I created my Instagram account in 2014, under a handle too pretentious to admit, back when I was 18, when both the platform and I were different beasts than we are today. Then, Instagram was formatted blockish and blue, the logo a straightforward camera on a lock screen. There were no stories. Images you uploaded were permanent, or as permanent as an image can be when you have the option of a dropdown menu, of thumbing delete.
And delete I have. Those early Instagram photos of myself (and they were always photos of me, heavily filtered, effortfully sloe-eyed) have been gradually and subtly pared away. But certain images, about 200 of them at a recent count, I’ve left behind: There’s a shot of me done up in an odd combination of shorts and thrift-store heels, smiling beside a movie poster at a strip-mall theater. Around that time there’s also an image of me in a crop top with my hands running through my hair, liberated and sexy, notwithstanding the fact that I was in a parking lot with a public trash can in the frame. There’s another of me looking over my bare shoulder; the one of me on my knees in the sand, glancing downcast in a bright-blue two-piece, part of a series of highly posed shots meant to be mistaken for candids.
I don’t judge the girl in the candids. I recognize her as someone who is not myself, who took photos not for herself, but for an anonymous viewer whose attention at once I badly desired and also wasn’t so sure I wanted to have. I kept my profile on its default public setting. It was a trade-off, framed in uncertain terms. My privacy; your sporadic likes.
The subtext of my early Instagram life was transparent: I hoped you’d find me, viewer.
As it goes with public accounts, what I got in between those likes were DMs from strange men, body shots with faces cropped out, accompanied by generic pickup lines. I accepted these messages as an unfortunate reality of being female on Instagram and promptly deleted them. My burgeoning online persona itself drifted in the desperate space between aspiring beautiful and gently thirst-trapping. I location-dropped and let hashtags accumulate behind me like footprints. #ThisCoffeeShop, #ThatBookstore, #CollegeBound, #MorningsideHeights.
The subtext was transparent: I hoped you’d find me, viewer. What was more opaque, what I hadn’t thought through, was this: What would happen if you did?