Desire for access has plagued me throughout my life. Before I was able to easily backtrack through past years with a simple search through my Rookie diaries, I would go into my elementary and middle school archives, dusting off notebooks with the hope of clues as to how I’d ended up in the present. There were many patterns, the most prominent being longing: wanting to be noticed by whomever I was infatuated with; wanting to know if I wanted to be a girl, be friends with her, or be in love with her; wanting to be in a specific group of friends at my school, when all of my goals existed in one building, in one stifling atmosphere.
I thought that I’d be able to trace myself back to my roots by picking apart each and every phase I maneuvered through, but all it took was realizing the common threads between them all. No matter what I found myself interested in, I always wanted to be with the “right” people, the ones who did what I wanted to do best, whom I wanted to be like but also on the same level as. I looked for deities among humans that I could worship and morph into, maybe just by inhaling the same air as them, or getting droplets of their approval.
As I got older, I was began to separate myself from the labels and preconceptions assigned to me as a kid. I had been the genius child of Langston Hughes’ poem, revered by my mother and teachers and respected but ridiculed by my peers. The combination confused me. I could not understand why I was undesirable simply because I loved to read at lunch or write for hours at home. If a classmate had approached me, I would have spoken to them. I loved people, even though I hated what they did to me—I saw what acceptance they were capable of, and I wanted it. I never wanted to compromise my intelligence for more friends, but I had never met a beautiful or popular girl who was anything like me. They dressed the way I wanted to, and kissed the boys I wanted to, but our apparent similarities ended there. I was always stuck in hope, never in action.
I remember fifth grade, age 10, my valedictorian year. My school was considerably homogenous, and the few new students that had come in over the years—including me—either caused temporary, minor excitement for the people in their classes or slipped into our population unnoticed. The arrival of Julia was the biggest event of that year. People were already whispering about her the day before she came, talking about “the new white girl.” Our school was made up of black and brown children, with very few exceptions. As kids who grew up in black working class neighborhoods and had been taught cultural assimilation, whiteness was the pinnacle of excitement. I am grateful to have grown into the person I am today—in love with myself and my heritage—but at the time, I was so motivated by hatred towards my background and my skin color that all of my idols were ivory cut-outs.
I was one of the people curious about this new presence, but unswayed by the hype that had been created—until I saw her. She was introduced at lunchtime, in front of the entire cafeteria, and my heart paused as everyone began to cheer for her. This kind of introduction was not typical at our school, and I do not think I have to say why, but I became enthralled by her. I had always been fascinated by the archetype of the “alternative girl,” a term that makes me cringe now, but was foreign to me then. I loved rock and the Runaways and was moving toward my unfortunate emo phase, of which Julia was the perfect embodiment. She was wearing the shortest plaid skirt I had ever seen with chains around the waist and a black tank top. She looked bored. I was in love.
I knew what I had to be in order to be like her, to catch her attention, but I knew my limits, too. I could only hope to dress like her, cataloguing these manufactured images of myself in my mind every time one arose: My mother was liberal, but adamantly against any kind of “inappropriate attire.” (I was 10…I don’t blame her.) Julia had a group of friends who didn’t seem to have much in common with her, although I soon realized that they were drawn to each other by some unsaid cool factor that came with being good-looking, able to capitalize on said looks, not nerdy, and experienced. They were practically adults; I was too awkward to match. Yet, I understood what made them, and I began to realize how easy it is to analyze people and—if one really wants—to imitate them. (I preferred to adapt and improve their formulas, though.) I found it easy to know who to befriend, and what parts of them to emulate or bring out in myself if I wanted to be their compatriot. It was more difficult to keep my head above the water, to avoid a return to the lostness I’d arrived from. It took me years to learn that even if I did all of this, even if I was “right,” a trade-off was in order. There was no guarantee of happiness, only fleeting relations.
While I would never call myself a social climber because of the connotations the term carries—and because there are levels to idealization and how far people will go to get what they want—I sympathize with the clawing need to be a part of a space that one has always been denied the key to, and with confusing said space with ultimate happiness. Longing to be part of a certain friend group can be an expression of frustration, of the desire to become whatever you want to become. At the same time, that aspiration is not the end all, be all—plus, it gets tiring trying to remember who represents what and fitting into a specific image at all times and always having to please in order to get ahead.
