The Body, Remembered

Facebook Memories and Self-loathing.

By Rebekah Hall

Illustration by Grace Molteni

I got my first cell phone when I was in the seventh grade. Practically all it could do was call my parents and dial 911. It was a tiny silver LG flip phone that only had space for about 20 horribly grainy pictures, and I coveted the chosen few pictures I kept on it. I didn’t even have texting.

In middle school, all I wanted was to have a MySpace page. All of my friends had one and I coveted the interconnectedness that didn’t include me. My parents wouldn’t let me join the site. When I plead my case, my mother told me that she “sees men every day that would love to take advantage” of a girl like me. For the past 10 years, my mother has worked for the Arkansas Department of Corrections as both a Correctional Counselor, teaching parenting classes to male inmates in the Arkansas prison system, and now as a teacher in the GED program. She regularly engaged with pedophiles through her work, and my parents feared someone like-minded would bamboozle me over the Internet.

At the time, my parents, like many others, were bombarded with messages and warnings to closely watch what their kids were doing online. In 2007, MySpace began automatically checking users against a database of convicted sex offenders. This turned up nearly 29,000 users in two months. My parents were afraid of adults impersonating minors on the site, and even though I insisted I would be able to tell the difference, they wouldn’t let me near the site.

It embarrassed me. I felt supremely uncool, like I was still a child and everyone around me with a MySpace page was glamorous and independent. So, of course I still joined the site. Secretly. I painstakingly crafted my page, my parents blissfully unaware, for a few months during the eighth grade. I felt that I had finally made it, was finally in on the joke.

That quickly blew up in my face, and it wasn’t until I was about to start high school that I signed up for Facebook. I was allowed to join under the condition that my father would also sign up for a profile so he could “monitor” my activity.

I’ve been using a cell phone since I was 12 and I’ve been active on Facebook since I was 13. My grip on social media was harnessed early and intensely. I received a digital camera as a Christmas present one year as a tween, so my eighth grade Facebook page had several albums affectionately titled “PiCs oF mE :)))”. I’ve been documenting my life for 10 years.

At no other point in history have we had access to our past selves like we do today. Photo albums and diaries, scrapbooks and shadow boxes now have to compete with the permanency of the Internet. I’m nothing if not nostalgic, so I’ve saved almost everything from my preteen and adolescent years. Under my childhood bed there are shopping bags filled with notes my friends and I passed in class, shoeboxes filled with ticket stubs and pictures, and a stack of diaries with entries starting in the fifth grade and ending my senior year of high school. There is no system to these memories; they all run together and sometimes I sift through the pile when I visit my parents.

But every status I’ve posted and every photo I’ve shared are stamped on the timeline of my online presence. They are organized precisely by year and by album, time stamped and catalogued back to our beginnings. With the advent of the Facebook Memories feature in 2015, those past statuses and photos are summoned up from the depths of our profiles to remind us what we were doing a year ago, two years ago, three years ago, on this day.

For me, this means that I’m looking at photos of a thinner woman. Her hair was longer, fuller. She wore lipstick and went out more. Most mornings when I open my phone to check the notifications I received overnight, there it begins: “You have memories with [insert vague acquaintance you don’t really talk to anymore] to look back on today.”

I start my day agonizing over old pictures of myself. I’m all but drooling over her smaller waist, her pants size. I can taste the edges of jealousy, coppery on my tongue. But there’s something deeply unnatural and jarring about envying a former version of yourself. It introduces a decidedly modern and doomed competition. If I was that thin once, I could be that thin again. If she could do it, so could I.

There’s a separation of selves here. I can feel myself floating up and out of my heavy body, walking down the line of former versions of me, thumbing the edges of their forms like dresses in my closet, trying to decide which version I like the best.

No one wins. I cannot wish my body back to the way it was; I cannot instill a former self with the earned knowledge and insight I now treasure so dearly. With distance comes perspective, an invaluable gift. This exposes a crucial tool that the Facebook Memories feature is missing: context. There is something wildly irresponsible in reminding us how we chose to showcase our lives to others, but not whom we used to be.

I now carry with me the four and a half years of accelerated and concentrated growth that my time in college afforded me. I moved six hours away from home to a place where I didn’t know a single person, and I didn’t give up. I made it work. To think about it in terms that simple reminds me that I am much stronger than I think I am. Memory and time are deceptive, and routine is a powerful force. As the years slid under my belt, I slowly built up a tolerance for what terrified me because I had to face it every day. And at one point, I looked back and realized that my fears of failure, of ineptitude, of loneliness, had ebbed from my vision.

After what felt like an entire life, I emerged, gasping for air, on the other side. There is now a strength in me born purely from endurance, from the effort it took not to return to my hometown and my teenage bedroom and people who already knew me.

The hosts of our online histories cannot show us the true state of our lives as we look back upon them. They cannot show us a slideshow of our feelings during that time, cannot conveniently package the stress and self-loathing and mimic their weight. Our burdens change and grow as we do. They are nebulous and shifting. Some become smaller, less threatening. Others come to fruition only after a number of years, after they’ve been left to fester.

It is so easy to pine over a picture of myself from three years ago. It comes to me very naturally, this desire to consume her. It is impossible to try those burdens back on, captured exactly as they were on that day. Like slipping off a heavy backpack, I feel its weight more clearly after I’ve shed it.

I’m fortunate, however. While my Facebook Memories may show me the still-glowing ashes of toxic relationships past, I do not have memories with an abusive former partner to look back on, or painful reminders of interactions with a family member I’m now alienated from. For many, many others, the Memories feature can invoke regressive self-hatred and anxiety, triggered by bright reminders of time spent with ex-boyfriends and girlfriends that they would much rather forget. In a piece for The Daily Dot, Selena Larson writes about the triggering nature of painful Facebook memories and how the algorithm that brings these memories to our attention doesn’t take into consideration the complexity of our relationship with our pasts. Liz Lazara writes for Vice  about how trauma survivors experience PTSD from both the Facebook memories feature and elsewhere on Facebook, including through the “Suggested Friends” list.

Social media has provided a platform that allows us to project our lives into the lives of others. We run our lives parallel to each other in an unprecedented show of curated experience. Our constant access to connectedness in turn simplifies the idiosyncrasies of our singular, very personal lives. We are comparing our performance of self to how others perform their identities. As a result, our self-gaze is redirected, often less towards the way we treat the people around us but instead focused on the nebulous way we are publicly perceived.

I am hesitant to condemn the influence social media has had on millennial culture because I think it is a tired and lazy criticism. I certainly believe that there are benefits to the connection that has become a form of currency, but often the ability to document and later reflect on the versions of our lives that we’ve chosen to share has negative consequences.

I’ve discussed my feelings about this with several friends. We are all young women, documenting our burgeoning independence and imprinting mile markers of growth and discovery across our social media. One friend pointed out an important idea while we were lamenting over the painful reminders of thinner selves. “We’re not supposed to look like we did when we were 18,” she said. “That’s not how being a woman works.”

She’s right. It’s not. Womanhood necessitates change. Hips widen, hair grows, and we straddle femininity in a world that would have us believe it’s poisonous. But a static self, a soul that never widens and a mind that never challenges itself, that is the real horror.

Change is inevitable, as is growth. I lament the end of my girlhood and the freedom that seemed to come with it. But it is important for me, for us, for women, to remember that all that is truly ahead of us is a woman we’d like to get to know.

Rebekah Hall is a freelance writer working out of Columbia, Missouri. You can find her on Instagram @beknasty and on Twitter @BekahKHall, probably posting about her dog.

Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram.