I began my career as a public figure when I realized that Western culture made me hate my body. By the age of 22 I had strenuously starved myself until I became so thin I was sick: hypothalamic amenorrhea, polycystic ovarian syndrome, anemia, hypothyroidism, osteopenia, insomnia, generalized anxiety and panic disorders. I had done this because I had thought I needed to be a size zero in order to be beautiful, lovable, worthy.
Encountering my first ever book on feminism led me to the realization that my laundry list of symptoms wasn’t just my own. It wasn’t just about my genes or my history or even my choices; it was actually a symbol—nay, a diagnosis, an indictment—of a cultural disease: nationwide shame for the sake of a cheap buck. Companies and media intentionally cultivate self-doubt in order to persuade you to buy their products, did you know? I became instantly furious on behalf of women (and men) everywhere. I discarded everything I had so far achieved on my lifelong path to becoming a professional philosopher, and became a blogger for women’s health instead.
In the years since, I vacillated on my feelings about how worthwhile this project was. Up until my fiery conversion to feminism, I had spent my entire life studying profound philosophical questions about the human condition: who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? I moved forward in my blogging career with a deep seated ambivalence. When people asked me what I did for a living I sometimes started fiddling with my bag and pretended I didn’t hear them. I didn’t want to talk about my blog Health to Empower or my book Sexy by Nature; I was ashamed of being affiliated with such mundane work. So I did what I could to strike a balance: I studied the human condition in a PhD program at Oxford by day, and I wrote blogs about body confidence by night. I felt half sacred and half profane. I knew what I did with women was important, but it never felt important enough.
As I began wrapping up my PhD, I decided to let my work with women’s issues fade into my past. Enough was enough. I had said my piece. And in some ways, I really had said it. So I set forth working on a new philosophy project on which I am still assiduously working today. This is the premise: we as a species are deeply unsettled by uncertainty. We are especially unsettled by uncertainty pertaining to our most ultimate concerns, which I often label as existential uncertainty: what does it mean to be good, does value exist, do I have a soul, is there a God?
This is a kind of uncertainty that is pervasive in the modern world.
But there is actually an avalanche of uncertainty of various kinds. Let me summarize briefly some other destabilizing, uncertainty-generating phenomena that we carry against our skin on a daily basis. There is first, and I kid you not, the fact that we all can read, which is actually exceedingly new in human history. This creates an unprecedented amount of analysis and deconstruction in culture, something that was unheard of to our more serene/placid ancestral milieu. There is the fact that our culture has no singular truth—another trait of a bygone era—but instead nowadays you must learn and determine your own truth on issues not limited to political and economic policy but also extending to who you want to be in the world, what you want to value, what your ultimate purpose and meaning are. We have mass media, pathological distrust of governance, fake news, more information than we can handle, overwhelming demands to specialize, an often paralyzing amount of choice, globalization, environmental crises, outrage culture and threats to our most deeply held values. We have a God that died, a nihilism that lurks around every seemingly mundane corner (Seinfeld, anyone?), relativism, postmodernism, post-postmodernism, and if you ever feel certain of anything, you are supremely aware that your position can and most likely will be attacked at any time.
Psychologists have long understood that responding to uncertainty is not our strongest suit. As early as 1972, Jerome Kagan argued that uncertainty is the primary determinant of human behavior. More recently, social psychologist Arie Kruglanski has put forth a more sophisticated thesis, demonstrating that there is genuine nuance to our psychological relationship with uncertainty. There are instances in which and people for whom uncertainty is actually quite comfortable, says Kruglanski. It’s not a universal rule that uncertainty beguiles us; it just so happens to be the case that in cultures ripe with uncertainty and stress, the need to experience what he calls cognitive closure can increase exponentially. When we experience this need, we become more prone to follow emotional argumentation, to cling on to readily available answers, to follow the crowd, to become defensive and close-minded, to hate people who disagree with us, and even to develop extremist beliefs and behaviors, such as following fascists, or becoming addicts, or even strapping bombs to our chests and walking into a train station—all to protect us from the unsettledness, or anxiety, of intolerable ambiguity.
