Behind The Face: The Words You Leave Behind

A quick Google search using the words “vague emotional posts on Facebook” adds a brand spankin’ new word to my vocabulary- Vaguebooking. That search came after a good couple of weeks of pondering the practice of- either vaguely or overtly- pouring one’s emotions into such an intangible, transparent, infinitely expansive, and many times quite tenuous, form of relationship.

Yet another Google search using the words “overly emotional posts on Facebook” doesn’t give me any groovy new words, but it does give me a New York times article entitled “Lonely People Share Too Much On Facebook,” an article from The Atlantic titled “People Who Overshare On Facebook Just Want to Belong,” and the coup de grâce- an experiment from the National Academy of Sciences on a fuckawesomely-named phenomenon…. (get this)…. “emotional contagion.” Yes. Your  superfluous expression of emotion on social media is like Facebook bacteria.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Third grade science class teaches us that there are both good and bad bacteria, yet the previous two articles suggest that certain types of people tend to spread the bad kind purposefully, though I doubt many are doing it consciously.

That would certainly gibe with the “misery loves company” adage, though I think “anhedonia craves anodynia ” would be a kinder perception. On a second look, however, these surface judgments oversimplify what I have found is a much more esoteric paradox of human behavior.

The actual study of emotion will take you even farther down the rabbit hole. From some of the earliest studies of emotion, philosophers attached moral assessments to emotions which framed judgments on the fundamental flaws or assets of one’s personality. While many of those early claims seem unfair and inaccurate, society still does it today.

Think of those “Facebook friends” (and we all have them) who unabashedly spread their self-pity and victim mentality through their constant streams of “unspirational” memes about broken trust,  hurt feelings, loneliness, or channeling their inner strength. Inevitably, judgments abound.

“Poor me” is met with “Get the fuck over it.”

But, we must take a step back and think to ourselves- What if this person has no one else? What if their triple-digit friend list, true or no, is the entirety of their support system?

Then there are the awkward and seemingly pointless reminders of the anniversary of a loved one’s death. One year. Five years. Twenty years. Huh?!

I don’t even need to mention the passive-aggressive “vaguebooking” posts that are clearly directed at a specific person, unnamed, who crushed souls, ruined families, or broke hearts. Theoretically, such a person would be “unfriended” digitally as well as physically and emotionally, so who, exactly, are these posts targeting?

I’m not quite sure if the unspirational quotes and bible versus about stress and overcoming obstacles and finding happiness (and whatever else people concern themselves with enough to search for or share a meme) applies here, though they do make me wonder about the emotional health of a large majority of the population on social media.

Once again, it is quite possible that either the one who is posting or the one who is reading may need to share or hear the message. While it’s popular for all of us flat-affected emotional pirate chests to be truly curious about the use of social media as a sort of daily therapy, there remains this possibility- What if this is true? What if, for some people, it IS their daily therapy? The way they cope? The way they are reassured that similar souls with similar aches exist? The way they rest assured each evening, when their heads touch their pillows, that they are not alone in the world with their feels?

Without question, I have used Facebook to blow off steam, but looking back on any of my posts that I personally would consider catharsis, others would define at face value as humorous flotsam and jetsam of hashtag-first-world-problems. Touche.

Yet, when reading the posts from others that I would consider emotional bloodletting, or the airing of dirty laundry, or the yanking the skeletons from the closet to dance naked with them in the front yard, in all my pondering and reading, I have yet to determine what kind of response, exactly, these posts are attempting to elicit. A thumbs up? A “like”? An “I’m praying for you”?

And in all my pondering and reading, I have yet to discover why, exactly, these posts are being blasted out to a typical friend list of upward of 500+ people, 90% of whom we would never sit down with over coffee, much less regurgitate all of our woe and catastrophe. The purpose eludes me. Are they waiting with bated breath for the receiving line to form and pass them by, one-by-one, thumbs-upping, smiling, ensuring prayers are sent, begging for details that will never come?

Misery needs validation. A pat on the head. A hug. A squeeze of a hand and the reassurance that everything will work out in the end. In these specific instances, I can make a few hypotheses.  I believe there are some whose ability to self-soothe was either never fully developed in childhood or is so overwhelmed that it is rendered nonfunctional. There are some who truly are pathologically lonely, who believe that unhappiness is a state of being over which they have no control, a circumstance that has been put upon them by a big, bad world in which they have no redeeming qualities, an irreparable soul lost in an intolerable society that has no place for their perceived second-rate existence.

