008: Like For Life
A few weeks ago I did something so mortifying that I needed to push it to the far recesses of my mind – addressing it would require wading through the thick of the shame. My husband and I had gone out for an evening walk, and like any (in)sane person would, I dressed up for the occasion, as I am wont to do. If we've not been introduced before, I'm a bit of a fashion enthusiast, and so I put together a look composed of a quilted white sleeveless top and a pink, red, orange and beige-gold swirl of a long A-line skirt, a summertime sorbet palette. Both the top and the skirt were by Chanel from the early 2000s. Colloquially speaking, both pieces were a score, the stuff of a thrifter's dream, and after a particularly difficult week, putting on my armor served as a reminder to me of the good parts of myself, of the worthy parts, the ones I often neglect to see or forget to find.
At some point during our walk, my husband offered – without any coercion – to take a photo of me as the sun began its descent. This came as a surprise, because my husband is the kind of person whose heart, more often than not, is struck with terror at the very request for a photo. I seized the opportunity. Why not? I was looking good and feeling good and in the photos he took of me, my very first thought was not, "I look like a gnome." A few days later I shared the photos to my Instagram as I am dutifully inclined to do after a no-budget, one-woman (and one reluctant husband) photoshoot dedicated to a look I am fond of and – hopefully – prompts conversation. I refreshed my notifications a few times in the first minute, the likes slow to roll in, and then set aside my phone. After a few hours, I returned to it to find that it, the photo, not I, received all of thirty-odd likes. I deleted it and felt low for days.
Like most strange and moderately misfit children of the 90s raised in strict households, I grew up with the Internet. To grow up with the Internet did not mean to merely have a literal connection to it: it was a space to sort through the chaos of life and understand oneself, to express all that one could not be or do within the realm of the socially scripted every day. The Internet for me was a space where I could finally stretch out as far as possible, feel relief and stave off isolation, and most importantly, find community.
The first online community I joined was named AlterMetal, which was founded by a small group of people from Dhaka who loved music so sincerely, and who I suspect were also stretching and seeking. My high-school boyfriend and I first met in the midst of its forums. Though we had passed each other numerous times on the stairs and through the hallways in school, we would find each other as anonymous entities in discussion boards where I could give life to hidden parts of myself that were foreign to the script. There I was neither boy nor girl, I was not pretty, ugly, sexy, fat, skinny, popular or a loser. I was only a music lover, thrilled to share new songs and bands I'd come across, delighted to learn and absorb all that my fellow members offered. Because I was a teenager who rarely had opportunities to experience life beyond the boundaries of school and home, AlterMetal allowed me a connection to a world I otherwise would not have been able to access. There I discovered love (and eventual tremendous heartbreak), belonging, and a space to communicate, share and nurture my passions, the groundwork of community.
Since my adolescence, I've been a member of several online communities that served as homes for my interests and as sites of self-expression. They have given me comfort during periods of total loneliness and isolation, but beyond escape they have been my informal educators and facilitators of community both on and offline. When I was eighteen and had discovered an entire universe that existed online devoted to fashion, spaces where those with encyclopedic knowledge of fashion could exhale and no longer feel like repositories of useless information, spaces where everything from the craft to the fine details of a look mattered and provoked discussion, it was a beatific moment for me. To those around me who perceived fashion as being strictly utilitarian, it was a wholly unserious business, and I shied away from conversing about it. To myself, the fashion industry was majestic, but as a Bangladeshi Muslim girl, I saw limited room for myself within it. The digital fashion universe, which consisted of blogs and forums like Chictopia and LOOKBOOK.NU, gave me room to be a part of fashion dialogue in a way I may otherwise have never been granted. Virtually (and literally) anyone could join, and it was one of the first instances where I'd witnessed people of color converge, claim authority and take up space in the realm of fashion. Lulu And Your Mom, Susie Bubble, KarenBritChick – they were my North Stars of Fashion.
The trouble arises when community is exploited for commerce and becomes a place of competition. The exchange of capital dilutes a sense of belonging and alienates those who cannot pay the price. Though the concept of "likes" was not unfamiliar to the online communities I was a part of, there was a difference in the way I comprehended them. On Chictopia, I perceived likes as a celebration and encouragement of our weird and wonderful selves. On Facebook, however, which was crowded with people from whom I'd sought solace in digital spaces, likes contained the ickiness of the need and fulfillment of validation. Where one was authentic, the other was performative. For a while, I paid no heed to my likes on Instagram, that is, until that moment when whoever came to the realization that community could be monetized. This, I think, was the death knell for collectivity and belonging and possibility within fashion, when community was cast aside and sold for parts, and in its place rose individualism, the promise of a new American Dream. May the best performance win.
I must confess, the age of influence seemed attractive to me. Tired of working demeaning jobs and feeling like I was fighting for my dignity within the workplace, I hungered to parlay likes and a considered aesthetic into a career. I could already tell stories! For a while I rather deludedly strove to convert the words and images I once shared with the purpose and intent of connection and exchange into content, believing it would allow me to join the ranks of influencers jetting about the world and sitting front-row. Eventually I came to understand that because of who I was and where I came from, it would be nearly impossible to be granted access to this world. Yet I found it difficult to differentiate my own authenticity from performance, and likes possessed so much social currency – it could determine where you worked, who you wrote for, who your friends would be for the season – that the motivation for more was deeply ingrained within me.
I was being dishonest to myself, dressing and speaking performatively. Surrendering agency over my own self-expression to an artificial construct of validation, I forgot that I had joined the platform to feel liberated and to connect with kindred spirits, the way it had once been on digital communities. I was no longer posting photos of outfits, talking about fashion and culture and politics because I wanted to, but instead to tally likes as a measure of my self-worth. I was once again that isolated little girl desperate to be liked, the medium where I had found warmth and belonging and hope no longer a respite. It's difficult to extract oneself from seeking validation, particularly when it is so dominant, no, when it shapes our current culture. Though I remind myself each day like a mantra that clothes, bags, shoes, looks – the tangible, the material or superficial – have nothing to do with self-worth (though they are indeed worth something: money, social currency), it has become entangled with my understanding of worthiness which has been cultivated online, compounded by an algorithm that gives and then takes away, one that rewards homogeneity or constant competition, marked by a need to constantly be online, and not thoughtfulness and creativity.
I am embarrassed to admit that it took quantifying my worth with likes, a week-long spiral of plummeting self-esteem and worth to identify that something was very, very unhealthy with the role that Instagram has increasingly played in my life. What's wrong with me? Nothing, I have to remind myself, except that I am operating and unlearning within a system where societal perception of self-worth and talent has been artificially manufactured by men playing their hand at god. All I can do for myself is to stop ceding my value to likes, reclaim the tiny space on the Internet I'd carved out for myself for joy and friendship, and allow myself to be weird and curious and free, algorithm be damned.
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