By Caroline Caldwell, Guest ContributorMay 2, 2016
In a society that profits from your self doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act.
It’s crazy that this thing I made has spread like a wildflower. I don’t feel like a spokesperson for loving yourself. I just wrote it on my dorm room wall, because I needed to hear it. Then I thought, “Hey, maybe other people need to hear this too,” and thought it would be perfect as an ad takeover, where I’d replace an advertisement with my own artwork. So I put it up inside a train and took a photo. I didn’t sign it. Anyone can have it. And now that little piece, which probably didn’t last on the train for more than a day, has been reposted and reinterpreted, sometimes with my name attached, and often not, by hundreds of thousands of people.
But there is a backstory.
I’m 23. I’ve spent much of my (short) art career fixated on the affects advertisements have on me. Me, as a person who doesn’t have much money. Me, as a woman. Me, as somebody’s daughter. Me, as a highly visual person who is also highly distractible (it says “FOCUS” btw). Me, as a person who sometimes suffers from loneliness and depression. Me, as a person who feels beautiful when I see beauty.
I walk through public spaces and feel advertisements whispering to me that I’m falling short. A lot of them target women specifically. And it’s one of those things that, in the moment, I can roll my eyes at and keep walking, because honestly what else can I do. But I’ve still internalized those messages. Subconsciously, I intuited that this is how all people look at me.
So I painted something about these feelings on my dorm room wall at Sarah Lawrence College (sorry SLC, I promise I painted over it before I left). It was a self portrait that said “Aw fuck, I’m also ugly on the inside.” People who I found extremely lovely were relating to self loathing and that hit me deep. I was surprised by the oddly-positive feedback. People told me “I’m ugly too.”
Why do we hate ourselves? But also, why do we hate ourselves for falling short of a marketer’s unrealistic expectations?
Why do we just passively accept that there are these stupid emblems all over the place that tell us we’re only good if we’re good looking and spending our money?
Advertisements force us to think about ourselves in terms of everything we’re not. I want people to walk down the street and feel filled with everything that they are. So I made a different message, put it up inside of a train, and took a photo.
So, cut to now. I wake up and have a zillion notifications about this thing I made. Someone got a tattoo of it. It’s in books and stuff. I don’t get cited many of the times it’s used, and that’s okay (except you, Madonna. You should credit me). But it’s amazing to be connected with people like this, at this intimate level. It’s a really humbling and humanizing moment for me.
I was linked to an incredible video that was going viral that used my quote at the end. Amy Pence-Brown’s stand for self love in Idaho was giving people strength. Amy and I started emailing, and I was finding so much power in myself through her. She gave a TEDx talk about her experience recently that brought me to tears.
She suggested I make this quote/image into t-shirts. I was reluctant because the image is rooted in a deeply anti-consumerism sentiment. But I also saw the value in spreading it. So I decided that 50% of my profit would go to the National Eating Disorder Association to keep this thing’s existence focused on positive change.
That’s where I’m at. We use each other as mirrors. Your strength gives me strength. I can take a can of house paint and block out these destructive, reductive messages, but I think it’s way cooler and cheaper to just rise above the demeaning bullshit that tells us to buy ourselves a beautiful life.
I think magical moments are available to us at all times. No money necessary. Enjoy them. Enjoy yourself.
Although advertisements can damage our self esteem, artists like Caroline are using their work to take back the conversation and self image! What artists or quotations inspire you? Share those works and words with the world today on social and spread the love!
Caroline Caldwell is a 23 year old artist living in Brooklyn. She loves drawing on walls and people.