Published by Feminartsy, 04/04/2016
My mother taught me to be selfish. She will be horrified to read this, but it’s true. You know that weird moment when you realise your parents are people too? For me, that was when she told me that she had spent her whole life putting other people’s needs before her own, prioritising her children, her partners, her parents, and she wasn’t going to do that any more. In that moment I realised she has a complex history that I will never be able to understand because mothers, as an idea, are inherently selfless. They are supposed to give up everything for their families without complaint. But mothers, as individuals, are just like the rest of us.
There are some things I know about my mum. She was the first person in her family to graduate from university. She married my dad, had three kids and they got divorced fifteen years ago, when I was seven. She has worked full-time for as long as I can remember and she hates it when I put my elbows on the table. But now that I’m older, she’s not just my mum. We talk about our plans for the future and hers are just as grand as mine are. She wants to road trip across North America and live in Tanzania, but she feels guilty for travelling while my siblings and I still want her to pay our phone bills. She thinks she’s being selfish.
When I was growing up I think I was influenced by social norms that encourage kids, especially girls, to think of others before themselves. I was taught to be polite, caring, and easygoing. I learned to share, not to interrupt, and to apologise, but not always for the right reasons. In a 2014 study of four year olds playing in groups of boys and girls, Kieran Snyder from the University of Pennsylvania found boys interrupted the conversations three times as often as girls did. Snyder found similar results when studying meetings at a tech company, where men were almost three times as likely to interrupt women as they were to interrupt other men. I was told I was bossy in primary school and by the time I reached high school I was so scared of giving my opinion I hardly spoke in class, even when I really wanted to contribute.
Physically, women are often expected by society to present ourselves in a way that is visually pleasing for others, rather than comfortable (see: high heels). The existence of anti-street harassment campaigns like Hollaback! And Stop Telling Women to Smile speaks to the way women are expected to discount our own needs when compared with the expectations of others in public spaces.
On the other hand, I’ve found simply wearing clothes because I love the way they look can be a gloriously selfish way to subvert these expectations. My fashion philosophy is aligned with Leandra Medine of Man Repeller, who, mostly seriously, defines a man repeller as ‘she who outfits herself in a sartorially offensive mode that may result in repelling members of the opposite sex. Such garments include but are not limited to harem pants, boyfriend jeans, overalls, shoulder pads, full length jumpsuits, jewellery that resembles violent weaponry and clogs.’
Of course, it is generally beneficial for a society if individuals think of others rather than only of themselves. I accept that pure hedonism would lead to complete social breakdown, but unwavering selflessness can become just as extreme. Selflessness can evolve into something different, something darker. My so-called selflessness manifests as a lack of self-worth. I describe myself, without irony, as a people-pleaser because I almost compulsively want to make other people happy and I see their happiness as more important than mine. I have always had trouble saying no to family, friends and even strangers.
A couple of years ago in Amsterdam, I was kicked out of a coffee shop because of a paranoid fellow backpacker who I’d met earlier that day and spent the rest of the night looking after him. Afterwards, I wondered why I allowed myself to be ordered around by a guy I didn’t even know or like. Recently, at a music festival, I was braiding a friend’s hair when another girl who was sitting nearby asked me to braid hers. I laughingly declined, but she asked again so I gave in and spent at least half an hour doing her long blonde hair.
In those situations I felt like saying no would be selfish. In hindsight, it is clear that I’ve internalised selflessness to a ridiculous level, so now I’m attempting to say no more often. In my life a positive form of selfishness is inextricably linked to self-love because without selfishness I am not adequately caring for myself. Selfishness can mean refusing to work overtime just because my boss needs me to, but it can also mean cancelling on plans and letting a friend down because I need some time alone. It means choosing to move to the other side of the world because I want to, even though my family and friends have given me a thousand reasons why I shouldn’t.
By being selfish, I’m trying to value my own happiness the way my mother values hers. I’ve learned that it is actually okay to be selfish as a form of self-love, just ask Justin Bieber. So for real: baby, you should go and love yourself.