And those who publicly share the annual rite of mourning over the death of a loved one I cannot even begin to unravel. To publicize what I feel is probably the most intense and deeply gut-wrenching event that can befall any human being, on the anniversary of their death, EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR, plastered on the newsfeed of 200, 500, 1000+ individuals, MAYBE 25% of whom you’d share a meal with much less the emotions woven within the rope that ripped a beautiful life from your heart, is nothing more or less than the 21st century equivalent to a gruesome memento mori.

Without question, we all mourn death differently, but to lasso the entirety of your digital social life into your personal wake, whether you use the words “celebration of life” or “mourning of death” is unhealthy to say the least. If this is an emotional process that requires a support group for you to bear, find one.

Yet many of these emotional waterfalls do not want advice. They appreciate the hand you extend to them, the phone call or shoulder you offer on which they can cry, but any advice that alludes to their misconceptions or suppressed ability to grow and nurture themselves from within goes ignored, unheeded, or eschewed outright.

For some reason I will never understand, I believe they just want a stage, a safe stage in front of an audience who, with the exception of the rare brave soul, won’t tell them any of the things they need to hear but are all too eager to tell them all the things they want to hear.

For those who are inherent introverts such as myself, social media provides an outlet with a safety net of sorts- an equally safe stage yet for a different reason. Because I am not a typical introvert, not the kind whose personality adheres to all the “25 Things Introverts Wish You Understood” lists, I am only speaking for myself here. Social media in my eyes is life on my terms. My awkwardness is never denied, but I’m in control of the dumbassery that comes with face-to-face interaction. Anyone who knows me in both the tangible and intangible worlds will immediately recognize the difference in my ability to express myself in spoken words versus written words. Unless I am married to you, gave birth to you, was given birth to by you, or consider your friendship deeper than any DNA, I am actually a terrible conversationalist.

I look for exits in every situation. Afterward, I analyze every moment of a conversation for hours. I cringe at all the words I wanted to say but forgot. I  cringe at all the subjects I have avoided in conversations, subjects most people think I know nothing about because of the frayed and broken wires in my brain-to-mouth construct. I am probably one of the few people who show more of who I truly am online than I do face-to-face, but not because of anxiety or shame or lack of self confidence. Like all the other esoteric paradoxical differences in human behaviors when traveling between the two worlds, it is so much simpler than that. I simply need time.

I need time to organize my thoughts and piece them together. Even my most elementary ideas come in 1000 pieces.

I need time to consider my answers and their delivery. What most people may consider the clearest of answers to me requires the consideration and systematic review of a million different possibilities.

The Atlantic article up there is actually a study of how people use Facebook to express their “true selves,” and “qualities we’d like to be recognized for but that we normally find ourselves unable to express in day-to-day life.”

Hmm.. Ok. Fair enough.

Yet, it also goes on to state “people who felt that they were more truly themselves online were more likely to communicate with others on Facebook, disclose things about themselves, and post emotional updates about frustrations or drama.”

Yeah…. No.

But then I thought of something else. What if I don’t have drama?

I’m also one of those few people who actually know a good percentage of those included as a “friend” on Facebook. I know them in non-digital life. Many I am related to. Many I have known since I was 5 years old, some even younger. A few I am closer to than my own blood. They all know my “true self.” Many have seen it in all its ugly glory. Some have only heard about my ugly glory through stories I frame as a whimsical legacy of a girl who didn’t like herself once upon a time, so she changed her “true self.” But that was so long ago that I have no other frame of reference left to draw on other than whimsy and laughter.

Even though I hated her then, I love her now. All that she was, all that I changed- They are still strands of me, and she is beautiful.

I have no need or desire to post and tag anyone in misquoted inspirational, unspirational, despirational, or vaguespirational memes about relationships or politics or friendship or poverty or the million different right and wrong ways to raise our children. The fact that so few people have any idea that the attributes are either incorrect or completely out of context borders on hilarity.

I have no need or desire to emote on a global stage while, in face-to-face interaction, I’d only open that door to the Winchester Mystery House that is the umbra of me to less than a handful of people. That would mean that I am everything BUT real in any of the lives I live.

