"No one is going to love you until you love yourself" is a damaging narrative for South Asian women
"No one is going to love you until you love yourself" is a toxic and damaging narrative to all women, but especially to South Asian women.
I can just about remember the first time I saw the phrase, "no one is going to love you until you love yourself." I was maybe thirteen or fourteen, growing up with an Instagram before the rise of the multi-billion-dollar influencer industry. It was a time when we didn't fully appreciate the power of social media to influence young minds; content was mostly instant, surface-level uploads of a sunset or a quote you saw somewhere, rather than carefully curated and painstakingly planned. I think someone had uploaded the quote as a misguided attempt to preach self-love, and I remember reading it a few times over before clicking the like button and moving on. I did not realise just how much I would begin to internalise its message from that moment onwards – it's interesting, isn't it, the power and impact of a fleeting interaction with a social media post?
It was challenging to understand how, or even what it meant as a young British Indian girl, to "love myself" during my adolescence. I was dealing with an identity crisis before I even knew what that was and struggled to fit into the pre-defined moulds I didn't even know existed. I suffered the trauma of being constantly rejected and "otherised" by my classmates, and weight and self-esteem issues linked to unfulfilled Eurocentric beauty standards. On top of this, I was being told that I needed to love myself before anyone could/would ever love me by the steadily increasing number of "wellness" influencers and brands through the late 2010s. Suddenly, the rejection from my peers and potential romantic partners felt like it was because I didn't love myself. How was I supposed to love myself, though, when no one ever showed me what "loving myself" looked like as a South Asian diaspora kid (read: very, very different to everyone else).
It's interesting, isn't it, the power and impact of a fleeting interaction with a social media post?
"No one will love you until you love yourself" is a perfect example of the toxic positivity we see filtering through our social feeds. It is a widely tweeted, commodified, and commercialised concept that has somehow become the campaign for modern self-love. Health and wellness brands have become flagbearers of the idea that self-love and positivity are mindsets that are concretely achievable (usually through the help of their overpriced "programmes" or products) and cure-alls for all of your emotional pain.
By painting "loving yourself" as a finish line (that all can reach by purchasing their products, of course), the "self-love"/"wellness" industry is glossing over the realities of women, and especially of South Asian women. "No one will love you until you love yourself" suggests that one day you will look in the mirror and say "Yes, I love myself," and that will be it. You will have no more days of low self-esteem, your eating disorders and mental illnesses will stop convincing you that you are unworthy, and all of the trauma that has been passed onto you through years of intergenerational transmission will be resolved – just like that. They will never affect you again. It is completely dismissive of the inconsistent reality of self-love: that some days I feel empowered and confident in who I am, what I have achieved, and what I look like, but then other days I relapse into insecurity, comparing myself to the models on Instagram, wondering why my boyfriend loves me even though I don't have Kendall Jenner's figure, or dismissing all my achievements and successes because I see someone younger than me achieving one thing more than I have.
Self-love is intrinsically wrapped up in identity. To answer the question "Do I love myself?" we first need to ask and answer the question "Who am I?" Who is the "myself" I am supposed to love? For South Asian women, unravelling the mystery of our identity is a tiring and constant process because it involves unpacking years of intersectional experiences and oppression.
"No one will love you until you love yourself" is a perfect example of the toxic positivity we see filtering through our social feeds. It is a widely tweeted, commodified, and commercialised concept that has somehow become the campaign for modern self-love.
Self-love for South Asian women means forcing yourself to overcome beauty perceptions, trying to convince yourself of your outer beauty whilst being told your nose is too big and your skin is too dark. It is trying to shift away from the focus on outer beauty by trying to understand your inner worth, but then being caught between what your South Asian upbringing defines as worth (collectivism, selfless love, being a good mother) and what the West defines as worth (individualism, ambition). It is a messy journey filled with trauma, heartbreak, and isolation caused by unravelling the one million threads in the fabric of our identity, only to painstakingly sew them back together one at a time through self-discovery.
