Indian women are bred to be selfless. As totems of feminine virtue, we are taught to eternally sacrifice for the sake of family, fraternity, faith. We are expected to give unconditionally, conform to convention and compromise. Our ambitions are frowned upon. Self love is sneered at. Women’s desires are considered perverse and narcissistic. When we dare to make a choice that challenges the norm, we are sure to earn the dreaded epithet: selfish.
Women more Selfless? And is it really that horrible to be Selfish?
Science will have us know that selfishness is not necessarily bad, and altruism is not necessarily good. A new study argues that healthy selfishness is related to higher levels of psychological well-being as well as helping behaviour. Selfishness, it would seem, is not always a vice. It is an essential tool to develop self-respect. Without it, we’re prone to become other people’s emotional doormats. On the other hand, without taking care of our own needs first, we cannot effectively help others.
The politics of selflessness
All through ancient, medieval and modern times, society has eternalised the rhetoric of selflessness to control women’s bodies and minds. The female ego has been vilified as being synonymous to toxic femininity – effectively incepting a guilty conscience in women. One that embroils us in self-doubt when we think self-serving thoughts, do something for ourselves or consciously attract attention. Moreover, the patriarchy has perpetuated the myth that self-effacement is femininity’s virtue. Which is BS – because femininity is a bequest of intrinsic strength. Our foremothers have passed on that secret to us as aphorisms. Female fearlessness is in our lore. Femininity is dynamic, intuitive, ferocious, compassionate. Also, women can be just as masculine, as they are feminine.
It is telling that our culture lauds the male ego no matter how reckless it is – but holds women to a whole different altruistic standard. Narcissism is second nature to men, but society doesn’t hold them accountable for being selfish. Ladies, on the other hand, must be humble, blameless, obedient, polite, altogether virtuous. Our culture celebrates women’s self-sacrifice but abhors any form of female assertion. Of course, female rage is acceptable when it fits into patriarchal tropes – of women fighting to protect their dignity, or kith and kin. But when feisty females refuse to be part of the patriarchal edifice altogether, they are branded as self-centered bitches.
The patriarchy, it seems, is petrified of brazen women. The idea of females questioning the limits of gender must be daunting. Because badass ladies are sure to topple misogynistic rubric of all sorts. Turn the sexist order inside out, upside down. The patriarchy has always known what women are capable of – which is why it has imposed the obligation of selflessness on us. You see, selflessness is an instrument of oppression that keeps women from seeking positions of power. It makes us feel guilty for having the nerve to care about ourselves. It denies us the freedom to live out our desires. To love who we want. Be what we will. It projects the insecurities of the world onto our bodies and minds. Shackles us to an endless charade of living up to other people’s expectations – leaving us emotionally and physically exhausted.
Prioritising the self
As Joan Didion once wrote in her seminal essay on self-respect: it is time we “give us back to ourselves.” Millennial and Gen Z women are learning to do exactly that. We are unlearning what’s been preached to us. We’re beginning to see through the false morality of selfless sacrifice and are standing up for ourselves. Because if we don’t, who will?
Self love is radical protest. When we honour ourselves and our needs, we take responsibility of our own lives. We reclaim what’s ours and establish a framework to thrive. Is self love selfish? Yes. But that’s okay. We need to reclaim selfishness and redefine it for ourselves to protect our self-worth in a society that’s relentlessly misogynistic. And then there’s the other selfish indulgence: self care. For every woman this would mean drastically different things. From healing physically, emotionally and spiritually, to looking out for oneself – by consciously managing one’s time and investing in personal finances – as well as taking pleasure in oneself, all approaches to self care are valid. It is quintessential that we take care of our minds and bodies for personal growth.
Women More Selfless : By the way, putting ourselves first doesn’t necessarily mean we’re setting ourselves up to manipulate or ignore other people’s needs.
What it means is that we choose to cater to our own needs first so we can deal in other relationships much more positively. Because bending over backwards to please the people in our lives with no boundaries whatsoever will only result in resentment. It is good to give, sure, but it is also important to receive, to give yourself, and to just be. In fact, new research in human decision processes suggests that by being selfish, you not only get the best for yourself but also maximise the benefits for everyone around you.
It seems to me that the myth of selflessness only serves to perpetuate exploitive relationships and repressive social structures. Because our selflessness only benefits those within the circle of power, and it doesn’t matter whether the powerful claim to be altruistic or selfish – it is those of us who are outside that circle who suffer. To effectively challenge this order, we need to individually think about what’s good for us. Put ourselves first. Value our worth. Recognise that we are deserving of dignity.
Be warned. They will shame you for putting yourself first. Depending on what sort of self-serving act your performed, or spoke of, you’d be called: negative, vain, selfish, greedy, calculative, self-absorbed, apathetic or entitled. Do not let self-righteous gas-lighters question your choices. The patriarchy is especially cruel to women who stand up for themselves, because it derives masochistic pleasure in female suffering. But hey, don’t give into the guilt. Refuse the judgement. Rise and shine how you will.