#114: Not at fashion week
New York Fashion Week ended last Friday and I didn’t attend a thing. Or actually, I did attend one event, but I’d forgotten it was fashion week and was shocked to discover people dressed in crisp, head-to-toe looks on a rooftop when I’d been expecting a dinky free-champagne-in-a-store affair. (A friend I ran into lied and said my sweaty t-shirt and ponytail made me look cool because it meant “I didn’t care,” which was untrue; I did care.) More accurately though, I didn’t attend fashion week this year because I wasn’t invited. I hadn’t intended to go, but still, this felt like an official closing of a chapter. I’ve never been a prominent character in the fashion scene, but I used to make it onto invite lists anyway because I worked at a cult media site and posted outfits on Instagram to a decent following. And now that I do neither, I’ve become invisible to PR people. No more freebies, no more exclusives—it’s only fair; I don’t have much to offer them in return.
Besides becoming a less economically useful vessel for brands, I’ve been thinking about what it means philosophically to become inactive in the public eye, or less visible. Granted, I write and podcast every week, so I’m not exactly unplugged. But since I rarely post photos of my clothes or apartment or activities, strangers no longer know what my day-to-day looks like, and even I can admit that’s the fun part of following someone. This has had the effect of making me more scarce in some people’s minds. This past birthday, when a bunch of friends apologized for forgetting it, I told them it was my fault for not posting about it.
My retreat was more incidental than fundamental. I haven’t sworn off aesthetic pursuits or caring what people think of me, I just no longer share the evidence. Sometimes, this de facto secrecy makes me uneasy. Every so often, I’m struck by the desire to refresh my now-outdated profiles to reflect improvements: better outfits, better tastes, better whatever. When we talk about paring back our social media use, losing the ability to publicly evolve isn’t usually top of mind. But it’s a strange and novel consequence—your online identity suspended in the last thing you posted—and it’s given me new angles to consider regarding the pursuit of privacy versus the pursuit of being known.
When I worked at Man Repeller, we used to joke that a good outfit didn’t happen if it didn’t make it to the internet. Posting a photo was less about bragging and more about completing the necessary social circuitry: exist in a pleasant way > share that pleasant existence with other people > receive validation for sharing. It’s similar to the reflex to take a photo of something beautiful, when merely walking away would feel incomplete. Documentation eases the psychic pain of time passing, of forgetting or being forgotten. Obviously this instinct has been exacerbated by technology, but there’s something human at the root of it. We want to participate, to belong, to be known, however those things manifest in our lifetimes. Posting is like microdosing legacy.
I distinctly remember the tension relief of updating my public identity when I felt things had gotten stale. You may or may not relate to that—things were very heightened for me for a while, when my income and career prospects were more tied up with my Instagram. But there was another kind of tension, too. I wanted to be known as a writer, not an influencer, and I was getting mixed messages about how to do that. The writers I loved the most didn’t post on Instagram, and yet I was told book publishers would want details on my social following before considering a proposal. Of course, those writers I loved were older—their careers established. I seemed to be writing in a time of transition.
If I’m honest though, the desire to be known or admired by strangers for how my life looked wasn’t just about my career. It was about my ego (needing my good parts to be acknowledged by outside sources) and about my fears (irrelevance, ostracization, being misunderstood as worse than I was, not being understood as better than I was). Obviously all this was an undercurrent to what I also found fun, often a subconscious one. But when you invest in your public image to address those concerns, you sign up for an ongoing project that requires consistent engagement. Fail to keep up and you’ve not only failed to capitalize on yourself, but now you’ve got decaying remnants of your old self scattered around like evidence at a crime scene, and the crime is that you appear to be washed.
This must be why Gen-Z is known to delete their posts. Old photos, old tweets. Nothing matters unless it was made recently, all inputs fresh and up to date. Savvy to the premium the internet places on the new, they understand that you’re only as real as the last thing you posted. Better to be unknown than to be known for something you aren’t anymore, which would go against the aspirational ethos of expressing yourself publicly on purpose. And you do have to be there on purpose. It was Jia Tolentino who framed this so memorably for me in Trick Mirror: “As a medium, the internet is defined by a built-in performance incentive. In real life, you can walk around living life and be visible to other people. But you can’t just walk around and be visible on the internet – for anyone to see you, you have to act. You have to communicate in order to maintain an internet presence.”
This is the snag in the fabric of online identity. You can’t merely exist, you have to exist there intentionally. To be known online is to be known for what you deem knowable about yourself filtered through the rigged engagement incentives of the platform owners. I remind myself of this every time I have the urge to post an update on Instagram: Being known by strangers on the internet feels nothing like being known by people in my offline life, or more crucially, by myself. I know too much about why I used to post to be able to post freely anymore. The subconscious became conscious, and it ruined everything. It’s not that it was only ever about social validation for me, but it was about that enough to make the whole thing feel like a campaign for my existence. Maybe one day I’ll find a better reason to post. Certainly other people have.
Getting to experience both sides—posting a lot and posting a little—has been useful. It’s proved to me what I suspected, which is that being active on Instagram, at least in the way I was, may have been doing something for my career, or my appeal to the PR machine, or my dopamine receptors in minute-long increments, but it wasn’t actually making me feel more known or understood as a human being. The gap only ever seemed to widen as the metrics for successfully representing myself became increasingly nuanced, buried under layers of performed irony. It was making me see myself as a commodity. It was making me paranoid. These days, I feel less watched, even just by myself.
I started writing all this down in the library. I swore to god I wasn’t going to write another newsletter about the internet being bad, because there are so many things I love about the internet, and would it kill me to write about one of those? But as I looked out at the window and saw a bunch of New Yorkers living their lives—construction workers hanging off the side of a building and laughing, a serious-looking guy yelling into his phone, a woman wiping ice cream off a kid’s cheek—I couldn’t help but think about how I’d never witness those things in the metaverse. There is no mere existence on the internet. There is no being known for who you idly or incidentally are. You have to show up and beg to be loved, then beg to be loved again, but for newer reasons.
On my way home, I passed by a fashion week party. In contrast to the New Yorkers I’d observed outside the library, the scene seemed to be constructed specifically for the outside gaze: structural, multi-layered outfits that read like sci-fi costumes, people standing in line as if posing to be immortalized, their eyes scanning the crowd for visual intel. They looked like living art, or living Instagram posts—the feed brought to life. I laughed remembering what I used to wear to fashion week: an oxford tied creatively over a silk dress; big swooshy nylon pants; black-and-white cowboy boots. I tried so hard to be fashionable that I forgot what I liked. I’d walk by the photographers, a stranger to myself, a rush of warmth in my body when they asked to take my picture.
My favorite thing I read this week was “Café Loup,” a short story by Ben Lerner for The New Yorker about a guy’s fear of choking, full of suspense and irony and something else a little devastating. Last week’s 15 things also included a Broadway show I actually loved (rare), the perfect Saturday morning house-cleaning music, and a bunch of reader recommendations for the perfect sweater.
Jury’s out on whether I’ll have a new podcast for you on Tuesday as I’m sadly under the weather. But in case you missed them, the last two eps were about disordered eating and how to ask better questions when you’re stuck. Next week, Dear Baby and Dear Danny are back, so make sure to get your questions in: written ones here, voicemails ones @ 802-404-BABY. Thank you as always for trusting us!
Hope you have a nice week,