this island, how few people I truly know, having only just moved here a few years ago. How grateful I am for the friends I do have. The silence is loud. I write “I hate myself” down. Why? I write this essay. I think about it.
Perhaps the most ready diagnostic to determine whether a woman suffers from self-hatred can be the test of how she feels when she’s alone. If I subject myself to that diagnostic, I see that I have work to do. I’d get started, but I go surfing. I need to work on my cross-step. I can barely hang five. How will I ever hang ten?
About the Writer
Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University. She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed. When you buy an independently reviewed book through my Bookshop links above, you not only support local bookstores, but also this blog, a labor of love.