Even in an age when sharing mundane details online is standard, it’s easier than ever to control the way others see usuntil, as people often say on social media, someone’s been “exposed.” Welcome to Exposed, a monthly column where author and activist Chris Stedman invites you to get a little more vulnerable.
This month Alana, an author who lives in upstate New York, shared her story with Chris over the phone.
Alana’s Christmas wasn’t supposed to be like this.
She and a guy she’d been dating for five months had made Christmas plans to see a matinee of Selma, then get an early dinner in his neighborhood. On Christmas Eve, Alana continued their ongoing text conversation as usual from her office in Chelsea and asked to confirm the next day’s plans. He didn’t text back.
That evening, as she grew more concerned, she stopped by the hair salon where a good friend worked and they went to a bar. Worried that something might actually be wrong with him, Alana had her friend text him: “Hey, are you coming through tonight?” He wouldn’t know the number and was easily enticed by the prospect of plans. He replied to the stranger’s number within a minute, proving that he was intentionally blowing Alana off.
By the time Alana realized she’d been ditched, it was too late for her to make other plans. Her family lived on the opposite coast, and most of her friends were out of town visiting their families. So she spent the next dayher favorite day of the yearwith her cat as her only company.
Yet Alana’s family and friends had no idea, because she spent Christmas posting selfies previously taken with her friend in front of the shiny red bows and tinseled trees of midtown Manhattan holiday decorations. Alana didn’t want her friends and especially her family, who knew of her deep and abiding love for the holiday, to worry about the fact that she was celebrating it alone. The holiday season can be a particularly sensitive time of the year, when feelings of stress and isolation often increase sharply even among those who have loved ones to gather with, and Alana felt an especially strong desire to shield her family from the difficulties of her life.
But she also did this for herself. Long before that Christmas, Alana decided that her social media feeds couldn’t and shouldn’t be completely accurate depictions of her life. Instead, she started thinking of them as aspirational spacesplatforms to put forward a better version of herself, like most of us do when we clean up our apartment before having friends over or put on our fanciest dress before going to a party.
Like Alana, I believe there is something very genuine about posting images and text on social media that some people might consider “trying too hard.” Sharing curated highlights from your lifeas people have always done, whether through family photo albums that mostly document the fondest memories, or Christmas letters describing new grandchildren and the vacation to Disney Worlddoesn’t have to be intentionally deceptive. So often our social media feeds are an avalanche of bad news, and there’s nothing wrong with using them to celebrate your joys and lift up your best moments (or best angles).
Sharing highlights can also be a way of casting a beacon out to the people you care about to say: Yes, I’m going through some hard things, but things are alright. Look at these moments of happiness! I’m alive.
When Alana is having a really tough time, she’ll post on social media as proof of lifeeven something simple like a picture of a salad she made, with a beautiful filter that makes the red tomatoes from the farmers market pop and shine.
I’ve done this during difficult periods, too. People aren’t always very responsive to posts that are raw and sad, and if a vulnerable post goes unanswered, it can compound feelings of isolation. This summer, when I withdrew from the world during a particularly awful experience with parasitic scabies and wasn’t ready to share all of the details of my physical and psychological agony, I would sometimes post on social media just to remind myself and others that I still existed. While they were occasionally a way to hide my pain, a funny tweet or an Instagram post of my dog grinning happily also allowed me to show myself and others that, even in this dark time, I was having moments of levityjoy, even.
Sharing highlights can be a way of not only being generous toward those you care aboutof protecting them from difficult experiences they can’t help you with, like Alana’s Christmas alone or my scabiesbut also a way to be kind and caring toward yourself.
For Alana, treating social media in a manner protective of herself and others felt especially important after an experience she’d had earlier that same year. In July, after ending a relationship, her ex had become violent and threatening. While he had never used her job at a strip club against her before, he began insinuating that there were various harmful ways he could use that information. He was also in possession of both suggestive and explicit photos of her.
Determined that no one but her would profit socially or monetarily off of her body and her story, Alana casually tweeted about her experiences with sex worka facet of her life that she had only shared with a few friends up to that point. She also revealed herself to be the person behind a Tumblr account where she mostly posted funny anecdotes about her work in the club, as well as the occasional NSFW photo with her face blurred. When she hit post, she felt a profound sense of relief that she would be the one to determine how her own history was used.
While that experience might have understandably driven some off of social media for good, Alana still regularly posts pictures of herself on Twitter and Instagrameverything from the honest truth to the highlights. And just like her ex did, men continue to use her image as a weapon against her. Because of her writing on feminism, she’s had “Men’s Rights Activists” and “Pick-Up Artists” target her with elaborate takedowns on popular forums and websites. One of the milder posts called her “a case study in the feminist-fueled, decay, rot and decline of Western culture and society.”
Often they will upload pictures she has taken of herself in order to collectively pick apart her appearance.
Even outside of these jarring attack posts, if Alana posts a picture with no makeup, some men will say she’s ugly. And if she puts makeup on, or uses a filter on her photo, men will give their unsolicited preference that they actually like a “natural look.”
While these kinds of responses are uniquely or at least more commonly directed at women, all of us experience elements of this on social media. If you post that your life is falling apart, some people will suggest that maybe you should keep that stuff to yourself. If you post only the highlights, people will call you fake. So the best you can do is attempt to strike a balance.
I’m still learning how to do that, but posting selfies has actually helped.
For years, I would sneer and roll my eyes at them, considering them narcissistic or self-involved. But after my longest relationship ended last year and I wanted to start putting myself out there again, I finally joined Instagram. I found that posting pictures of myself and events in my life helped me grow in confidence and connect with others as I re-entered the world.
Taking and sharing selfies began as a way to work my way through a break up that left me devastated, but it has since become a powerful means to push back against my body dysmorphia, insecurities, and the heteronormative cultural narratives I’ve internalized about what men are supposed to look like and who we are supposed to be. Selfies can sometimes be a tool for hidingfor curating a self that is hyper-real or even intentionally deceptivebut for members of marginalized or demonized communities, like LGBTQ people and sex workers, they can also be a vehicle to radically assert that you exist and that you belong.
Social media can often feel dehumanizing and disembodiedwe don’t have to see the physical reactions of the people we’re talking to, how our words cause them to wince, shrink, or even crybut it doesn’t have to feel this way. It can actually be a space to share our bodies with one another; to take back some of our power in a world that wants to weaponize our bodies against us and shame us for how we use them, pushing back against these narratives by unashamedly treating social media as an embodied and aspirational space can be a powerful gift to yourself and others.
For many who celebrate it, Christmas isn’t about Jesus or Santa. It’s about bringing light to the darkest season of the yearabout creating time to gather with loved ones and focus our thoughts on the things we have to celebrate. It’s just one day, and life will still be hard on the other side. But there’s nothing fake about carving out space for joy, whether through a holiday or the words and images we choose to share on social media.
This Christmas, Alana will be decidedly not alone, instead surrounded by the loved ones she wanted to protect a few years ago. And as she unwraps presents under glowing lights, you better believe she’ll be posting lots and lots of pictures.
Want to get exposed? Email Chris at [email protected] with a short description of a time when you felt truly vulnerablein either a positive or a painful way (or both).
Want more? Check out previous installments of Exposed here, here, and here.
Image via Getty