Pin it

In a reverential nod to Kim Kardashian’s coffee-table tribute, I wanted to talk with women about selfishness. How is selfishness gendered? Is selfishness plain vanity? Can it be political? When is selfishness rhymed with empowerment and when is it rhymed with a narrow-mindedness? What is the relationship between selfishness and compromise? What about selfishness and compassion? Are you selfish? Do you want to be? Charlotte Shane, Victoria Campbell, Josephine Livingstone, Jazmine Hughes, Durga Chew-Bose, Fiona Duncan, Fariha Roísín, and I exchanged e-mails for one week, teasing out these questions. The accounts we shared with one another where at times frustrated, curious, challenging, unrepentant. We wrote about our mothers and our partners, but mostly we, selfishly, wrote about ourselves. Below is the first part of our conversation.  —Ana Cecilia Alvarez

Ana:  How do you define “selfishness.” Within yourself and within the world?

I understand selfishness less in material terms—selfishness is not necessarily excessive, like a rampant consumerist frenzy, where one wants it all. It’s separate from greed. Selfishness, to me, is more of a stance, one that stands it’s ground, that will not cede. Selfishness is a refusal.

Charlotte: Ana, I love that treatment, selfishness as a refusal. When I was in fifth grade, a good friend gave me a big pin with the words “what part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” She thought it was hilarious, I didn’t get the joke or why it was relevant to me. But she explained it was because I would never loaned her my books while she was always happy to let me borrow hers. (Point one: her family was rich and mine was not. Point two, which is probably related to point one: she treated her books terribly, dropping them in the bathtub and generally beating them up while I kept mine as pristine as I could.)

That was maybe the first time someone called me selfish, albeit obliquely. As I got older my mother accused me of it, and then later a very long term boyfriend. I don’t think they were wrong, but it’s nothing I’ve ever felt guilty about though I’ve made some efforts to correct it or at least hide it from people. I think it’s related to my possessiveness around most of my material goods. I have a tendency to get inordinately attached to physical things no matter how mundane, like, say, a certain pen. But I also think it’s because I’m usually very strict about maintaining my boundaries. Maybe those boundaries seem unnecessary or onerous to other people, but they seem perfectly reasonable to me.

Victoria: Selfishness comes from outside the self. It’s always someone else who accuses me of selfishness! Unless I catch myself being selfish first—but this only comes after I’ve considered someone else. Under the gaze of the selfish, self-orientation is totally relative and what I assume to be my own personal, private, obnoxious domain of myself is actually very public. And not in a good way.

Josephine: I find it difficult to even think about the word ‘selfish’ directly, so I’ll have to approach it from the opposite direction.

When you write academically, at least in the traditional fields, you’re not supposed to be in the text. The analyses you produce should be self-less. The text has no self in it, no voice. Or perhaps your voice merges with the great choir of Research, harmonizing into it until you, the little thinker, disappear. But it’s also selfless in the normal sense, because academics are supposed to sacrifice things like material comfort and stability and relationships in order to donate their brains to the Field: the greater good. This suits me down to the ground! As a kid/teen I was taught to fear that the worst things you could possibly do as a woman were a) “attention-seek” and b) work with the wrong motivations (money, glory, conservatism, whatever). Although intellectually I know this to be classed/gendered/raced bullshit, I’m conditioned to revel in the self-imposed penury of not having any money and destroying myself by working all night every night because I’m deriving my sense of Self from it.

What’s more, I work on something political: my dissertation is about the medieval history of European racism. By making myself suffer in the hope of answering the questions I have challenged myself to address, I’m perpetually engaged in scrubbing my conscience (I’m white-British and my family is from a now-postcolonial country). I’m profiting, maybe even profiteering, from being selfless i.e. not-selfish. It’s transparent as heck. I think that when you make sacrifices on purpose in order to feel good about yourself that is Simony: the Catholic sin of purchasing a clean conscience. Simony is selfish; my “selflessness” is selfish.

