Updated: May 21, 2021
Perspectives is a column where we ask one Thai woman and one foreign woman the same question and publish their answers verbatim. For our inaugural issue, we asked two of The F Word's core team members, Blue and Becky, to talk about their experiences with self-love in Thailand. To read Becky's response to What Does Self-Love Mean to You as a Woman in Thailand, click here.
Disclaimer from the author: This piece started as an attempt to write about self-love, only for me to discover that instead, I have a map of sorts. This article is made up of floating thoughts stitched together like archipelagos of ideas. Mostly because self-love is a land I am still discovering, just beginning to trace the outlines of.
Before we begin - I must ask: take off your shoes before you enter. That and your preconceived judgment. Especially if you are a foreigner or if you are white, please leave your Western superiority at the door.
Are you ready? Water bottles and patience? Do you have those? Okay, we may begin.
1) An Island: Your Body is a Threat to Yourself and Others. Navigate with Caution.
At 18, I learned that self-love was a ghost, a dead thing I lost at 12 when my body went through its changes. The first blood of girlhood lost dripping down my legs in P.E. My mother was furious when she knew I started bleeding. I sensed that she was angry because I was the second girl in my class to start bleeding. I think she must have felt it was too soon. Although, if I think hard enough, I think self-love began its decay at 9 years old when my grandmother told me to put on a proper shirt lest I ‘would tempt my father’. I think that was the first time I realized that this body is not my own but a separate thing - a dangerous thing both to myself and others and I should be careful to keep things covered, hidden, and properly placed. I think that was why my mother was so angry. I’ve matured too quickly; brought danger to myself a little too quickly than she was comfortable with. A woman’s body, after all, is a dangerous thing. At a young age, I was taught to understand that having breasts and a vagina meant I could be dead in an alley if I did not dress right, I could destroy the sacredness of a monk with a touch and if I was ever raped - this, I learned at 8 years old and would think of this in the years to come - to bite. Hard. That must have been the first time I thought of what a penis would taste like in my mouth, not in terms of curiosity or something related to pleasure, but mostly what it would be like mixed with blood, between my prepubescent teeth.
2) A bridge: Your Mother Tongue - a Razor Blade. Poetry and Other Forms of Societal Mutilation
Now, I am finding that self-love tastes awkward in my mouth. I think as a Thai woman such a thing is a foreign language, our own mother tongue sharp with self-critique. That’s why we are all so skinny. So well-versed at this art of cutting ourselves and each other to mere slivers of existence that the real secret to the Asian diet here isn’t rice.
It’s learning at a young age that as a woman, your beauty is your currency.
Please know that I am not being poetic when I say our mother tongue is sharp with self-critique. Quite literally, there is a poem from the 18th century still taught religiously in Thai schools as the ‘epitome of Thai literature’. Supposedly penned by an alleged ‘great poet’ known as ‘Sunthorn Pu’ who amongst other things wrote a collection of poems called ‘Supasit Sorn Ying’ - which translates to something along the lines of ‘Poems Teaching Girls’, covering a list of guidelines on how a good lady ought to act - from speech (one should not talk too much and when speaking should do so when it is essential) to walking (to not move your arms or even, God forbid, draw your fingers through your hair). Even sleeping (to yes, you guessed it - not move too much when one sleeps) and of course, reminding that good ladies do not have sex before marriage (lest we bring dishonor to our parents). I could tell you more but it gets absurd. I am not sure whether to laugh or to cry when I think about it. The saddest thing about this is that it is still being taught in schools uncritically, upheld as a testament to his ‘genius’ and his contribution to Thai culture.
To be fair, though, it is on-brand for Thailand if you think about it - Thailand doesn’t like our women loud, or thick, or moving around too much. We don’t like our women to be too human or existing, really. A woman fully existing is a terrifying thing.
3) A discovery, hidden treasures, and other ghosts: Pregnancy as Schrodinger Self-Love
I wondered if self-love for women when all the channels are blocked, they move through the umbilical cord. Maybe when I was inside the womb and I was an extension of my mother that was how self-love was properly allowed for her to feel. My mother is 50 now - she is a university lecturer who does not know how to sit still, she works on projects and just got funding for her own start-up. On paper, she sounds like Wonder-Woman but she still makes herself small. Even she, at age 50, still feels like she is not enough.
I feel as if the only time a woman is permitted to love herself is when they are pregnant. Only when a part of her has manifested as another is she allowed to transfer that love, like a wish, a whisper, sneaking in self-love when the self is splintered. Is that why women say to other women that they did not feel complete until they had a child? Is it because for the first time they are given the chance to love something that was in some ways a splinter of themselves so wholly and truly, in all its flawed, poop-splattered manifestation? The only version of self-love they are permitted because it is characterized by self-sacrifice? A Schrodinger's self-love?
I like the idea of that, both sad and sweet at the same time. "Hello, nice to meet you, I am a manifestation of this intergenerational self-love smuggled through the umbilical cord." This definition fits, I think. It must be this proto-self-love that I feel the humming of in moments I know I have ventured further than my grandmother could ever hope for herself, further than my mother could ever allow herself to. I think this made a lot of sense because self-love for my grandmother was making sure that my mother went to school, why my mother was taught to read early, and had been an eager student. After all, my grandmother was always ashamed that she only studied up till third grade and had to instead work to help her parents feed her other many siblings. My mother is now a professor with a Ph.D. It was why my mother gave me a box of paint at nine while she herself had always liked the arts just never believed she was creative enough. I am now an artist, I paint, I write poems, I work on installation art projects.
Maybe the form unrequited love takes is a wish and because of this children do end up becoming the outlines of their parents’ wishes.