So, the question remains. What if I have no drama?

I’m either one incredibly lucky bitch, or my definition of drama extends as far as the pair of flip-flops my tiny little dog attempted to chew but just… couldn’t…. quite…. make it happen.

Or the two men-children that refuse to move out of my house.

Or the Social Security Disability office with whom we just won our fight.

Or the fact that we still have two mortgages.

Or…. or…. or…. ummm….. yeah.  I can’t think of anything else.

I’ve been told that I have rather thick skin. Perhaps those things that other women refer to as “drama” never even dawns on me as such? I give as much as I get, and usually wind up laughing at most of it and ignoring the rest.

Does that mean my id is a dispassionate tabula rasa whose tear ducts are suffering a drought on an apocalyptic scale?

No.  It simply means my tabula is none of Facebook’s business, and my rasa is buried far deeper than most people are willing to dig, which is exactly where I like it.

What if my true self prefers not to mourn publicly? Although I would never want to begrudge anyone the way they mourn best, I can see within myself that constant public displays of loss and grief, same words, same pictures, same person, year after year, would render my soul a bit stagnant. The broadcast itself is a bit unfair, as well. My first thought was an “unmediated dispersal” of pathos among a crowd of people who did not ask for it, but on second thought, it’s obvious. It’s “emotional contagion.” Although for most people it is done on a subconscious level and without malice, they are still inviting, without giving an opportunity to RSVP, everyone in their digital world to their pity party. Who are they targeting? Is it a cry for sympathy? Perhaps people feel the need to remind the world that this person existed, which I can conceptualize, but can also argue against. The world does not want or need to be reminded. The world carries on. It always will. But I will never forget my loss, and I certainly don’t need to remind anyone who I know will also never forget.

Perhaps people feel the need to use social media to nurture the legacy of their loved one. The concept of a legacy itself is quite interesting when you think about it. The minute a life ends, a legacy is born. While its definition lends itself more to the idea of an inheritance, in use, it is actually all the things, tangible and intangible, a person leaves behind. A legacy continues in perpetuity, as long as people remain who remember. Yet, when we invite strangers into a legacy in the hope of keeping it alive, people who may have never known those we lost, we’re creating a false legacy.  We are sensationalizing this person over and over again with little quips and remembrances that show up in newsfeeds in between pictures of people guzzling a pint of their home-brewed beer and someone’s kid’s high school graduation.

I prefer to preserve the sanctity of a life lived, the sanctity of my grief for the loss of that life, and the sanctity of a true legacy by keeping my remembrances on a pedestal far above anything as banal as Facebook.

Is it morally responsible to judge one’s character by the way they grieve? Although it is commonly heard that grief has no rules, I cannot help but disagree. There are healthy and quite unhealthy ways to grieve. There comes a point where, though you never forget, you do move on- or you should. There must also be a bridge one crosses in the grief process. On the other end of it exists a place where stories can be told with laughter, and the lives of those we lost can be remembered with a lighter heart and in the company of those with whom we’d rather smile than cry.

Of course I have emotions. I have all of them. If you can define an emotion, I have felt it. I’ve written about sadness, stress, and frustration on my blog in years past, though most of it was buried in fictional narrative, poetry, or metaphors. I posted on Facebook, complete with pictures from the hospital, when my son was shot on November 18,  2013 at 5: 13 in the afternoon, as well as his healing in the days afterward, though until just now, I’ve never spoken about it on my blog or social media since then. I’ve had no reason to. It happened. He healed. I healed.

Over.

Done with.

Gone.

The author Primo Levi illustrates this point in his attempt to recount and understand his experience as a prisoner in Auschwitz in his book If This is A Man/The Truce. It is his belief that true understanding is only attained by stripping his tale of emotion and presenting the facts as they are. “The living are more demanding,” he says. “The dead can wait.” I have a very hard time imagining Levi’s Facebook page, were he alive today, with a daily chronicle of holocaust memes and a constant flood of reminders of those he lost and how he suffered.

On the flip side, the fact remains that Facebook is the only emotional outlet available to some people. Although I find that sad, I cannot belie their choice to use it.

Some people feel the need to fill the world with uplifting and soulful insights into the larger picture. I can only assume these insights are targeted toward those with little emotional support and tend to be lost in the belief that they have no one else in the world. Perhaps they believe these insights (however misattributed) will impact at least one person’s day, one who needs to hear it the most. That I also cannot belie, though I personally do not feel qualified to be the therapist to the lost souls of Facebook.

