I don’t know you, let me make that clear. I only found you because I clicked on a certain hashtag, or a location, or a tagged handle in a friend’s photo, which led me to another profile, which led me to another profile, which led me to you. You’re not a celebrity, at least not in the sense that you have the blue verified badge next to your name and over a million followers. But you have something, something unnamable, that makes people want to follow.
I’ve shown pictures of you to my hairdresser so I can ask, “Will you make me look like that?” I’ve looked up the locations of restaurants where you’ve eaten, clubs where you’ve taken shots, so I can see the prices on the menu. I know when you have a new relationship, or have gotten a haircut, or have started a juice cleanse, and every time you recycle or delete or repost a picture, I feel smug, as though I’ve caught you in the act, as though I have you figured out.
I’ll go through phases where I check in on your once a week, or every day, or sometimes months will pass by because I’ve forgotten about you (sorry) but then I’ll remember you again and have dozens of new pictures at my perusal all at once, a rare gift. I imagine what it would be like to see you walking down the sidewalk or from across a bar, but perhaps I wouldn’t even recognize you without a carefully selected filter and a FaceTuned mask, without your being able to control the contrast and saturation and color of your surroundings.
You’re a member of an NBA dance team. You teach SoulCycle. You’re a sophomore at the college I graduated from three years ago who appears to be on an eternal Spring Break. You create smoothie recipes, or you’re a reigning beauty queen, or you have abdominal muscles that make me pinch my own soft belly with almost vindictive envy. I watch you do aerial yoga and keg stands and fouetté turns and kissy faces. Maybe you’re not beautiful, at least in the conventional sense (not that I could say what conventional beauty is anymore). But I can’t stop looking at you. Wide-hipped or narrow, muscular or delicate, exhibitionist or demure or twee or drunk, all of you share one thing: you’re unapologetic. You know that I’m looking at you, and you like it.
That’s not to say you’re self-absorbed, but undoubtedly some of you are. It’s an art, maintaining your presence. You know I am watching, and so you feel the compulsion to perform. But who took that picture of you from behind, kneeling in the sand, the twin peaks of your ass perched on your bare feet? Who had the patience to film you clinking glasses with your (equally beautiful) friend over and over for last night’s Boomerang? Who were you able to commandeer into capturing your sultry grin as you slid a piece of sushi into your mouth? I have fantasies of my own perfect photos, of the images I desire to capture of myself and share with the digital world, but giving voice to those desires feels like the confession of a lurid sex act. You’re not afraid to ask for what you want, and humility is an inevitable sacrifice.
I apologize for everything. I’m sorry that my breasts aren’t bigger and that the heels I wear aren’t higher and that my arms are either not skinny enough or not muscular enough, depending on the day. I’ve dyed my hair a different color every year since I was 16. I’ve bought a dozen different facial masks from Sephora and use them nightly on a rotating basis. I spent 40 dollars on Matcha green tea powder and couldn’t even choke down a tablespoon’s worth. But still, I’m not who I want to be. I want to be posed next to a spin bike in a sports bra, hard-bodied and flexing. I want to be on the bow of a ship, my butt cheeks and boobs spilling from my bikini and a beer in my hand. I want to be a precious bride in white lace peeking up from a bouquet, so ethereal and unblemished that no one could possibly scroll by without double-tapping my poreless face. I want to collect likes and comments like coins, each “beautiful!” and “stunning!” and fire emoji bringing me a little bit closer to feeling something like content.
Sometimes my friends and I talk about you like you’re someone we know. We discuss the bandage dress with the racy cutouts that you wore last Friday, or the sun tattoo that you got around your belly button just in time for Coachella. Your wedding ‘grams gave us fodder for months—the way your hair was crowned with wild flowers, the Alexander McQueen gown that half of us liked and half of us thought was kind of slutty for a church. “I love her,” we say, “I’m obsessed with her,” but our love isn’t sexual; it’s covetous. I look at each one of you and think, I would be happy if only I looked like you. But all of you are so different; it seems the only thing you all have in common, besides not feeling the need to apologize, is that none of you are me.
When I look at you, I feel lesser, and consequently, I feel mean. Hurling insults makes me feel powerful, even if those insults are just inside my own head. I criticize the width of your thighs, the hemline of your skirt. Slut feels good; so does gaunt, and obsessive, and vain. Stupid feels the best. Even when you pair your photo with a clever caption or you’re hoisting up a diploma in a cap and gown as indisputable evidence of your intellect, I want to feel that I have something over you, something you can’t forge. I hate thinking these things, but I can’t stop thinking them any more than I can stop looking at you. I wonder, is it unfair to think that an invitation for praise must also invite criticism? Can admiration and detestation coincide? I’ll show a picture of you to my boyfriend, say, “Isn’t she kind of fat? Would you ever date a girl that muscular?” Instead of validating my critique and assuring me that I am right and that you are wrong, he asks, “Who is that? Why are you even looking at her?” I don’t know. But I can’t stop.
When I can’t sleep at night, I’ll look at you. Sometimes I’m led down a black hole, and suddenly I’m three years deep into an account profiling hundreds of you bikini-clad women, naughty co-eds, all thongs and hips and smooth, tight midsections. Iridescent waist-length hair. Thick scoops of asses. Water nymphs of all shapes and sizes, each more sumptuous and scantily clad than the next. Hours later, the LED light of my iPhone having burned an ache in my temples, I’ll wonder how I got there, how it goes so late, why I suddenly feel that I might cry.
It’s not even that I think it’s real; I know it’s not. I’ve scrolled through too many fitness Instagrams where the model shows a split screen: here I am flexing with my leggings waistband pulled up past my belly button; now here I am relaxed and slouching, soft and supple just like you! But you’re not like me; none of you are. Some of you are disciplined and talented, some of you simply born into bodies that feel cruel not to share. We don’t ask what you eat for your meals, where you buy your clothes, how much you can bench press, or how many drinks you had last night, but when you tell us, we listen, and so you continue. You seduce us. We encourage you. Can you be at once self-aware and obsessed?
And yes, there is a ‘we,’ because I know I’m not alone; I can’t be alone. In the comments, guys tag other guys. Girls tag other girls. We all look; we all gawk. What would it be like to be looked at like that outside of the filter? Every day I find myself averting my eyes from the eyes of strangers, ducking my head, shying away. It’s more comfortable to be admired through the rear window than the front.
‘Selling yourself’—it’s a skill now, not a sin. Whether you’re an aspiring actress or food blogger or photographer or just plain photogenic, you’re forced to scream out your name, forced to demand recognition, command attention. Should you be faulted for screaming louder than me? Should you be shamed for wanting to be seen?
More times a day than I care to admit, I put my thumb to my screen to select the app and scroll through your pictures. How can so many of you be so rich? How can so many of you be so beautiful? My fiancé will watch me stare into my iPhone, say, “What are you looking at? Why do you spend so much time on there?” Because I can’t stop, I want to say. Because you are so impossibly fit and cool, and I don’t know who you are when you’re not posing for a picture—I don’t know whether you’re sad or lonely or scared, because you’re already thinking about your next post, and it seems that no matter what you’re doing or trying or experiencing you’re always thinking about your next post—but I just want you to know that I’m with you. That I’ve tried, but I can’t seem to look away.