On Sustainability and Loving Yourself

Self-love... it's kind of like a toe fungus. We hear about it. We get it. We know we should be doing more to take care of it. Yet, most of us just push it to the side, and hope it'll figure itself out.  

Okay, maybe that's a bad (err.. disgusting) example? Oh well. Blame it on the fact that I grew up with a dad who's an infectious disease physician. I know too much about things that should never be near our bodies... toe fungus included. 

But weird bodily issues are not what I wanted to talk about today. Instead, I wanted to talk about something a little bit more important, and a lot-a-bit more useful: self-love.

For the longest time, I would hear people talk about self-love and assumed that it meant the same thing as vanity, self-centeredness, and conceit. And therefore, I basically talked myself into hating my body, so that I wouldn't ever come across as exhibiting any one of those qualities.  

A lot of this stemmed from being bullied pretty badly growing up. From third grade through my senior year of high school, I was bullied by girls for everything from my skin color to my ethnicity to the fact that I consistently pulled good grades. You name it, I was most likely picked on for it. But one of the things I was picked on for the most was the way I dressed. I came from a family that was very fashion-oriented, and, as a result, I always dressed differently than my peers. I was more fashion-forward, and wasn't afraid to experiment with the wacky and weird.  

But because I dressed up and presented myself quite a bit more maturely than most people my age did, a lot of people assumed that I was "stuck up".  No matter how I acted, because of the way I dressed, I was given the label of being stuck up, and it ate me alive. I hated it, because I knew that I was never full of myself.  So when I associated self-love as being stuck up... well, I think it's easy to see why I didn't like it.

So, for many years, I talked myself into hating my body. I remember spending hours in front of the mirror, criticizing every single part of my body.  My thighs were too big, the muscle in them too bulging. My abs were not defined enough, my boobs were too small, and my butt was much too big. I had curvy hips like a lady, when I wanted thin, straight ones like a boy, and my brown skin was not nearly as pretty as my friend's translucent complexion.  I found every reason in the book to hate my body, and began to take this hatred out on myself. 

Some of you may know that for a long time, I was training to be a professional ballerina. I grew up dancing ballet, and had aspirations of being the first Indian prima ballerina (laugh all you want, I've always been overly ambitious).  Now, being immersed in the ballet world, especially at an elite studio like the one I trained at, certainly didn't help my self-confidence, or my self-love, for that matter.  In fact, it only helped me to justify my masochism. I would dance for 3+ hours a day, five days a week, Then, I would come home, run on the treadmill for an hour, and then do a half hour of weightlifting... all while heavily restricting my diet to 700 calories a day. Despite the fact that I was the most fit I've ever been in my entire life, I was constantly trying to make my body "better", by working myself to the extreme and "fix" myself, hoping this would help me to love myself and the way I looked. But of course, this didn't do anything. Confidence isn't made in a gym, or in a dance studio, in my case. And self-love doesn't come from extreme workouts and calorie restriction.  You can be a size 00 and still be unhappy with your body. Thinness, exercise, and extreme dieting can't force you to be happy.

For a long time (re: all of high school) I was lost, confused, and full of self-loathing, caught between the idea that doing the above would make my body more "lovable", as well as the idea that loving yourself was selfish, and selfishness = conceit. It was a toxic cycle perpetuated by the fact that I was being told by my peers nearly every day, that I wasn't good enough and would never be good enough.  

But as soon as I got out of that topic environment, as soon as I left the town full of bullies, and left (or outgrew, as I like to say) the idea of being a ballerina, I came to a huge, huge realization: loving yourself isn't selfish at all. 

Now, I wish I could say I made this realization overnight, and that I've been living this love for years upon years, but the fact of the matter is that this is a realization I came across only this year. Yes, it took this long for me to realize that loving yourself is perfectly okay, but hey, better late than never, right? 

This is going to sound super hippy-dippy, but I realized the extent to which I was neglecting myself after a visit with an energy healer. After our session, she told me: "You give so much love out to the world, but you give none to yourself. You neglect yourself, and by choosing not to love yourself, you're depriving yourself of happiness, " and it was a statement as short and sweet as that that made me step back and realize how much I had been neglecting myself over the years. Not only in the situation I described earlier with regards to working out and dieting, but also in terms of everything across the board.

Because what I soon learned through my own self-reflection, is that self-love is more than just being able to look at your body in a mirror and not point out your flaws. It's about eating that cookie because it sounds good and tastes good in the moment. It's about cancelling your plans last minute because you'd rather stay home and read a book than mingle with people you don't like over cocktails you don't drink.  It's about buying that dress you saw in the store because it looks so damn good on your body, even though you really should be saving that money for college textbooks.  It's about laughing when you want to laugh, crying when you want to cry, meditating when you feel stressed, and driving 90 mph with the sunroof open on a cold winter night simply because you can. That's what self-love is. It's not necessarily loving every roll and stretch mark- although that is part of it. To me, what I've come to find is that the true definition of self-love is doing whatever the hell makes you feel good on the inside, and not caring what other people think about it. 

Is self-love selfish? Hell yeah, it is. Does it make you conceited? Absolutely not. To me, self-love is as vital as breathing, and would you ever hear someone say that someone was conceited or "self-centered" for wanting oxygen all to themselves?

Going beyond that, loving yourself is, to me, one of the most sustainable actions you can take. While I (obviously) talk a lot about environmental sustainability, it's important to remember that sustainability is a huge, all-encompassing term, that accounts for a lot more than just the environment. A huge part of sustainability is taking care of yourself, so you can thrive too. After all, how could you possibly take care of the planet, if you weren't around to live on it? I mean this both literally and metaphorically. If you are not ensuring and protecting your ability to thrive and "sustain"- for lack of a better word- as a human being, then you can't possibly expect to take care of a planet. As they say, you can't fill someone's cup if yours is entirely empty, and this situation is no different. You can't expect to sustain an environment if you aren't sustaining yourself.  

Which again, goes back to the whole self-love thing. In order to sustain yourself, you need to love yourself. And in order to love yourself, you have to let go of any limiting beliefs you may have about why "x, y, z" prohibits you from loving yourself in the fullest and most earnest way.  And once you let go of those limiting beliefs... my, how free you will be. Like a bird in the sky, you will continue to soar, higher and higher so long as you continue to nurture yourself with care.  

So throughout it all, here's what I've learned: the most sustainable thing you can do, is to be a radiant being of love. Not only will opening yourself up to self-love change your life, but it'll allow you to change the world. It's selfish, it's messy, it's beautiful, and yet, it embodies the very thing that makes this world go round: love.

Photography by: Emma Li

Location: Piedmont, CA

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