Some tend to thrive on drama, perpetuating it, inflating it, perceiving it as a wrong afflicted upon them without the ability to embrace the larger picture, that the orbit of the sun travels around the center of our galaxy and not around themselves, that it has done so for 4.5 billion years and will continue to do so long after they leave this world. To them I would suggest a self-assessment of their own legacy.

Today, in this life, those who choose to fly their histrionic flag on social media are creating a legacy of truth that cannot be camouflaged or adorned once they are gone. This truth is permanent, in their own words, impressed upon the inexpungible world of digital media for all to remember. Is the verbal picture of you squeezing your daily misery between Ermahgerd memes and Pinterest fails the legacy you want everyone to remember you by, or would you rather your inerasable words be those of a single awkward human among an equally awkward species, laughing at the rocks upon which we all stumble, silly selfies of your screw-ups with captions that allude to the blissful embodiment of the chaos life throws at us, and the pride you have for the mosaic of beautiful bruises that make up the canvas that is you?

That would be my preference. So that when my children, my husband, my friends, or my older self looks back on the words I wrote, the pictures I posted, and the stories I told, they will be looking at the living memory of a woman who wrangled- but celebrated- her chaos, no matter how determined that chaos was to define her, a woman who rejected the languor of her injuries, choosing to shine a light on her mosaic of spiritual bruises because she knew they made her that much more beautiful.

That would be my preference were I to have perfect control over the scattered flotsam and jetsam that validates my betrothal to my own humanity. Yet I do not. None of us do. And in that vein, I will leave you with a fitting and accurately attributed bit of unspiration, purely for your enjoyment, of course.

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The Myth of Raising Body-Positive Girls

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So, you have daughters, eh? You’ve embraced at least some semblance of a feminist viewpoint. You’re hellbent on raising confident girls who are proud of their bodies, happy in the skin they’re in, resilient and at least somewhat immune to the constant barrage of negative body messages bombarding them at every turn. You’ve become enlightened to the notion of praising their inward beauty instead of focusing on their outward appearance. Perhaps you’ve adopted a bit of gender-neutrality in your parenting techniques, equipping your brilliant future female engineers with Legos and indulging your future soldiers with Nerf guns and Star Wars memorabilia, eschewing the assumption that they will naturally want to play Barbies and dress as princesses for Halloween.

You’re doing everything right. Your chunky little monkey will grow up happy, strong, confident, with an inward beauty that radiates at max frequency, enveloping everyone within a 10-mile radius of them. Your strong-boned athlete will grow up with a brick shithouse of self-respect surrounding them, their turrets armed with soul-crushing comebacks  for every man who heckles them on the street and every dainty Cinderella who whispers vulgar slurs about their Venus Williams ass.

She’s a devil in leather. A warrior in lace. A princess who never needs a prince to save her. A hardcore heart that can sense and crush misogyny with her midichlorians.  A fearless flower with a Nascar-esque focus  of control over the love-fall she allows to happen when she meets the #HeForShe man who will be allowed to walk beside her til death do them part, infiltrate her uterus with his spawn when she chooses, praise her strength and intelligence as she soars through glass ceilings, and wipe the drool off his chin as she rocks a post-C-section bikini body adorned with her battle-scar stretch marks any woman would be proud to flaunt.

Oh, yes. You’re doing everything right. The Royalty of 21st Century daughter-parenting! What can possibly go wrong?

Well.

Frankly.

Everything.

Because although you may teach her, guide her, surround her with positivity, teach her to be a ninja of negativity, to love her body, to love her mind even more, to respect herself, to vaccinate herself against anything less than what she deserves, it is the things you have no control over that will snatch you back into a reality that you cannot mold for her. This reality is a sneaky little insect that multiplies upon itself, quickly- surprisingly so- drowning out the parental voice you convinced yourself was loud enough to silence the fusillade of humanity.

And it can be as simple and innocent as a pair of Calvins.

I was in the 7th grade when it happened. My mother was overflowing with all of those wonderful girl-warrior-raising traits in a time when there was no internet. There were no body-positivity movements or activists. No hashtags, no self-help parenting blogs, no one to guide her. It just came naturally.

And so did her body.

We were all small. My mother, me, both my sisters. None of the four of us ever breached 5′ tall. Matter of fact, I was the oldest AND the runt of the litter, topping out at 4’6″. My mother only beat me by a couple inches and my younger sister by an inch.

But my mother. Well. She was TINY.

She wore a size 0 back when size 0 actually meant something.

She wore a size 0 after 3 pregnancies and 2 C-sections.

She wore a size 0 without dieting, obsessive exercising, or even thinking about her body at all. Weight was never a topic of discussion, not mine, not my mother’s, and not my sister’s. It was never something I was taught to be proud or ashamed of. Food was never used as a reward, nor was “healthy” or “clean eating” a focus of discussion. We had normal family meals at normal family mealtime. In my mother’s eyes, mine and my sister’s appearances were nothing short of perfection.

In my mother’s eyes, all of her children were nothing short of perfection.

Never did she suggest that any of us were anything less than fearless female warriors armed to the teeth with self-confidence and nothing about our bodies or minds to bring us down.

But as I grew from a child to a middle-schooler, it started to become obvious to me that my body was very, very different than my mother’s.

I wasn’t fat. But I wasn’t tiny. I was athletic. I was fiercely involved in things like softball, Tae Kwon Do, all-day summer swims at the rec center pool. Long hikes alone through the woods behind my grandmother’s house when she’d lock us out until lunch time.

But I couldn’t blame it on that, either. My mother had a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

And my mother was tiny.

It wasn’t my mother who brought this to my attention. It wasn’t classmates who brought this to my attention. As a matter of fact, it was nobody.

It was a pair of size 0 Calvin Klein blue jeans I pulled out of my mother’s drawer in 7th grade.

It was my futile attempts at trying to pull them over my thick thighs.

It was the realization that even if I succeeded, I’d never get them buttoned over my shapeless midsection.

It was the realization that the size 0 Calvins that belonged to a grown woman who had given birth to three children and stood at least 2 inches taller than me were not going to fit my 12-year-old body.

I never told my Mom about that moment, nor the decades of quiet shame that followed. I relentlessly bullied my sister, pushing all of the things I hated about myself onto her, pasting my face onto hers, and beating the shit out of it with my words.

It wasn’t until a few months ago that I finally told my Mom the story about her Calvins. Not to hurt her; she did everything right. But because I needed to tell someone. Until the day I told her, I had never told anyone. Not even my husband. I heard a faint gasp through the telephone. A small sigh. I reassured her that it wasn’t her fault. She may have let a few tears flow that I could not see through the telephone, but I didn’t.

I wasn’t sad anymore.. I didn’t hate my body anymore. I just hated those goddamned Calvins.

I’ve spent those couple of decades coming to terms with the fact that I was never born to be tiny. There was no eating disorder, just a bit of quiet self-discovery.

Truth.

On my 4’6″ frame, my highest weight was not when I was 9 months pregnant. It was during the months of postpartum depression that followed. I topped out at 166 pounds. And because my mother DID do everything right, I can thank her for the fearless and determined sense of control I reclaimed the day I stepped on that scale. I can thank her that I never starved myself. I can thank her that I never forced myself to vomit. I can thank her that, many years later, when I stepped on a scale again and saw that I weighed 98 pounds and my rib cage was showing, I knew I’d gone too far.

I’ll never be able to give my sister the apology she deserves for the brutal lashing she suffered from me as a child. I’ll never be able to give myself the apology I deserve for allowing those Calvins to dictate all the years I wasted believing that I was defective.

What I  can say is that I sure as shit didn’t need body-positivity or fat-acceptance activism, hashtags, fad diets, or self-help to come to terms with the simplicity of following the natural course of a beautiful life, just an eternal reflective gratitude that none of these things were part of my mother’s parenting. Gratitude that she never held a magnifying glass over feminism, eating habits, food ingredients, body image, or any of the other well-intentioned messages parents of girls try to convey without realizing that their intense focus on them does nothing but tell our girls that those things are the important issues that need to be the center of their world, rather than simply BEING ALIVE.

What I can do is spend the rest of the decades I have left smiling into the camera, smiling at the mirror, valuing who I am for more than what I see staring back at me, rocking a tiny tank top and my SIZE ELEVEN JEANS, and telling Calvin Klein to go fuck himself.