Anyway, I’m only realizing this now that I’m at the end of my PhD. I’m gently, slowly, learning that asking for help when you need it is the opposite of selfishness. Also I think I’m gonna dedicate my dissertation to myself.

Jazmine: As I have gotten older, I’ve certainly gotten more selfish—and perhaps my definition is warped, because selfishness is aspirational for me, and probably hangs out more with the “independent” “focused” and “no fucks given” crowd than the “inconsiderate” bunch—and I definitely feel a certain gendered guilt. I am a huge proponent of the following: a rising tide lifts all boats, squads, women-helping-women and Unfollow A Man. But I also have to be firmly, and subsequently radically, here for myself, in a way that makes me feel like I am abandoning the group. I’m not here to make friends is sort of my refrain—which doesn’t mean I’m not a friendly person! It just means that I am going to look out for me before I look out for you, but often I have room to do both (see? I’m qualifying it already). I don’t know if there’s a benefit to being less selfless because the guilt goes both ways—every so often I’ll break and repeat Sally Albright’s refrain: “I’m difficult! I’m too structured, I’m completely closed off” and collapse in a sea of tears, using shoulder pads and big coiffed hair as my lifeboats.

I’m gonna be 40, someday, so the gendered guilt of selfishness is already far-reaching: I’m already worried about my kids, if I choose to have any. I am hesitant to have children not because I am worried about economic struggle, or that I’ll be an unfit mother—I hesitate solely because I have other stuff to do. I *want* to be a career woman. I *want* to travel. I *want* spend all my money on cosmetics and cabs, and not have to know the names of any stuffy kindergartens for as long as I can help it. But then I know that I am a good person, with a good partner, building a good home—why wouldn’t I spread my blessings around? And now we’re back to square one.

Victoria: Square one would be to define selfishness by the grammar and not by the word. There’s selfishness to you and then there’s selfishness to me, and then there’s the selfishness that is imposed on us—as a value judgement—which I think the discussion thus far has been hinting at. Ana’s initial proposal is begging for a radical reclamation of the word. I feel the need to return to the question of how to define selfishness, which is not the question of what selfishness is defined as. It’s a question of how selfishness is used to define us. There’s selfishness as a mark upon one’s character, and then there’s the selfishness required to reclaim that mark. Ultimately, the self is a stigma as much as it is a pursuit.

Durga: Culturally speaking, I come from a home where my parents would remind me every single day that there are people less fortunate than me. That and, to never forget my roots. Which is to say, when you are born in a country that your parents are not from, an implicit gratitude pervades every chapter of your life. More so, and especially these days, I’ve become sensitive to what I have emotionally inherited from my parents. In this way, doing things entirely for myself is very hard. I keep them in mind, always. I try to achieve goals with them in mind. I think of a lot of first generation kids are similar and because of that, remain wary of white feminist Lean In-type mottos.

My father recently visited me and we spent most of the weekend cooking. He literally came to New York to cook with his adult daughter; the experience was entirely humbling. And what I’m learning to do in my life now, is balance that inherited humbleness with still putting myself first. It’s a tricky combination. It requires that I imagine myself in rooms that perhaps will not have me, but still enter with a poise that does not forget what my parents have taught me: where I come from, where they come from, and a sense of squad, as Jazmine put it.

Fiona: Self-ish: I love this breakdown. Because this I identify with being approximately a self, like a “self.” I am fascinated with self-hood, how we define and imagine ourselves, how we perform accordingly, how others read us by our actions and appearances. It’s everything! Power, desire, being. (I do dig Heidegger.) I default write on this stuff. I often write as an “I.” because I’m trying to figure it out. Writing is navigating. I never considered this “selfish” before, because selfishness I associated with knowing what you want and taking it regardless of other people or the environment or whatever, whereas most of my I I I me me me-ing is about trying to figure out what I want, then I take it off the page, practice it. I wonder if this is a queer-ish girl thing, the not knowing what I want, because my desires aren’t pre-packaged in pop media. Is there where your “refusal” comes in, Ana? Selfishness as a rejection of what’s given or assumed for “you” so you can get to what you really want?

