Selfies, Self-Worth, and An Open Breakup Letter with Social Media
I belong to one of the last generations to remember life before the Internet. As a child, books were read before bed, some television was consumed after school and on Saturdays. The great outdoors had my and my siblings’ names on it, often to our chagrin. My parents were of the “be back by dusk” and “so long as their parents say it’s okay” cohort. I didn’t have a video game console until my 13th Christmas, the PS One being the only system my parents ever gave to us. I remember feeling so dumb all through elementary school when friends would talk about their Nintendo 64s and Sega Genesis when all I had was a lousy Game Boy.
I was a showboat of a child. Charismatic, energetic, bubbly, silly. I could go on for hours about my favorite television show — Animaniacs, hands down — to anyone who would give me the opportunity. Not quite having learned how to connect with kids my age, I preferred the company of their mothers or my teachers. My own mother often heard praises from various women. “Oh, he’s so sweet. Creative, too!” She enjoyed it and didn’t seem to wonder much at my lack of chums in my own peer group.
Truth be told, I preferred to play with girls at school, though for some reason it just wasn’t normal to have one come over after school. I had very little in common with other boys, though I managed to find one who would last a few years before another would show up. The elementary school friend and I memorized the entire soundtrack to Sound of Music. In middle school, another friend and I hung out at his house doing a whole lot of nothing. In high school, a different boy and I were friends to an extent, though he was tortured and weird and ended up even more reclusive than I. None had any stereotypical male inclinations — though one did end up coming out, but that’s entirely unrelated — and I felt a sort of security in having a friend who sorta kinda understood me.
Our family became connected to the internet right about the time my pubescent weight gain began. I’d been slightly chubby prior to this time, though nothing more than the normal pre-growth spurt baby fat. When the weight doubled down and grew in junior high, everyone figured I was going to be a late bloomer. This had very little genetic basis, however, as my father at 5’4 and mother at 5’0 provided little vertical promise. The exact date is fuzzy but I believe we upgraded to DSL around when I was a freshman in high school. And then the issues began.
My high school days were rife with body dysmorphia, alienation, and extra credit work for Lit studies. I have a very specific memory from early high school or before. I was clothes shopping because I desperately needed to discard my sagging Bugle Boy huskies. The day before, a boy at school — one that I happened to have a major crush on — wore a shirt made from a silky smooth material that accentuated his pecs. While shopping, I found a shirt that matched in color and felt exactly how I’d imagined his did. I was so nervous and excited, despite the feeling that I was doing something embarrassing or even shameful. And then I reached the dressing room.
I tried on the shirt facing opposite the mirror.
And then I turned.
It is the starkest early memory of the hatred which I regularly direct at my body.
This hatred attached itself to me, never leaving my side for nearly two decades. I learned to loathe cameras, checked the mirror a lot, and developed a bitter sarcasm that would serve as my primary mode of communication. Concurrently, puberty governed me into sexual predilections inversely proportionate to the good Christian boy I was meant to be. Hours spent observing nude men on the family computer multiplied the emotional anguish I secretly suffered. No one could know what I was, no one could find out about this. I just needed to get through high school and go away for college so I could change everything.
Throughout my childhood, the church community my family belonged to had created a constant state of security and familiarity. My parents began attending in both its and my infancies and a dedication of sorts was made. I had a full life, with many friends and acquaintances of all ages. Tuesday was open swim day at our in-ground pool, a weekly celebration that made me feel important and loved. There was no need for anything else, I was an integral part of a community and I had received free admission.
Everything changed when I began to learn of my inherent aberrance to the church’s beliefs and sensibilities. When I wanted to confide in someone, it was with horror that I realized how quickly I would be betrayed. But living a life of constant secrecy wreaks havoc on a person’s mind and soul. I began thinking cyclical prayers, constantly asking to be forgiven of my sins. It started infrequently, my guilt relieving when my prayers were vehement enough to assure me I wouldn’t screw up again. Much like a drug, I built a tolerance to this and the frequency increased. Soon, every time I thought a swear word or looked at a boy for too long, the pre-recorded message would play and I’d move on until the next slip.
I did end up going to college, albeit a Christian one, the stipulation my mother gave for my moving halfway across the country. Then a jaunt to Europe found me reconciling my “attractions” as I’d been calling them and came home almost a year later just before rolling out of the closet. I was so sure this would alleviate all of the anguish and pain that had been storing up during adolescence. I had never anticipated that it would actually make it much worse. I lost a significant amount of weight, dropping to a painfully thin amount before coming up a bit to a perfect medium. Despite the efforts to be healthy and stay in shape, I still saw myself exactly the same way as I had years before. I dated various men and slept with countless others, yet never found any extent of validation to be enough.