I guess what I am trying to say is this: that at 22 I am discovering that perhaps self-love is also an intergenerational thing. That while I am fed by all the unrequited love taking the forms of wishes - I still make myself small because I see my mother make herself small. My tongue curves in the language of self-critique because in so many meanings of the words, as a Thai woman this is my mother tongue. Thus, the space I permit myself to take up was the space I saw my mother outlined for herself which is to say the space my grandmother outlined for herself which is to say the space the men in her family outlined for her. And back it goes and back it goes. This means that when I practice self-love (supported by the unrequited ones smuggled to me as wishes) I am pouring back permission through a phantom umbilical cord - reminding the echoes of all the madwomen in my family that we may exist, that we exist that we might do so much more than exist. That we might want, might get angry, might be different. And yes, a woman fully existing is a terrifying thing - and they may be terrified.
4) A trap in the desert: Sex as Quicksand, the Male Gaze as a Mirage
In a less poetic but honest yet also less self-actualized confession - also at 22, I am realizing I am mining for self-love in the reflection of the I that I find in the eyes of lovers. Yes, a 20 years old trying to feel attractive by sleeping around too much. I never say I was not a cliche. Don’t seem so disappointed.
I insisted at first that it was an empowering thing to fulfill the needs society originally insisted my female body is not entitled to. Yet, what I found, in reality, was that I was always left feeling empty. Always craving more touch - actually craving more than touch. Feeling the coldness of the morning as I realized what I was really looking for in two palms against flesh was to be seen, to be recognized, to be held, to be celebrated, to be worshipped. To be affirmed that I exist and that I am attractive and that I deserve love and that I am not invisible. And because I want it so much - which renders me the one who asks and they (the men) the one who permits, the dynamic is never equal. I am always craving more intimacy, stuck trying to fulfill an emptiness with the two palms of a lover or the gaze of a kindred spirit. For anyone to remind me that I exist.
You know that quote - if a tree falls but there is no one to hear it, did it really happened?
Say, if a woman is breathing but there is no one to witness her, does she exist?
Say, if a woman is beautiful and there is no one to witness her beauty does she exist?
Say, if all my life I have been socialized to believe that my beauty is my currency and that my worth is weighted by the male gaze - how do I quell this neediness when my intrinsic self-perception has been molded by a lifetime of societal messaging?
It is like I am a well-trained dog. Years of advertising messages telling me this is all my body is good for, that I am only worthy if a man approves of me that my mouth water at the hint of it.
Maybe this is just me. Maybe I am blaming the patriarchy for my flawed attachment issue. But tell me this, if I have been taught to equate stability to marriage which is to say acquiring relationships with men - how do I stop hungering for it? How long does it take to dismantle such a concept? How do I teach my body that I, alone, am enough?
5) An Oasis: A Memory, A Reminder
Funnily enough, I did begin to learn the outline of self-love through a lover. At 20, through the eyes of at-that-time-love-of-my-life (now ex and best friend) was the moment I learned that self-love is a language that’s taught. Of being held in the palms of another like a holy thing even in my most mortal state. At 20, I found that his love came in the shape of permission, to be myself, and to feel enough within the confines of it. I don’t necessarily think self-love is grown out of romance - especially now that I am 22 and the relationship aforementioned had decayed in its own time, as most things do - it grew out of the friendship we had, of being positive mirrors for each other, having faith in each other on bad days.
It is from this ex that I learned self-love is a language we teach each other. Both of us were two beings who went through life being told we were small, being told we were not enough. It was through each other’s eyes did we begin to see that this was untrue. To see another version of ourselves that was good and find something to root for.
The idea of self-love being cultivated purely independently is bullshit. Because it is through my friendships that helped me see how I might be kind, creative, talented, resourceful, sweet and so many other things despite all the flawed traits I might have. Human beings exist socially. It is difficult to have a good self-perception if the version you see reflected back to you is a constant reminder that you are not enough. And there are too many moments in this capitalist world that will tell you to feel like you are not enough. So I’ve learned to keep my friends close, keeping the positive reflections like lucky pennies for rainy days when the storm of self-hatred cuts black.
Self-love is a language we teach each other. So I pass the love my ex pass onto me to my other loved-ones. To express compliments, little encouragements, and the occasional reminders that they are worthy of patience and kindness, passing this love on like little magic beans they could grow in their own little mind-gardens.
6) The Horizon: You are at the End of the Tour, We Can Go Skinny Dipping - Leave Whatever’s Not Serving You Behind
I think self-love takes a lot of unlearning. Cultivating self-love in a female body is complex and rebellious. It goes against all the programming our gender roles had outlined. It’s learning a foreign language because our mother tongue tells us not to move too much, not to burn, not to dance.
I am still practicing the grammar of self-love, testing the new ways in which my tongue bends as I fight the surge of self-hatred pinned deep between my teeth like a toothache. In the end, I think self-love is a foreign language you invent and I am still penning the shapes of new lexicons so that I might exist, new words to fight old ones. I am learning that self-love tastes a lot like permission, a lot like a celebration, and sometimes like anger.
I guess this is why The F Word happened as a space to pen new lexicons together with other women who are deconstructing their own mother-tongues of self-critique too. Monsters are, after all, better fought alongside friends. So this is me, creating a community dictionary of sorts, turning wishes - if not full-on recipes for self-love - then into maps that might at the very least get you started.
By Blue Rachapradit
Blue is an aspiring illustrator, sometimes poet, living in Bangkok. She is the founder of The F Word art magazine and passionate about the intersection between arts and social activism. You can see more of her illustration as well as her poetry on Instagram at @thisbluecreature.