What is sometimes considered social climbing is really a way to actualize fantasy (or overlapping fantasies) cultivated over years and years. It is easy to think that by hanging out with the people you idealize, their image will somehow become yours. Sure, bits and pieces of someone may influence you and vice versa, but ultimately, you are still you. I used to think that befriending the “right” people would magically transform me into one of the archetypes I presented to myself on a mental pedestal, but that never happened. I realized two things. The first, that the people I strived to emulate and be with had been reduced to two-dimensional figures in my quest for what I mistook for fulfillment. I made the error of assuming that they represented perfection. But all of these people have one thing in common: they’re human! Whenever I would enter a new social circle or subculture, I would discover the same insecurities and issues and desires to be something else. No one was ever content, and with good reason. Our mistake wasn’t our lack of contentment, it was our assumption that the answer lay elsewhere.
Growing up is a giant cesspool of confusion and discovery, but most people don’t really begin to fathom your existence as a separate individual until somewhere in the throes of adolescence. Even then, there are molds that you’re nudged toward, paths and lifestyles not so subtly suggested. When you are finally out of the worst of it, you begin constructing yourself on a larger scale than the fantasies of yesteryear. Coming of age in the 21st century adds more to juggle—one is confronted with crafting URL and IRL personalities. Who someone is online does not necessarily reflect on who they are when you meet them, and this is can be either a burden or a joy. Two personalities? you may be asking yourself, I can barely handle the effort it takes to work on one!!! But the division seems to be a natural one, with the assumption that when you are on the internet you’re presented with so many possibilities and realities that not to take advantage of them would be denying yourself the opportunity to live out all the lives you’ve imagined.
When I first began my career as a Person of the World Wide Web, I was not yet a teenager and blogging on WordPress and Blogger was still all the rage. There was far more intention in my self-construction; I started a style blog, as I’d wanted to do for years, and I studied all of my fellow creators. I recognized what worked—sincerity, but also dressing in the tradition of a kitschy-but-avant-garde-walk-down-the-street, covering specific designers, discussing specific concepts, having a distinct voice, looking interesting. And what didn’t—eagerness, lack of substance, lack of interaction with your fellow bloggers, but also lack of interaction with the “right” bloggers, but also you never knew who would become the right blogger because it was a time of such spontaneity and the big magazines were just beginning to take teenagers on the internet seriously. I never blogged when I didn’t want to, never wrote about what I didn’t want to, but I still knew all the rules and carefully scrutinized all of my actions, every word of every post.
Being able to form yourself on such a large scale—as if you are molding the curves and bumps of a sculpture—has only recently been afforded us, and it can be intimidating. This is where the desire for access rears its many heads once again. While initially, one may find it trying to compartmentalize the internet and study all its patterns, the process comes as a byproduct of regular use. Similar to real life (but far more grandiose), you begin to see what sells, what doesn’t, who sells, who you need to know in order to gain acceptance in whatever pocket of the web you’ve come to admire.
To fall in love with a group or a culture puts you at liberty to face the same heavy realizations that come with falling in love with another individual. The psychoanalytic writer Adam Phillips sums it up best: “To fall in love is to be reminded of a frustration that you didn’t know you had (of one’s formative frustrations, and of one’s attempted self-cures for them); you wanted someone, you felt deprived of something, and then it seems to be there.” We all have these formative frustrations, based on whatever shortcomings or misgivings are present in our earliest years. We may not recognize when and where they originate, nor be able to resolve them when they first arise. As a result, they continue to persist in the form of the ideals that we hold ourselves and others to. We project our insecurities and cravings onto these imaginary images of ourselves and the people we strive to surround ourselves with. When we are trying to become a part of something, we are at our most vulnerable; this is where our cores are exposed.
Whether or not this idealization takes place on the internet or with IRL peers, the fact remains that everyone involved is growing. Everyone has their own wants and needs and secrets and flaws that can be glossed over for presentation with a filter or a good outfit. We can’t follow each other’s leads too closely or we’ll all be a gaggle of confused ducks! We must learn how to resolve our issues internally, working from the inside out until that change begins to reflect on everything else in our lives. I find myself through the people I have aspired to be and befriend—not by looking toward them, but at myself, at my motivations, and at my history, which I continue to pick apart and analyze. ♦