Something that did change from my teenage years was my relationship with the camera. In public, I still avoided lenses and dreaded the inevitable group shot at a party. But in private, I was a selfie nightmare. I had a presence on multiple “dating” sites and apps, with a regularly updated array of photos exposing parts and capturing angles. Having freed the sexual monster from within, I was my own porn addiction, never finding satisfaction in the onslaught of nude pics. When it came time to interact with virtual men, I would fixate on the ones who ignored me as a means to punish myself. I would look at the abs and pecs and cheekbones before flicking through my pathetic attempts to be sexy on my tiny phone screen.
I wanted so badly to be accepted into a community that wouldn’t have me. I tried to emulate all of the right parts to being a gay man, an attractive gay man, but I kept coming up short. I lacked these elements and this made me feel completely wrong. I began to wonder if I had made a mistake by leaving the church. It made me wonder if I had made a mistake to come out. Maybe I wasn’t really gay, or maybe I was but was supposed to deny it like some had suggested. I got pretty confused by it. And instead of using this as an opportunity to explore myself and figure this out, I convinced myself it was ridiculous and resumed my normal life.
What I wish I would have seen then is that all I did was take the one bit of me that I wasn’t allowed to be and made that all I wanted to be. I felt so free from the prohibitive belief system that I focused far too much effort on the aspect of myself that had been withheld. In effect, I watched a pot of water without turning on the burner. I was putting no thought or care into the rest of my personhood, so I had nothing more to present to people when I felt that I didn’t have enough. I continued running on fumes, not realizing I was already at a gas station. I’m sorry, I like metaphors a lot.
For so long, I couldn’t come upon a mirror without checking to see how I looked. Regardless of how good the image might have been, I could never appreciate what I saw, who I saw. I wanted to be someone else, to die and be reincarnated as someone sexy. I wanted to trade my brains for beauty, not caring if I was stupid if I could be wanted by the best people. And nothing else I had accomplished was worth the efforts, at least in my own mind. My college degree, my skills in massage therapy, nothing could show me worth in a convincing enough manner to successfully deter me from my constant barrage of self-deprecating epithets.
When I began my transition, I alleged that I knew I hadn’t started a process that would fix me. I knew it was what I needed to do for myself and who I was as a person was already changing for the better by the time I started taking hormones. Now, I believe a part of me knew I had unrealistic hopes, even if I did hide that from my consciousness. I didn’t want to obsess over this new stage of my life like I had in previous stages, so I ignored the temptations to fixate. For a while, this worked very well. I made mental progress first, which still continues today. Within a few months, the physical changes had begun and I was in full-fledged selfie monster mode.
What had been a private affair for my male persona became very public very quickly. I had been taking pics for a while anyway as I had done some marketing when I sold makeup for a minute. But the self-esteem rise and the changes from the estrogen had me at a whole new level. I occasionally questioned the boundaries of vanity but it didn’t usually last very long. A new makeup look, a new first for being a woman, any occasion was right for a selfie.
Along with the new purpose for posing and pursing my lips came a new audience. No longer did I need the approval of a man who wanted to stick his genitals in my face. I had people. Friends, family, strangers, anonymous Instagram profiles. I had people liking and commenting and following. It was glorious, a feeling I had never before encountered. I was feeling good about myself. It was almost jarring to see the complete overhaul on my phone from shirtless mirror pics and muscle men screenshots to full faces of makeup making kiss lips and hair extension color options. Regardless, they all shared a common mechanism: the desire to be affirmed. I still needed attention, I needed to know I was doing a good job, I was succeeding at transitioning the way people should.
This continued up until and after I met my partner, another trans woman, and moved to the Midwest to be with her. We posted photos together, selfies and otherwise, getting even more likes and comments and follows. And then things slowed as my progress normalized. Major events like my name change and the first bra had come and gone and my transition was beginning to feel like another mundane piece of my life. I was losing the feeling of being in love with this new me and all of the insecurities and anxieties flooded back. If I hit 50 likes on yesterday’s post but only 30 on today’s, I did something wrong. I began to compare myself to women, both cis and trans, and longed after certain features that I hadn’t felt I needed six months earlier.
I began to be consumed by all of the same negative aspects of my body that existed before. My belly skin, my flabby ass, my acne scars. These little pieces of me that I saw as flaws needing to be obliterated as soon as possible. Cis women had what I lacked and the trans women who were hitting closer to the mark than I were sources of great jealousy. I was suddenly “not doing enough” to make this process happen both speedily and beautifully. I needed to look absolutely different from what I was before.
This brings us to now.
My partner had a breast augmentation a month ago. They already look fantastic and she is incredibly happy with her decision and the results thus far. I took care of her during recovery, a task I was ready and glad to fulfill for her. I love her deeply and want the best for her. And wanting to do everything I can for her is another new feeling that’s been having me all warm and fuzzy lately.
