The Cult of Low Self-Esteem – A Rant

There’s a song which still occasionally gets air-time on the radio and which makes me so angry I always switch the station.  It’s the most blatant expression of an attitude that makes me want to punch everything in sight.  The song? “Beautiful” by One Direction.  The reason for my anger? This stupid fetishizing of women with low self-esteem.

Encapsulating the message of this song and others like it (“Just the Way You Are” and “Treasure,” both by Bruno Mars, spring to mind) is the line “You don’t know you’re beautiful/That’s what makes you beautiful.”

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I mean what the actual fuck.  This is some bullshit right here.  The underlying premise is that there is a certain knowledge that the singer has about this woman which she herself doesn’t have, i.e., how wonderful, beautiful, etc., she is.  He tells her she is all of these things but also that he is in fact attracted to her because she doesn’t believe these things about herself.  There’s power in this knowledge and he is keeping that power for himself.  She needs him in her life or else she’d lose this special something that he sees in her and she can’t see for herself.  It’s so gross.  He’s posing as a person saving her from her low self-esteem but all he’s doing is giving her a boost, a shot of approval that only he provides, guaranteeing she’ll come back for more.  After all it is precisely her bad self-image which he claims is attractive.

Why would you write songs which hold up low self-esteem as desirable?  When you’re describing a woman you’re supposedly in love with, why would you go on and on about how she doesn’t see any of her own good qualities?

I should hope that a normal person would want to be with a partner who had some measure of confidence, some self-respect, a fairly good assessment of their own strengths and weaknesses.  A normal person wouldn’t want to have to constantly assure their partner that he or she really actually was worth being with.

But for some reason, the men singing these songs seem to be getting off on revealing heretofore unknown good qualities about their ladies with low self-esteem.  Why?  Why is this?  Do they want someone who will unquestioningly adore them and tell the all the time “I’m so incredibly lucky to be with you!”?  Do they want someone who doesn’t know what it’s like to be treated well, so that they’ll be grateful for any little thing these guys do? This is such classic manipulative bullshit, and it’s horrifying to think that millions of teenage girls are being told by their musical idols, “Hey, it’s attractive to have very little self-worth!”

Because do you know what happens when someone with very low self-esteem gets in a relationship with a manipulator who is the only person telling them they’re beautiful?  That situation can turn downright abusive and ugly.  Bruno Mars and One Direction are saying things that predators say.  They’re spouting the exact same sort of thing that makes a vulnerable person addicted to their abuser’s manipulation.  And that’s not something any woman should get used to hearing.

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7 thoughts on “The Cult of Low Self-Esteem – A Rant

  1. First of all: I hate one direction. My girls love ’em, but I just find ’em annoying.

    Speaking for myself, when I was much younger and dating, I tended to go after quirky girls. They were interesting, often funny, far more interesting to talk to than the more stereotypically girly-girls. The quirky girls often seemed surprised I was interested in them, and often seemed unaware of their attractiveness. They simply didn’t get as much attention from the guys as the equally-attractive non-quirky girls did. Likewise, I dated a fair number of ‘normal’ mainsream girls (For lack of a better word) and they were all insecure about their looks, even if they were drop-dead gorgeous. I briefly dated a stripper who had men fawning over her every day, and she was convinced she was ugly.

    I’ll use a more neutral example: I’ve always liked tall women. In college I dated several six foot and above. All of them were attractive, all of them basically felt like they weren’t because their height intimidated most guys, so they didn’t get asked out much. They didn’t know they were attractive.

    My point being that low self-esteem is a very real problem in our society (With a couple of daughters, it’s one I’m obviously very concerned about), and I don’t think the One Direction song was trying to play male dominance power games. I think it was just a very ham-fisted attempt to be nice.

    It’s still a sucky song, though.

    • I’d agree with your assessment of the song except for the fact that they do explicitly state her ignorance of her beauty is what makes her beautiful.

      You’re right of course that low self-esteem is at epidemic levels. It would be marvelous if some pop star tried to address cultural low self-esteem at a structural level rather than on an individual, “I’m telling you you’re great though! What an excellent boyfriend that makes me!” level. Because, even if they’re just trying to be nice, the power dynamics are still kind of scary. However, a song addressing systemic and cultural factors contributing to low self-esteem probably wouldn’t be terribly catchy.

      Finally, this article was mostly venting, an attempt to put into words exactly what bothers me every time I hear the One Directioners blithely carol, “You don’t know you’re beautiful! That’s what makes you beautiful!” I’ve got no problem with you seeing it differently.

