The first snowfall in Cambridge brought in spun sugar flossing the bare trees, the Charles River calcifying into glass. We decided to be cliche and get bundled up in cashmere sweaters and trim peacoats and chunky knit scarves for the sole purpose of cute photos on social media. Afterwards, my Facebook feed with inundated with similar pictures: it appeared the entire freshman class of MIT had the same idea to play and pose in the snow.
We spend time prettifying our social media to display the persona we want. One of my friends went through girls’ Facebook profiles and categorized them as “dainty” or “coarse”. Girls with model-like headshots, the sunlight illuminating their skin, quiet smiles, were dainty. Another friend explained to me the rules of Instagram: you had to get likes, but not act like you cared about getting likes. You couldn’t post too many selfies or you’d look narcissistic. Cute or funny or cute-funny captions were a must.
And of course, there was the flip-side of all this perfection: the cringeworthy posts. Sometimes these manifested as political rants with questionable grammar, or shared photos from The Best of Tumblr and i flip my pillow to get to the cool side. Once, someone showed me an Instagram photo of a girl crying, with the hashtags #imsosad #iwanttodie attached. “It’s like watching a trainwreck in slow motion,” she said, shaking her head. “You just want to shake her by the shoulders and be like, ‘gurl, don’t!’”
I wonder why we ostracize pain and sadness in such a dismissive way. Why is it so embarrassing to read Sylvia Plath and write poetry where every other stanza begins with the word “poison” and stay in bed for hours because you can’t summon the energy to do anything else? Why are those who dare to blatantly ask for attention, who openly admit to suffering, condemned for such?
We disparage Taylor Swift for her perpetual state of the girlish distress that is almost synonymous with naive, self-involved sixteen-years-olds. Cringe videos on Youtube get millions of views and almost as many dislikes. A few months ago, I watched Jacob Sartorius’s music video for his song “Sweatshirt”--it had racked up thirty-seven million views and thousands of hateful comments towards the thirteen-year-old boy. Certainly the song wasn’t of any artistic merit, but it was harmless. The urge to cringe, as many commentators expressed, bloomed from disgust: how dare this kid think he’s any good? How dare he actually record this tuneless song, think it would be worth something, and post it online?
Or: how dare he try to create something? How dare he try to express himself? How dare he think that he is important?
Our rejection of others’ vulnerability might seem like a good way to protect ourselves. But truly, it leads to a toxic culture where we’re constantly scrutinizing each other, waiting to attack.
Rona Wang is eighteen years old and a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has won five national medals from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Her writing can be found in The Best Teen Writing of 2016 and 2014, The Sierra Nevada Review and The Adroit Journal.