Being a South Asian woman is difficult.
Navigating society at the intersection of Eastern and Western culture means that self-love is a lifelong experience. For South Asian women especially, our journeys with self-love will rarely, if ever, culminate in such an "end." It is a journey that is never really completed. It involves violent confrontation – with our environment, societal expectations, our family, ourselves – and figuring out what we want and how that fits into this chaotic picture. It involves painful conversations with loved ones if we are in a safe enough environment to be open, or living our truth behind closed doors and adding another secret layer to our split personalities. It is about breaking gender norms, smashing free from patriarchal limitations, or forcibly adapting to the situation we are in and making our peace with it.
Being told that we are not worthy of love until we reach this unattainable finish line while already trying to navigate this disorienting and isolating process is damaging and toxic. It plants the thought in our minds that we will never be worthy of love or companionship as we fight this constant uphill battle to find out who we are, contributing to the warping of our self-perceptions and value in society. The quote is most commonly used with connotations of romantic love because, of course, this is the easiest form of love to commodify and commercialise in our individualist and capitalist society. However, we should consider the broader definition of love, which encompasses all kind of love – platonic, familial or romantic.
Being a South Asian woman is difficult.
In romantic relationships, it is not uncommon for women to take on a disproportionate amount of physical and emotional burden, and this is not just because of the heteronormative expectation of the role of the woman in relationships. The overcompensation can come from a deep-seated fear that your partner will realise you are not worthy of their love and leave you. How many times have you, or a friend, dismissed the fact that you have gone out of your way multiple times for your partner, but they can't even reply to your text? Or dismissed that on more than one occasion they have told you to wait for them, but you waited for hours, and they didn't come over/call because they got "caught up" in something else?
Women, especially South Asian women, are often quick to accept very little in return for their love and affection. South Asian women are taught that love is a selfless act, that we should give our all to our husbands, our children, our in-laws, and that love looks like devotion. Acts that are purely for personal benefit are to be shelved and labelled as "selfish."
Loving yourself is not selfish, and it is a journey that will have good days and bad days - honestly, probably more bad ones when you start out. However, just because you haven't resolved all of your emotional pain does not mean that you are not worthy of being loved or capable of loving others.
South Asian women are taught that love is a selfless act, that we should give our all to our husbands, our children, our in-laws, and that love looks like devotion.
South Asian women are powerful, vulnerable, incredible beings, and we are shaped by circumstances that sometimes cause us to break. On those days – where it feels like you have been pushed to your limits, where you are trying to break free, but can't, of the suffocating limitations society or family is putting on you – you are no less worthy of love than the days you feel confident to take on the world.
We all need relationships with other people, which is why lockdown has been so difficult for so many. It feels unnatural to be shut in our homes, separated from our peers in a world where we are increasingly connected to each other. Letting yourself become isolated from people because you do not believe in your worth is therefore damaging to yourself. Often, when we find people worthy of our time (whether that be friends, romantic partners, colleagues, or family members), they can help us see our own worth before we do. It is too easy to become caged into our insecurities, and sometimes we need a little help from the beautiful people around us to help us see how much power we truly have inside us and how much value we have to offer.
Seven or eight years down the line from first seeing that quote, I am still actively dealing with the consequences of it. I'm learning to reposition what it means to love myself within the context of growing up bicultural, being patient with myself and my progress. I am so proud to be a South Asian woman, and even though it feels like I spend more time hating myself than loving myself, I know this is all a part of my own journey. Through this all, I have leaned on my friends and family to see myself more clearly when I struggle to see past my own insecurities.
Most importantly, through the struggle of "loving myself," I realise that I am (and always have been) capable and worthy of love by others.
Kaneeka Kapur is a 21 year old Law student at the University of Warwick, and the Founder of Pardesi. She is British Indian and is a passionate intersectional feminist, with a specific interest in understanding how we can decolonise traditional Western feminist narratives and make it more inclusive for the South Asian community.