      • >>I’d agree with your assessment of the song except for the fact that they do explicitly state her ignorance of her beauty is what makes her beautiful.<>even if they’re just trying to be nice, the power dynamics are still kind of scary<>However, a song addressing systemic and cultural factors contributing to low self-esteem probably wouldn’t be terribly catchy.<>Finally, this article was mostly venting<<

        I know. I wasn't taking it as holy writ or anything.

        Sincerely,
        Kevin Long
        (The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0)
        http://www.kevin-long.com

  2. I agree and disagree.
    This song has infuriated me for a long time, and that is coming from someone who considers themselves to have kind of low self esteem. (Thanks to some friends it has been better lately.) But I think I hate it for the reason that the song is cashing in on other people’s insecurities- it just really ticks me off.
    But I don’t neccesairly think being attracted to those with low confidence is bad… Mostly because I find those kinds of boys incredibly attractive. (More so in fact, then looks, as I’ve come to realise by watching the patterns in whuch boys I kind of ‘like.’) I’ll admit that no, I can’t really justify it, it’s for the simple reason that I find it unbearably cute- and if I was to ever end up with a boy like that I would probably try and encourage them to be more outgoing and express themselves, not use their anxiety to keep them tethered to me! That’d practically be abusive…
    But uh I don’t know, I do feel bad about it myself, sometimes…
    If it isn’t any trouble I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts

    • Ok, I see what you’re saying. There’s definitely some validity to that because sometimes when we have low self-esteem we seek out others who can relate. When you’re feeling a bit self-loathing, you don’t want a partner who’s never doubted themselves a day in their life.

      Also, I see a gender difference in your example. A woman’s attraction to a man who isn’t confident can be nothing more than not wanting an arrogant entitled jackass as a boyfriend. The power inequity between genders, combined with the difference in social perceptions of similar behavior based on gender (bossy/bitchy vs. sexy alpha male) makes it far less likely that a straight female attracted to low self esteem in a partner is being predatory. Perhaps it isn’t low confidence you’re attracted to so much as men who are actually good people and aren’t taking their own privilege for granted.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  3. This article made me angry. Really bloody cross.

    Just examine this line, for one second, would you?

    “I should hope that a normal person would want to be with a partner who had some measure of confidence, some self-respect, a fairly good assessment of their own strengths and weaknesses. A normal person wouldn’t want to have to constantly assure their partner that he or she really actually was worth being with.”

    Its normative-praising, its shaming, its frankly more than a little ableist.

    It frames people with low self esteem as unattractive. Confidence is attractive. Good self esteem is attractive, healthy people are attractive, unhealthy people are ugly.

    Basically I read that as ‘normal people don’t want to be with people LIKE YOU. Your mental health problems are ugly and no normal person would want to be around you, to support you, would find you romantically viable as a partner.’.

    I’m not asking for you to find people like me attractive, but to turn around and say that no right thinking person ever would is actually really obnoxious.

    • Wow thank you for your feedback. This is a really good point which I (clearly) didn’t think of at the time. I have been learning a lot within the past year and I dashed this post off without much thought and at a less informed time in my life. I am very sorry. Thank you for pointing out why I was wrong.

      I framed the entire piece in an irresponsible and thoughtless way, and ended up being hurtful toward vulnerable people, which is so very wrong.

      What I was trying to target was the mindset that holds up a person’s low self esteem as the best, most attractive feature about them. Because if someone needs all their partners to be full of self loathing, they really need to interrogate their motives. If you asked a partner, “why do you find me attractive” and they said, “the fact that you hate yourself,” I honestly do not think that is a positive relationship dynamic. However if you were to ask someone, “why don’t you want to be with me” and they said “the fact that you hate yourself,” that’s also a dick move on their part.

      Low self-esteem is normal. It’s common. It’s something many people deal with. What isn’t normal, and isn’t right, is a person encouraging and cultivating their romantic partner’s low self-esteem, or making them think that their low self-esteem is factually based rather than mentally unhealthy, and “I’m the only person who will ever love you.”

      Let me turn around my original post and say that no person with low self-esteem should ever want a partner who will be that abusive to them. That’s how I should have stated it in the first place. I was trying (and failed pretty badly) to target predatory thinking and the cultural values that bolster it, not to target people (myself, most of my best friends, and my partner included) with low self-esteem.

      I certainly don’t want to say that no one should be in a relationship with a person who has low self esteem. I would especially not say this because it is almost invariably the very best people who have the most to offer who also inexplicably do not like themselves at all. Each and every person who wants a partner deserves a partner who will see and encourage the best in them and help them see past their disordered thinking about themselves to what their real gifts and potential are.

      People with low self-esteem should be, and are, loved and supported by others. As for myself I don’t find someone’s unhealthy thinking an attractive quality but I find many people who do have low self esteem to be very attractive (my partner included). To say that I would prefer someone to be confident in themselves is not to say that I’m not into anyone who isn’t.

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