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.
Sylvia sat on a friend’s couch and refreshed her Instagram profile, watching her follower count drop in real time. Confused, she went to her ex Micky’s profile, and right at the top she found the most likely source of this purge: A recently uploaded selfie in the apartment they used to share, accompanied by a sad caption.
Two years earlier the two had quickly fallen in love, and for a short time things were good. Sylvia felt like she’d found someone who understood her art, her sense of humor, and her fears. And building a chosen family felt important to her, so even when the relationship started becoming tumultuous, Sylvia decided to keep working on it.
Which is why, from the very beginning, she tried to set aside her discomfort with how public their relationship felt. Mickywho uses they/them pronounsconstantly posted pictures of them together, painting a picture of a loving couple that cooked, posed with their pets, and snuggled in pajamas. At first Sylvia was OK with it, even flattered, but it began to gnaw at her.
I’ve struggled with online PDA, too, especially when first dating someone. One time, when a guy I was seeing posted a picture of the two of us and tagged me, I had to force myself not to ask him to take it down. It’s not that I was ashamed of dating him. But after coming out of a nearly five-year relationship where we didn’t post many photos together online, I felt uncomfortable with strangers formulating opinions about who I was dating.
Sylvia felt a similar discomfort, and eventually it became impossible to shakeespecially because the image Micky was crafting of their relationship online seemed more and more at odds with reality. While their online story was one of domestic bliss, Micky was increasingly controlling.
If Sylvia posted a selfie, Micky was the first to comment. If someone else posted a comment, Micky would reply possessively: “Isn’t my girl beautiful?” Eventually Micky began to ask Sylvia to take down her selfies if they thought a picture might invite too much attention, even though their own profile was littered with pictures of her.
This kind of behavior spilled out into other areas of their lives, too. Micky became similarly hostile, aggressive, and jealous, which would often lead to a fight. After one of these arguments, Micky would criticize her online by posting vaguely worded updates only she would know were about her: like a line from a song (e.g., “you ain’t shit”) or a comment about how “difficult” women can be. Though most of their mutual followers didn’t know the subtweets were about her, whenever Sylvia’s friends liked one of these posts, it felt like they were being unknowingly turned against her.
During this time, she also grew increasingly uncomfortable with the way Micky’s (seemingly positive) posts about their relationship often cast Sylviawho is bisexual and identifies as femmein the role of a princess. They would caption their photos with statements like “she’s spoiled but I love her” or “when she needs you to hold her.” To Sylvia, the princess role morphed into that of a pampered brat, someone needy and helpless, even though she was actually often in a caretaking role in the relationship.
But she loved Micky, and found ways to rationalize it or brush it off.
Near the end of their relationshipas things began to fall apartMicky continued to post as if all was well. One night, when Micky was in the middle of a difficult week, Sylvia took them to one of their favorite restaurants and told them to order whatever they wanted. Micky posted pictures all throughout dinnerone of Sylvia holding a drink, another of the meal she’d bought thembut otherwise ignored Sylvia the entire time.
To the rest of the world, it looked like yet another romantic evening between a widely adored couple. But watching Micky sit on their phone while her food grew cold, Sylvia felt more alone than she had in years.
Soon after, things finally hit a breaking point.
When Micky was out of town on a trip, a number of Sylvia’s closest friends reached out to her and said they were worried. They hadn’t seen Sylvia in months because Micky didn’t want her hanging out with other people, and they were concerned about the way Micky talked to her when they did see her. Seeing her relationship through friends’ eyes, Sylvia knew things had to change. When Micky returned, Sylvia said she wasn’t happy and went to stay with a friend.
For weeks Micky begged Sylvia to come back. She would consider it, only to change her mind when they replied to her Instagram stories asking how she could possibly hang out with friends while they were breaking up. For Sylvia, the final straw came when Micky responded to an Instagram story of Sylvia hanging out with a friend by accusing her of sleeping with that person. She denied it, but Micky’s response sent a shiver down her spine: “You can do whatever you want, but know that I’m watching you.”
