Caroline Caldwell is a 26yo artist specializing in guerilla ad takeovers — in places meant for advertisements, Caldwell makes art, papering over PSA’s and sales pitches with her own brand of beauty. If you’ve seen anything of hers, it’s probably the image of a young woman sitting on a subway train while looking sideways at a sign that says “In a society that benefits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act.” After this ad takeover in 2017, Caldwell’s image went viral, shared over a million times across social platforms. Madonna posted it to her Instagram to promote her tour; T-shirt and mug companies printed it on merchandise, which, if you think about it, is kind of ironic: “My critique of consumerism is spreading through consumerism. I don’t know if that means I’m gaming the system or if the system is gaming me,” Caldwell says.
For some reason, the quote she posted on the subway wall has become kind of a brain-worm for me, like one of those holiday songs you just can’t get out of your head. Why is liking yourself and act of rebellion? Can it really be that simple… and that difficult?
But if you think about the big topic of “what’s going on today” near the top of the list have gotta be things like fake news and hatred. Or, more accurately, fake news that stokes the fires of hatred. Who are we meant to hate? Well, it starts with everyone but yourself — we are encouraged to hate, envy, or denigrate anyone who doesn’t look like us, speak like us, think like us, or come from the same place we come from.
The seed for so much of this hatred of the “other” is self-hatred. Deep down, the fake news designed to sow division is fueled not by the opinion that someone else from a different country with different skin color isn’t good enough, but that you, yourself are not good enough. By turning this self-hatred outward, you can say to yourself, consciously or unconsciously, “I’m an awful person, but at least I’m not as awful as that other person.”
How do you rebel against this hatred of the other that’s creeping all around us with its strangling fingers? You start by liking yourself. When you do, there’s no reason to hate anyone else. (Well, except for maybe Martin Shkreli…)
It’s just that easy. And now we’re back to the difficult part: How can you learn to like yourself? I mean, you’re not as hot as that Insta influencer or as successful as Elon Musk or as cool as, well, as anybody. Believe me, I’m no expert, but here’s an observation: All of these self-doubt statements come about when you compare yourself to other people. For me, it’s like “I’ll never write like Junot Diaz,” or “I’ll never climb like Tommy Caldwell” or “I’ll never be able to afford a big house like the other parents at my kids’ private school, where we go because my wife works as the school psychologist.”
But if I think about these three things objectively and without a comparison — writing, rock climbing, and lifestyle — a different picture emerges. I’m okay with words, I’ve climbed a bunch of the world’s great rock routes, and most months we get by just fine in our little house.
When I compare myself to the people I see in my Insta feed, I feel awful. But when I take stock of myself without comparison, I can find things to like. I guess that’s a start.