08/27/2014 10:15 am ET Updated Oct 27, 2014

'You Should Be Flattered': Body Image and Street Harassment in the Internet Age

Henglein and Steets via Getty Images

There was a time not terribly long ago when I believed that getting catcalled on the street was a most sincere form of flattery.

This depressing notion made sense to me with my teenage logic. If strangers think I'm pretty, I thought, then I should probably believe them.

Naturally, this was the thinking that launched a million social media profiles. I remember how excited I would get at age 15, on a local meetup site, when an anonymous individual (who I now for all intents and purposes refer to as a "creep") would compliment one of my profile pictures. The rush of having a complete stranger admire me directly, bypassing the confused wilderness of hormone-addled high school romance, was exhilarating. Addicting, even.

And of course, there's the opposite effect: the sting of having a complete stranger shame you virtually. An unflattering photo is an open invitation to insult. Hence, the rise of "selfie-culture": the trope of snapping innumerable camera photos and sharing the best-looking one. The much-derided MySpace angle. The reports of "selfie-addiction." We laugh at this stuff, but these behaviors, ranging in severity, are symptomatic of a much graver issue and underlying psychology. Body image obsessions form the basis of online communities that are "Pro-Ana" (which, regrettably, I fell victim to at a young age).

I was a mess: mired in insecurity, obsessed with my reflection and the myriad ways in which my mind distorted it. My body image was about as reliable as one in a funhouse mirror. Digital pictures were an instant way to capture what my own eyes couldn't see, and social media served as validation. Catcalls were an extension of that. It was easy to feign disgust at lewd comments, all the while storing them in the back of my mind as a sort of consolation that, hell, at least somebody found me attractive.

The thing about being regarded as a sexual object before you're of consensual age -- or before you know anything about sexuality, really -- is that you don't quite have a grasp on what advances mean. They are affirmations of attractiveness, seemingly detached from salacious intent because they don't appear to escalate (until eventually, they do). High school flirtation was confusing, albeit harmless. Being hit on by older men was exciting but utterly creepy in some illicit, unplaceable way.

I have a lot of bad memories that resulted from not playing my cards right, from being too smart to act my age and too stupid to know better. It took a lifetime to learn to love myself without someone's validation, and to find someone to love me back unconditionally. Today, at age 24, I still get pangs of self-consciousness when (and I hate admitting this) I walk the streets and get no attention. Try as I might to overcome this wretched and twisted way of thinking, I still have to consciously commit to not falling into the trap of low self-esteem and skewed body image.

It shouldn't have been this way for me, and it shouldn't be this way for girls growing up today on social media, with the cesspool of judgment it propagates. I really believe that if we stressed to girls that health is more important than beauty, that self-esteem more valuable than sexiness, we could save women from the kind of self-destructive thinking that consumed me growing up.

My mother and grandmothers grew up in a culture that emphasized women as aesthetic creatures (more on that here). As early as I can remember, it was made painfully clear to me that success and happiness are all but dependent on one's outward appearance. I wonder how I would have turned out, had my priorities -- and theirs -- been a little different. If I'd channeled the energy I put into preening and dieting into other pursuits, what might have I accomplished?

We live in a society where the gaze and lust of men is often more coveted than self-esteem, and even self-respect. We're subjected to a ceaseless parade of judgment from women and men alike. I want to live in a society where I am not a slave to mirrors and cameras, scrambling for my smartphone to untag a picture taken at an unflattering angle. Can we teach ourselves to love ourselves? Or at the very least, can we teach our girls? That is all I ask.