Certain moments in life are definitive. They don’t have to be of any importance: trying and hating a new Starbucks drink, realising that you wore two different shoes out, a trip to the doctor’s that said you might be borderline overweight. None of these are big deals, but you remember them anyway because those little bits of nothings somehow changed you, even if it was in the smallest way. Now you shake your head when a friend offers you a grapefruit tea, now you look down twice at your feet before leaving the house, now you go for walks or get a salmon salad or plain water instead of Coke.
For me, that important-unimportant moment was a tweet. 140-characters on a platform whose icon was a small, chubby bird. It was silly, frivolous, self-absorbed, but it was what I – and many other millennials and younger generations – had become accustomed too. Emotional attachment and detachments played out on the internet like a mildly entertaining, low rated drama. A tweet was my cold shower, a wakeup call. It ended with a tweet but it really started with a message on Facebook. Slide into the DMs, they say. He sent me a video. It was nothing. We knew each other in school, long ago. We followed each other on social media for years, left comments and likes, even chatted sometimes. Yet, I never thought of him romantically. But that one evening, he sent me a video out of the blue and suddenly it was there, the possibility that it could be something romantic. A little seed of thought planted itself firmly in my mind.
Years of being mutuals* had kept me well informed of his life. Somehow, I knew his favourite bands, his taste in clothes, and the last city he visited. That was the power of social media, the ability to imprint information at the back of your head without you being actively aware of it. A few days later, I replied to his Insta-story. We chatted. The seed took root and started to grow. He replied to some of my posts. I replied to some of his. We’d talked privately, always on social media. That was when I started looking at my phone constantly. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Where was he? Who was he with? Did he view my IG-stories? Did he like my posts? I was happy when he commented. I was sad when he didn’t.
But before long, it became more about myself than of him. I became preoccupied with the presentation of my image on social media. I wanted him to see me. I was consumed by how he would view me – all through a tweet, a picture, a video – even though I was more than that. I had a whole world outside of social media, but I was constantly trying to condense my life into a 15-seconds video on Instagram, or a funny tweet, or a clever Facebook comment.
I told myself it was a crush, but that one-sided crush manifested itself obsessively, dangerously. It became an obsession, not just of him but of how I perceived myself. I was constantly trying – to be smarter, cooler, funnier, skinner. Thinking and rethinking my best angles, checking different platforms incessantly, seeking approval from someone who had no idea that I had begun to pin my self-worth on whether or not he liked my posts. I searched for the slightest hints of affections on my mobile screen, opening and closing apps, over-reading into 140-character posts and photo captions and GIFs, posting something and anxiously hoping he would reply… and feeling crushed (no pun intended) when he didn’t. Even when I was out with my friends, I would be checking my phone constantly. Did he see it? Why didn’t he comment?
It got exhausting. I couldn’t sleep. My fingers itched to refresh and re-refresh and re-re-refresh a page. I began to blame myself. Why did I post that? Why did I send that message? He left me on read, perhaps it was because I was too boring or obsessive or stalkerish. My mind was constantly overran with thoughts of my own shortcomings. I was too short, too fat, not rich enough, too brown, not brown enough. I didn’t have cool friends, or an aesthetically pleasing social media account. I looked at all the girls whose photos he liked on Instagram. I didn’t look like any of them. That was when I decided I wasn’t enough. I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was exactly that I didn’t have enough of; all I knew was that I wasn’t enough, I wasn’t enough, I wasn’t enough.
I started working out. Eating less. Skipping dinner and forgoing carbohydrates. My jogs lasted thirty minutes, and then forty-five, and then one hour. I did forty crunches and then eighty and then two hundred. I lost weight. I posted pictures and videos. I sent out tweets and Facebook updates, but there was no reply. My self-esteem worsened. It was no longer about him; it became all about me. I had to be prettier, skinner, sexier. What started out as a simple interest in someone had evolved into an ugly beast, an evil soul crushing mirror where I projected my worst insecurities and used an innocent person to justify why I shouldn’t be happy with myself.
At my lowest point, the beast reared its head and roared callous thoughts into my mind. I was tormented by my own posts on social media. I am cooler now. I’m funnier, skinnier, better now. Can you like me, please? But there was no reply. I wanted him to like me. I needed him to like me, so I can like myself.
Then came the tweet. The eyeopening, important-unimportant tweet. It was nothing explicit but it had a pretty clear message: he was seeing someone. I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was heartbroken. I thought, this is what a heartbreak feels like. I tried imagine what this illusive, mysterious girl looks like. A tiny waist and slim legs. Straight teeth and soft hair. A ton of followers of Instagram, a great beauty with men like him rushing to do things for her. A Becky with the good hair. I drove myself insane with my imagination. I hated her, this imaginary person who had everything I wanted but couldn’t have. What does she look like? I tried to find her. I scrolled and scrolled, refreshed pages, snooped around. I tried to imagine how my feed would look to her. My self-worth was tied to a bevy of apps. Who I am as a person meant nothing at all if I wasn’t seen on social media.
And then I saw her picture. She looked just like any other girl. She wasn’t particularly pretty or attractive. She didn’t have a tiny waist or runway legs. Just a nice girl, doing her things, oblivious to the animosity someone she’s never met had for her. At first I laughed. I laughed because I thought I was better than her. Funnier, cooler, smarter. He would have been better with me. I laughed, but it didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel like I won, because I didn’t. I had destroyed myself trying to get someone to like me, not even in person but online. I went headfirst into a social media war with myself, and lost.
I liked this guy, I do. I genuinely enjoyed talking to him, even when we met in person, and wished that things could have been different, that he noticed how I was changing for him and asked me out. But in a way, I was also glad he didn’t. How this obsession manifested itself as a crush made me realise certain things. I was searching for love, but not in the right places nor in the right person. I was searching for love, because I did not love myself enough. I wanted him to pay attention to me, because I was not paying enough attention to myself. It took a long time for me to realise that.
Even as I write this, I am realising new things about myself, about how I manage my own image on social media to fit other people’s expectations, about how I am so often viewing the world through the hazy lenses of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-social media. I love these platforms, love how I can talk to people I haven’t met in ten years, love how they give a stage to artists and creators. But I am also aware of how addictive they can become, how they can trick you into thinking you don’t exist unless you’re on social media. It is a double-edged knife, and I am still figuring out how to wield it without hurting myself. But for now, I’m going to lay off stalking people and focus on just liking memes.
*mutuals: people who follow each other on social media and post similar things