Every time I post a half-naked selfie on Facebook or Instagram, someone says something. A comment, “Someone’s thirsty.” An eye roll emoji. It’s almost as if the hunger for validation is something to be shamed. Does it make me look weak?
I thought everyone liked the attention. I assumed we all share thirst equally, a complicit, universal state of needing validation. I don’t know anyone hardwired with the confidence to float through life without needing a reward, without craving to be told, “You’re attractive, you’re important.”
Here’s the truth. Whenever I meet someone new, I think their body looks better than mine. I still see my body as it was four years ago when I was newly HIV-positive. The drugs gave me weird fat deposits in my shoulders and face and belly. My skin broke out. I hated the drugs and stopped taking them in San Francisco shortly after I started. It was a dark time in my life. My meds break was encouraged and supported by the people in my life at the time, people I learned to distrust.
It’s been over two years since then. I’ve restarted medication and switched to a better drug since the one I was taking before. Today I’m healthy and undetectable. I still have selfies from that time. I was lonely, depressed, skinny, and sick. I was alone. I was escorting in a strange city. I don’t know why I was there — I wasn’t doing anything special or extravagant. But I was in San Francisco and that was enough, or I thought it had to be. Living in such an iconic city was, in my mind, worth the day-to-day struggle. Then life took me to Los Angeles, which was not as difficult. The city and the people in it got me to a better place. Then the drugs started.
Starting a drug habit when you’re already HIV-positive and not on medication is a terrible idea, and I got sick quickly. When I realized I had to change, I went into the LA LGBT Center and talked to the amazing people there. They understood my concerns, my fear of medication, but they also stressed in no ambiguous terms what my outlook was: If I stayed off meds, eventually my disease would progress to AIDS, and it’s hard to come back from that. I got back into care and have been diligently taking meds ever since.
Wellness is a shifting, elusive, important thing that everyone must define for themselves. Seeking it means more than going to see the doctor when you’re sick. Seeking wellness means taking time to find the parts of yourself that need attention, the problems and faults and impulses that you’ve never directly addressed.
My idea of wellness is far from perfect, but it works right now. To feel better about myself and minimize anxiety, I go to the gym almost every day, and work to have a body I like showing off. Yes, I am seeking validation, but seeking validation beats the alternative — hating my body and avoiding people because of it.
I take selfies for myself. Learning how to take them is challenging. I’m learning to study myself in the mirror, what angles to get, how to smile, what facial expressions I like, how to position myself. Taking selfies isn’t easy.
But it’s good for you. If you want to brag, brag. If you want to show off, show off. If you want comments like “Woof!” and “Damn!,” seek them. There’s a lot of people out there who blast the culture of pic-sharing and bemoan social media as a toxic place where superficial imagism reigns supreme, and while some of that’s true, underneath the sham and absurdity of it all are real people like me who have stories, people who may be celebrating how far they’ve come.
I would love to stay that drugs are a past story in my life, but that’s not true. I still have temptations and triggers. When that happens, I look at my last gym selfie and I remember how my body felt then — sweaty and strong. That felt healthy. That felt good. I remind myself that if I go out and smoke meth, I will lose that awesome feeling. I’ll be out of the gym for a week, and I’ll have replaced my positive self-image with a fleeting high that leaves you miserable and sick for days after. The meth comedown feels like all happiness has been drained from the world. I never want to experience that again.
Vanity is self-care. The next time you like how you look, take a selfie to help you remember that feeling, so that the next time you’re feeling down on yourself, you can pull up the picture and remind yourself that you’ll get back there. You’ll make it.