A relatable scenario: four girls crowded around a long mirror, each demurely edging into one another’s space, fighting for more of the sparkling glass reflecting their image back at them. Their hair is perfectly styled into their respective “I don’t give a fuck” looks and their faces are brightened by makeup.

The sounds of the scene include a low-fi sultry hip-hop bass resonating from a speaker, the smacking of lips, and the shuffling of fabric as they negotiate angles in the looking glass and adjust their seams. And also:

“Oh my god! I ate too much chocolate. I look disgusting.”

“Do these shorts make my butt look good?” *pause* “No, I think I’m going to go with the pink ones, they make me look skinnier.”

And, of course, “Yes! Girl! You are smoking! God! So hot, sweetie!” Then, “Ewwww, I am so gross. Can you see my pimples?”

Kate Ryan / Daily Nexus

Like most girls, I’ve found myself in this situation, time after time. This script of insults that we hurl bluntly at the reflected images of ourselves has become a permanent part of this routine. But, interestingly, so have the compliments that we adoringly fling at our friends.

The hypocrisy of the scenario is somewhat baffling.

Are these moments of genuine self-hatred? Or has a culture in which self-deprecation is a pillar of its sense of humor taught us that to love yourself is to be an unlikable narcissist?

These questions are tough to answer. Even as I find myself looking in the mirror and disliking what I see, I also find myself wondering about the sincerity of the script I am feeding myself. Do I actually believe the things I am thinking? Or has my culture programmed me to think this way?

Also important to consider is our complete inability to accept the compliments of those around us. This creates opposing forces within the scene. Even when I grow frustrated by my girlfriends’ rejections of my praise, I remain wholly unable to accept any of the kind words they lob back at me.  

Perhaps frustration isn’t even a strong enough word. At first, I was combative, forcefully insisting that they accept their good looks. Each time they responded with a “no you don’t get it, I’m so ugly,” I would continue to insist. I would sit there complimenting them over and over, making little to no progress with their self-perceptions. Eventually, this ritual became exhausting and I found myself sitting there, allowing the people whom I care about to bully themselves.

I find myself dismayed by my own hypocrisy. How can I expect my friends to accept compliments when I can’t do so myself?

Logically, I understand the silliness of this cycle, however, as our culture has taught us that accepting compliments makes us self-centered, we have thereby removed the escape hatch from this never-ending loop.

This conflict in our culture is, realistically, too big an issue for us to tackle on our own. However, by changing how we interact with our pals, perhaps we can work toward a larger shift in the right direction.

It’s amazing that these two contrasting ideologies are able to seamlessly coexist within all of us. I think it’s safe to say that we have all experienced both sides of this. We’ve had times when we hated the image that was reflected back at us, whether that be our perception of our bodies or our souls. Yet, we also have had occasions when we strived to feel the self-love that is seen as the cure for our society’s projections of unrealistic perfection and homogeneity.

This condition seems almost comical. It’s as if half of our brain is staring at the most self-deprecating meme and laughing its ass off, drowning in feelings of self-loathing and misery. At the same time, the other half has decided to get its shit together and is mesmerized by a shiny YouTube tutorial talking us through the merits of daily meditation.

In certain moments, I wonder if we’ll ever be able to pull ourselves out of this cycle of self-destruction or whether this crisis of the self will become our generation’s eternal affliction. No need to worry about us continually mooching off of our parents like those millennials; we’ll be too busy experiencing the headache that is internal conflict.

This conflict in our culture is, realistically, too big an issue for us to tackle on our own. However, by changing how we interact with our pals, perhaps we can work toward a larger shift in the right direction.

We are programmed to create social networks for a reason. Who else is going to stop us from going through with that horrible haircut or be there for us when we are experiencing tough times? For some reason, we will listen wholeheartedly when friends are offering critiques; however, we can’t hear the words of encouragement or kindness that our friends are willingly offering.

By batting away compliments, we are only allowing the cycle to continue spinning. And aren’t you tired of this game we play? I know if I have to watch one more of my brilliant friends beat themselves up again my heart might break in two. It’s no cure, but perhaps by accepting compliments from our friends, even if inside we don’t completely agree, we can begin to reconcile these contradictory cultures into one that is harmonious.

Melanie Ziment questions why our culture teaches us that accepting compliments makes us ugly.

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