As one of the first generation of women to age digitally, author Megan Angelo is not just wrinkle obsessing but says social media has stunted our internal growth too
If you start at the beginning and click through all of the pictures of me online, you might only see a visual saga—the story a woman who, in the face of staggering evidence to the contrary, believes, deep down, she’s supposed to have bangs. But I see myself ageing fifteen years in ninety seconds.
I for one, am haunted on nearly a daily basis. The apparitions are terrifying, and always there, piling up on social media: There’s bridal me, bridesmaid me, pregnant me. Going out every night in New York before children me, not-a-care-in-the-world-what-are-cares-me, in college. There’s teenage ballerina me, courtesy of someone who has a photo scanner. There’s the me who used to love that jumpsuit that no longer fits, the me who had a column in a magazine that’s no longer in print.
I used to use social media to snoop on other people; now, all too often, I use it to stalk my former selves. The nearness of those ghosts is messing deeply with the way I grow older. I wonder, as I scroll: Why has my skin deflated? (Cue me toppling into a serums e-commerce hole.) How was my hair that full? (Surely, if I just browse two or three thousand haircuts on Pinterest, I’ll find the key to replicating the volume.) When did I stop making such nice efforts to get out, to do my makeup daily? (Witness me resolving to do both things more, despite knowing full well that I have three children under five.)
I’m not the first thirty-five-year-old woman to obsess about what she used to look like. But I am part of the first generation of women to have fewer of those old photos in a shoebox on a shelf and more of them sitting on platforms I visit every day. Which can screw with one’s head: when it’s so easy to click over to your former, bouncy-skinned self, it’s hard to understand why it’s impossible, now, to hold yourself to that standard.
I didn’t imagine I’d end up here, when I got on social media. I can remember the day I joined Facebook. It was 2003. I was in my second year at college, sitting at the desk bolted into the wall of my dorm room. If my friends and I didn’t click accept at the exact same moment, cult-suicide style, I’m sure we came close. Facebook had just widened its ranks to include our school, and we cared only about what it could do for us within the world we already knew. Maybe it would give us more info about the guys we liked on campus, or give us clues as to who had partied where the night before. (As a contacts list, it was supplementary: We had a paper facebook, lowercase-f, filled with the pictures and hometowns and landline extensions of everyone in our class.) I had no interest in meeting anyone new, or advertising myself. I didn’t upload a profile photo for week – digital cameras, what a hassle! – and I certainly couldn’t conceive of a future in which all my aunts would show up and poke me. I didn’t imagine a future at all. Facebook, I thought, was a college thing. Like party themes with ‘ho’ in the name and pizza fries at 3am.
But here we are, in the year 2020, and I am still on Facebook, along with Twitter and Instagram. Social media is the longest and least intentional long-term commitment of my life. And I think it’s hurt my ageing process more than the sun and those aforementioned fries combined. It’s not just the wrinkles-related obsessing; it’s stunted my internal growth, too. There’s an arc to this habit I’ve had, for decades now, of seeing everyone I know online: When I was in college, it was perfectly natural. Why, I’d just been with my high school friends all day, every day, a minute ago. When I was in my twenties, it seemed necessary – how else, but social media, to keep up with all the jobs and engagements? My thirties is where things have gotten weird. I’ve been watching these people now for so many years since I actually, physically knew them. Decades-old events and reputations inform my context of full-grown adults. Of course, I think, reviewing an old classmate’s holiday family photos. She always had to have everything just perfect. Remember the Halloween parade float debacle of ’99? On the internet, I am never not seventeen. Which is not a good thing when, as soon as you look up from your phone, you’re supposed to be thirty-five. I suspect that it won’t be any more flattering when I’m fifty, sixty, seventy.
So how, as the first generation of women ageing digitally, do we put the past away? A shoebox on the closet shelf doesn’t work. We don’t have anything to put in it. It’s all online, and if we detag or deactivate, we’ve just erased a half-life’s worth of memories.
What I’m working on, instead, is trying to detach. To try to see everyone, including myself, as people who grow and change and age because we’re actually supposed to. To accept that the ghosts aren’t going anywhere. To ignore them, for the most part- I routinely un-install Facebook from my phone, for a break- and to try to reframe their presence when I fail. They’re evidence of how lucky I am to have been alive this long, in an able body, enjoying so many experiences, meeting so many people. And they’re good reminders not to get bangs. The temptation never goes away.
* Followers by Megan Angelo, £7.99 (HQ, HarperCollins) is on sale now