Ana: Partly. I have an ambivalent relationship to this rally cry, “getting what one wants.” On the one hand, I feel like I’ve marched under the banner of “getting what one wants”—arguing that if we all sought and received what we wanted, we’d be better able to give. At the same time, I am suspicious of cheerleading any stance that promotes imposing one’s own individualistic will despite others. So, when I see selfishness as a refusal, I think there’s distance between refusing certain assumptions that attempt to hamper one’s ability to express and fulfill what they really want—and refusing of others’ capability—dare I write, right—to do the same.

Fariha: Fiona, I like what you said about the breakdown of self-hood, I think so much of my life I’ve struggled between the pendulums of “selfless” and “selfish” and now I’m finding that maybe a balance between the two would be most beneficial to me, and that’s terrifying in its own way; how do I do that?
I’m in Halifax, Nova Scotia right now. I’m taking time off to reposition myself, re-angle parts of my body and self that have become misaligned in the process of hard-work. I’m too hard on myself, as I want so badly to be this image that I have of the perfect “Fariha”; a Fariha that is together most of the time, a person that is articulate, caring, emotional only when it’s to my own benefit, someone that’s well read, etc—and then about two weeks ago I literally unravelled. I completely mentally, physically and emotionally broke down and I didn’t know who to turn to. My parents live in two separate countries, both very far from me, and my friends have their own shit to deal with. Not only that, I pride myself on my own self sufficiency. For the first time, in a long time, I’ve been romantically alone, celibate for almost a year now, all in a ascetic pursuit to be rid of the “extra.” But, somewhere in there, I realized I had been holding on too tightly to what the “idea” of Fariha was, that I forgot that living in the between bits of my life should comfort and console me, because they’re familiar, and instead, because I’ve removed myself from my past hedonism to find balance, I’ve spurned totally off kilter.

I don’t think that I, personally, know how to be selfish—but I desperately know that I want to be selfish. It’s pathetic, but I’m always over consumed by others; how they perceive me, what they’re doing with their lives to the point where I feel like I’m living a half made life, even though that’s all of my own creation. Since my unofficial breakdown I’ve realized that selfishness is exactly what I want within the framework of integrity to myself, but then again—what is integrity to oneself, and doesn’t that change? Or evolve? Or splinter?

I think my selfishness, at times, or maybe what people see in me, is manifested in someone who is so desperately trying to carve some space for herself. It’s a refusal, as many of you said, of the norms, but it’s also a reaction after the grueling revelation upon revelation (from end of relationships, to the abuse of my mother) that if I don’t have my back, nobody will. That doesn’t mean that it’s not totally and utterly devastating to reprogram yourself and unlearn to properly selfish for yourself. Maybe true selfishness is also asking for help, whether it’s praying for abundance from the universe, or calling a friend and asking them to buy me a drink, I just want to be loved, and that makes me really scared—but if I’m being honest with myself, that’s my true selfish self speaking.

Ana Cecilia Alvarez writes and reads about art, women, and sex.

Victoria Campbell is a writer and artist specializing in the areas of identity negotiation, relationship management, and black magic political economy. She teaches Sex-Ed with Ana Cecilia.

Durga Chew-Bose writes and reads and lives in Brooklyn.

Fiona Duncan is.

Jazmine Hughes is an associate editor at New York Times Magazine.

Josephine Livingstone is a writer and academic in New York.

Fariha Roísín is a writer living on Earth.

Charlotte Shane is a writer who can be found on twitter as @charoshane.  Her TinyLetter is famous among those who love emotions and long emails. 

Illustration by Josephine Livingstone.