Sylvia blocked them after that, but Micky texted her begging her to unblock them, saying the two of them owed each other more than that. Sylvia, deeply unsure but still in love, unblocked Micky. Fifteen minutes later, they blocked her.
Yet even as Micky drove the break-up narrative online by posting selfies that seemed designed to garner sympathy, Sylvia didn’t want to retaliate. So she kept her more vulnerable postsvideos where she talked about how devastated she was or pictures of the friends’ places she had to crash at while looking for a new homeoff her main feeds, relegating them to private messages for her closest friends. Devastated by losing the family she’d built, Sylvia posted celebratory pictures taken at parties to try to show herself that she could still have a good time.
Sure, like her ex, she wasn’t telling the full story online eitherbut it felt different from the seemingly intentionally dishonest way Micky had posted about the relationship and breakup. Sylvia was self-protectively keeping her pain close and highlighting her happiness, but she wasn’t lying.
Yet that seemed to make things worse. Their mutual followers contrasted the pain her ex was sharing online with the fact that Sylvia was mostly posting about hanging out with friends.
It became clear that the way Sylvia had been portrayed by Micky in their relationship was informing how people saw the breakup. Sylvia had worked hard to hide the less flattering things about Micky and their relationship for Micky’s sake, even while her former partner had misrepresented her identity to discredit her. And given Sylvia’s relative social media silence about the break up, people who followed the relationship for years began to fill in the gaps. Just as Sylvia the princess had become Sylvia the brat, Sylvia the brat became Sylvia the bitch.
That people could just unfollow Sylvia after it was done, after being so seemingly invested in the relationship, showed her that these people didn’t care that much about the individuals in the relationship; they cared about what the relationship represented to them. Though she had felt connected to her followers, realizing this helped her see that the people who removed her from their feeds didn’t really know her anyway.
Navigating major breakups on social media can feel impossible. While my ex posted a dimly-lit photo of the windows in our bedroom with a caption about endings as our relationship came undone, I tried to focus on the positives, much like Sylvia. I posted pictures of delicious food, my cute dog, or fun moments with friends to prove to myself that I could still be OK even as my life fell apart. It’s only now, years later, that I wonder what story our mutual acquaintances formulated about us at the time, seeing my ex post painful personal reflections while I didn’t.
Though it was profoundly difficult at first, Sylvia eventually realized that a lot of how other people responded to the breakup was out of her hands. She could control what she shared online, but she couldn’t control how others interpreted it. Micky had brought their relationship and breakup to social media, but Sylvia didn’t have to navigate it on those terms. And so she started asking herself: Why do I feel like I need to fight for my image? How does that serve me? Who is it for?
This is ultimately what brought Sylvia to a place of healing: By choosing not to engage on Micky’s terms, she was able to honor and reclaim her vulnerability.
During her relationship, her vulnerability had felt like a weakness; she felt like an accessory to someone else’s image, like a beautiful doll that only came alive in another person’s hands. But eventually Sylvia realized that this softness was, in fact, a strengthbeing soft made her generous, kind, and a caretaker. While it may have given Micky the upper hand during their breakup, deciding she didn’t need to prove anything to others helped Sylvia move on from the ordeal.
Today Sylvia is more private than ever online. While she loves social media, she doesn’t want observers to be rooting for a relationship she’s inor to have any opinions on it at all, really. If everyone is a nosy neighbor, Sylvia now knows that it’s not her job to mediate their feelings about her.
Sitting on her friend’s couch and watching her Instagram followers flee, Sylvia decided she was going to embrace her own kind of vulnerability. My softness isn’t weakness, she thought, and my exploitable parts are actually my favorite parts. Though Sylvia’s breakup was intensely painful, it brought her back to herself after years of someone else trying to dictate her narrativeand no unfollow could take that from her.
Want to get exposed? Email Chris at email@example.com 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 the previous installment of Exposed.