It was while reading Kruglanski’s work that I realized I may have once been onto and already abandoned the one thing that might actually save us from ourselves: self-esteem. The thing about uncertainty is that we often experience it as a threat to our existence. It robs us of our safety, our knowingness, our sure place in the world. This is why Kruglanski has been able to demonstrate that having a solid sense of worth and significance is actually a powerful buffer against the need to experience cognitive closure. That is—the better we feel about ourselves, the less likely we are to experience anxiety when there is uncertainty, and the less likely we are to behave irrationally, dogmatically, and aggressively towards people who disagree with us. We are, in a very real sense, able to be more open-minded, calm, and better people if we have a secure sense of self.
Recent years have seen resurgences of fascism, closed borders, and polarized and extremist beliefs. They have also seen a profound sense of horror among those who are watching. Many have scrambled to make sense of the political landscape and all of its intricacies. And intricate it most assuredly is. But there is another sense in which it is very simple: people feel uncertain. To this threat, close-mindedness is the human animal’s first line of defense.
We have also scrambled to make sense of what needs to be done in response. Obviously this entails another richly complicated set of ideas, but there is something that we can each do, in our own lives, powerfully and salvifically, starting today: It is to cultivate our and others’ feelings of self-esteem. But we need to be careful that it is a genuine feeling of self-esteem. In our world it is important to distinguish. We are all blantantly self-esteem junkies, but unfortunately this is typically of the superficial sort. We wax our bikini lines and we buy fake eyelashes and we follow whatever dicta about worthiness the adverts and media throw at us. We post selfies and get likes, and we revel in the high of validation that lasts as long as a swipe right. But this is not real. It’s fleeting and predicated on cycles of deep, underlying shame and self-doubt.
Kruglanski is very clear when he says that self-esteem must reach deeper than performativity if it is going to transform our lives and communities for the better. It must be deeply felt, and involve significance to a larger whole. We are not islands. We cannot just build up our images and our egos and then expect to float blissfully on into a self-assured happily ever after. We have to do the hard work of participating: we have to contribute, to feel useful, and to experience our value in the larger whole. This is how humans are capable of developing a self-esteem that lasts, and this is how we generate the power to create a culture of stability, open-mindedness, and peace. I actually suspect that much of the male resistance to feminism is not so much about fearing a loss of power as it is about fearing a loss of significance. Feel skeptical? Sure. But terrorists have actually de-radicalized and become integral, functioning members of society once they have learned trades that have given them a secure place in society and feelings of useful worth.
This is part of why work in the body positivity space is so important. It is one of the only spheres in the West today that actively sees and critiques the massive economic machinery that pumps billions of dollars every year into the act of deflating our sense of self-worth. There are very many other sources of poor self-esteem. The deteriorations of shared cultural values and communities are ultimate among them. Unemployment or employment that feels menial or meaningless is also extremely important. There is also bullying, substance abuse, and family dysfunction. There are many things in our world that can deteriorate our feelings of significance. Untangling these webs may take a very long time. But we must do this work if we are ever going to dig ourselves out from beneath our insignificance and live harmoniously together.
I was once ashamed of my work in body positivity and self-esteem generally, but I now suspect it’s one of the most important things we can work on as a society. Of all of the uncertainties that weigh heavy on our modern shoulders, at their root is a deeply felt anxiety (or conviction) that we are insignificant. It’s a cultural wound that bleeds far below the surface, and something that must be repaired.
In the end, our uncertain conditions may feel like a curse, but they are ultimately our blessing. If we can do the work necessary to support healthy, socially integrated self esteem, then we will be one step closer to having respectful dialogue, building communities that are properly functional, and living together peacefully. If we are ever going to survive with nine billion people on the planet, then we have to learn how to use uncertainty to our benefit—for the sake of seeking truth and common ground—as opposed to our detriment. Taking a good, hard, loving look at ourselves and cultivating ways to help everybody feel valuable seems to me a good place to start.