The Peace Corps Taught Me Self-Love

“You yourself, as much as anybody else in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” — Buddha

In a world full of tabloids, movie stars, Victoria Secret models, and even social media, we spend so much time looking at the lives of others. We gawk at their perfect hair, their flawless skin, their size-2 bodies. We lust after their glamorous lifestyles, their houses, their cars, their clothes. No matter how many times we’ve been told the images are retouched or that the models were in hair and makeup for hours before the shoot, we still compare, holding ourselves up to an unattainable standard.

I grew up frizzy-haired and “squishy,” and like any other adolescent girl, all I wanted was to fit in. I spent endless hours in different salon chairs trying to get the look I saw in magazines. I bought clothes from Abercrombie and Hollister not because they were made for my body type, but because that’s what was “in”. The fads of course came and went — bless my soul, I tried to keep up. Stumbling along from bangs to ripped jeans to nose piercings – the whole time searching for validation, trying to fit in.

Somewhere between high-waisted shorts and crop tops, I received my Peace Corps invitation.

The moment I landed in Botswana, I was stripped of all the comforts I knew. I was stripped of all familiarity and I was left naked – a chance to create myself, to find myself.

Botswana’s culture is very heavily male-dominated and there is a true struggle for gender equality. As a young, white, woman, I faced an enormous amount of aggression. Men of all ages professed their love for me without even knowing my name. Everywhere I went there were catcalls and shouts of “Baby, baby!”

I had never felt so objectified in my life. The women offered no comfort in that most didn’t see anything wrong with the behavior and because of another cultural norm, they also felt the need to comment on every aspect of my physical appearance. Many times I was called fat. If I had a blemish it was necessary to call attention to it, my clothes could be considered dirty and my hair was often referred to as “not nice”.

At first I was shocked. I had never been subjected to this type of behavior and I didn’t know how to react. As it continued, I became angry. I felt like a giant play toy, not like a human being. But eventually, the anger wore off and I was left feeling hurt. All of my flaws were constantly being pointed out and living the Peace Corps lifestyle, I often felt grungy, dirty, and gross. I found myself searching for the same validity I had been searching for for so long. I was searching for a stamp of approval, an invitation to sit at the cool kids table — I was searching for confidence.

I can’t quite pinpoint when it happened, I think it was a gradual process…but eventually I had this realization. A light bulb went off and I knew I had been searching for validity, for acceptance, from all the wrong people. The person I needed to impress, was me.

“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.” – Brené Brown

In order to love ourselves, we have to forgive ourselves. Nobody is perfect and everybody makes mistakes, but we all have a chance to better ourselves, to grow – I think that’s the beauty of life. I learned to appreciate my flaws. I learned to love my frizzy hair and my “squishiness”. I learned that it’s okay that I’m not good at geography or that I don’t know much about politics. It’s okay that I can mess up an instant pack of soup and that I laugh at my own jokes. I have learned to love me for me.

We are all our own harshest critics and we are all told not to be selfish. Between those things, we are supposed to find a recipe for self-love. In a world full of comparison and judgment, it can be incredibly difficult to do so. I think self-love isn’t about thinking you are the greatest human in the world. I think it’s about knowing that you’re not and being totally okay with that. I think it’s about being able to see the beauty in being alive and realizing what a gift that is. I think it’s about recognizing your potential and believing that you deserve the chance to reach that potential.

I still love reading magazines and pinning my favorite styles on Pinterest. I love following other bloggers and I adore seeing posts from my friends. Self-love not only gave me a deeper appreciation of myself, but of others as well. We are all living, just trying to do the best we can – what’s not to love about that?

My self-love journey began in a bucket bath in Botswana, but it’s far from over. Self-love is a life long journey that I’m so excited to be on. I encourage you all to fall in love. Forgive yourselves for all your flaws and fall in love. Fall in love with yourselves. Fall in love with your souls. Fall in love with all that makes you who you are. We are all worthy of love and who better to give it to us than ourselves?

The women still comment and the men still catcall but these days I just laugh. I tilt my head back and laugh because I no longer seek their validations. I no longer let anyone have control of my happiness because that job is all mine. I have found a way to be happy with who I am, to love who I am and I’m going to continue to fight for that. I am alive and I am trying. Oscar Wilde said, “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance,” and oh how excited I am for this rendezvous. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

More From Thought Catalog