When social-media star Essena O’Neill deleted all her accounts this week, she made an ironic splash. She re-edited captions on her Instagram posts: a bikini shot on the beach was now about starvation and obsession, a casual pose by the pool was about how she was paid to wear that dress. She made a video explaining her reasons. Whatever the reality of Essena’s experience these past few years, the result was touching for me. I know a lot of girls who feel exactly what she expressed: a social need to have a perfect public presence, from an ever younger age. (Instagram, the most popular social media network among grade schoolers, is known for being delightful, and it is—but it’s also inevitable, when a curated image is central to popularity, that it can be a source of pressure for its users. Especially for girls and women.)
But I also find those very media that Essena found so oppressive to be very empowering. I love selfies! I love the way the women in my life get to control their image through them, instead of having it dictated by other people! And I love being able to create a story for myself online, often aspirational, that lets me explore and imagine along with my friends. The media are neutral, I think, but powerful. And I know what Essena’s getting at, because I have the same sort of ambivalent relationship with that performed femininity and fabulousness. I think we all do.
It works like this for me.
Makeup covers my stress breakouts and it helps me not to scratch my face. I don’t want those moles removed cosmetically so much as I want to stop myself from compulsively picking at them, but band-aids will do. Painting my fingernails keeps me from biting them off—they were long enough to cut for the first time in years this week—and painting my toenails helps me from cutting the skin around them too deep. Fancy shampoo stops me from scratching dead skin off my scalp. Lip gloss reminds me not to bite. Corsets and heels keep me from curving into myself and remind me to breathe. I even talk anxious and feminine, all those “like”s and optimism and drama and fry.
But the performance is incomplete: I can’t find a gendered reason to stop clenching my jaw or to stop biting the epithelial tissue off the inside of my cheeks, and shaving just gives me more bumps to pick at. This particular remedy has lots of side effects. Heels hurt. Makeup makes my eyes itchy. Writing about it is embarrassing.
Ultimately, like any medicine, it is commended by its results. It cloaks my anxiety for the most part, and sometimes it even helps me overcome it. I don’t bite my nails anymore, and I love how the long light-pink looks tapping away at my keyboard. I like the way my voice makes certain people write me off, so I’m tipped off that I don’t have to take them seriously. I like the odd sensation of cutting my nails—how is it that parts of me grow dead and useless? Like how I keep tonguing the divets where my wisdom teeth used to be. How is it that I have bones that are optional? And I like how what other women find to be an artistic adventure, a personal joy, is helping to save me in its own way. I like that no matter our relationship to this performance, every woman I know understands what it feels like to settle her feelings, to defend herself. I like that I understand that feeling now, too.
Sure, sometimes I disdain how easy it is to read that the wrong way: coping mechanisms for anxiety make me look so good! Who needs to overcome the root problem when the halfway-house is so comfortable? But I know better most days. I can see the improvements, I can feel them, and so it’s impossible not to get out of my head.
In Catholic school, we talked so often about Theology of the Body. I never cared much for it, but I did love the idea that revelation was written on me. My experience at New York University did the same thing in a different way: all these theorists in my thesis footnotes turning the barra-bravas’ tattoos into badges of protection, all these writers in the newsstand magazines describing black bodies as terrorized inheritance, all these feminist scholars in my coffeehouses lamenting not so much what women do with their bodies as the fact that any choice they make is politicized. DC friends caption their latest cooking exploits with “recovering gnostic.” This is my theology of the body: we talked so often about spiritual warfare, never enough about how physical it is. I think that’s what I like about this journey most of all. I get to use metaphors like “war paint” and not feel overdramatic. I get to start my day with prayers of protection and know that I’m completely accurate about what’s at stake. I get to take myself seriously using the very tools men use to make light of women. I love that.
But they are tools nonetheless, and they can hurt as much as they help. So when I hear voices like Essena’s, angry, disillusioned, even younger than I am, I get it. Because no matter how we feel about getting ready in the morning, how real our smiles in our selfies are, how unironic our choices, we all feel the need to take a stance. To figure ourselves out.
Well, I haven’t. And that’s allowed.
I hope they know that.