When she began to talk about having her surgery a couple of months before, then actually picked the date, I started to feel horrible. All of the comparisons I’d been making now focused on the two of us. I suddenly began looking at procedures and enhancements I could have done to look better and get further in my transition. What were once beautiful, proportionate breasts that I had grown myself were now “way too small” lumps of flesh that needed to be stuffed.
I was, and am, very happy for her. But this consistent comparison wouldn’t leave me alone. We’ve discussed quite a bit, as she has also experienced this with the two of us. She holds nothing against me and knows it is a process I will continue to go through. I know, though, that being online amongst others online has become more harmful than helpful to me for the time being. That I could get to the point of feeling this way about my partner, the love of my life, was the last bit I needed.
On the night of her surgery, once we were back at our hotel room and she was resting soundly, I deactivated my Facebook and Instagram. Not only had I been feeling disingenuous when posting pics, I had friends who were dealing with similar issues to mine, reinforcing the sentiments every time I read them.
Not good enough.
I’ve had it. I’ve taken breaks from social media before but this time, I don’t miss it at all. I have no inklings to go back. I don’t miss posting selfies. I don’t miss seeing others’.
The internet and I have had a very unhealthy relationship for a very long time. Forbidden desires and impossible standards have been our primary topics of conversation. The men I wasn’t allowed to lust after, their bodies polar opposite to mine. Then, the men I couldn’t have, the ones who wouldn’t have me, with their bodies that emulated the perfect ones from before. And finally, the women I’m not, the ones I think are better than me, the ones who show me I’ll never be who I want to be.
That is where I’ve found my motivation to be. To become better than myself to have the ones I want, to look like the ones I envy. Starving myself to a mere 100lbs, lowering my standards just a little at a time, convincing myself that I need surgeries to fit the right way. I’ve been trying to fit myself into identities I’ve discovered predominantly online. Images of genetically perfect specimens, photoshopped beauties, all creating a sense of a person who isn’t real. And I have been falling for it for the better part of 20 years. For 20 years, I have reduced myself to my body. For 20 years, I have barred myself from enjoying life the way I deserve.
In this day of body positivity and equal representation in media, the message rings out: all bodies are beautiful. I’m going to be one to start saying “my body is.” Period. I keep wanting to love myself for all of who I am, though I don’t have as much of an idea of who that is as I would like. I can’t keep looking to my body for who I am, regardless of how universally beautiful it might be. It is in between, a hybrid of sorts. I am unfinished. But I am also scarred from what has passed. It is a bizarre, grotesque, and sometimes frightening conglomeration of events and landmarks.
Supposing this body is lovable anyway, as my partner continues to assure me, maybe it’s time I get that out of the way. Instead of displaying photos with filters and mascara and cleavage to garner likes by strangers, I could start tending to other outlets. Much of my life has been spent with a phone in front of my face, and a lot more hoping for people to tell me that I’m pretty. And then I wonder why I can’t think of an answer when asked about my favorite hobbies.
I’d like to round this off with an open breakup letter to social media:
Dear Social Media,
I’ve asked you here today to discuss a delicate matter that we’ve been needing to address for quite some time. I think we both know where things have been going, yet I’d like to be civilized and end this amicably. Succinctly, at the very least.
When we met back in 2005, I a college freshman and you still only accessible by college students, it seemed as though a whole new world had opened up. We made a lot of new friends we hadn’t even met on campus yet. We were able to share jokes and say hi on people’s walls. We could even send a friendly poke to a stranger! Our future seemed bright.
And then came photos. Oh, how wonderful it was to upload the silly faces, the field trips to CVS, and the food fails in the cafeteria. Then, things began to shift a bit as other people used this as an opportunity to show off. Perfect poses, expertly plated dinners, and babies with just the slightest twinkle in their eye started to fill feeds, especially once you went public. I still hold this decision against you, one of our greatest squabbles to date.
But anyway, I digress. Our relationship was solid for a long time. But then, things began to shift. There was only so much blending and highlighting I could do to keep up with other beauties. There were only so many times I could post a picture and then agonize over how much I wanted to change. Already struggling with patience, the test got significantly harder as I was faced with where I was in that moment compared to where I wished I could get to.
All this is to say, in clichéd fashion, it truly is me and not you. I have issues with comparison, self-worth, dysphoria, dysmorphia, anxiety, and jealousy. Continuing to see each other is getting bad for my health, as I consistently return to a low state after a scroll session through your feed.
I gotta take some time for me. I want to be better, but I need to figure out how and in what ways. And I need to do that without you, at least for now. I’m addicted to feeling shitty and you just make it too easy to succumb to temptation.
Maybe, someday, we can be friends. But for now, you will have to get on without me.
Be well, always,