My daughter made it clear that the food and activities at her birthday were far less important than the rose-gold-glitter curtain and HAPPY BIRTHDAY banner in front of which she and her guests would take photos of themselves for Instagram. But it was windy that day: The curtain was gathering in clumps like rose-gold seaweed, revealing the white vinyl garage door behind it. I spent over an hour taping glittery rose-gold disks onto a three-by-six-foot area of the door with clear packing tape. It didn’t matter if my daughter’s party was glamorous and fun; it just needed to look that way to her friends and acquaintances, both real and imaginary, on social media.
If dread and guilt are baked into the parenting of any teenager, our image-focused world beats these emotions into a heady froth. I’ve struggled with whether to allow my daughter to engage in the odd farce of curating an online image at such a young age, but I’m hesitant to ban her from relatively safe activities I know I would’ve loved as a teenager. My position on the matter is complicated by my own immersion in social media, which functions as a virtual watercooler for me but often haunts my consciousness and torpedoes my mood.
What’s surprising is how my daughter’s enthusiasm for documenting herself — new hairstyles, trips to the beach — has stretched the boundaries of my own understanding of the joys and perils of image curation. I used to roll my eyes at mirror selfies and filtered Instagram shots. But now, at the age of 49, I’m wondering what purpose my grim restraint has served. I find myself taking more selfies, experimenting with lighting and filters, and chafing at pious calls for women to ignore the technological wonders that live in our pockets and to resist toying with the images we present to the world.
While just a few months ago I joined in the shared parental angst around social media, I now find myself questioning the moral imperative for women to avoid vanity and sidestep aesthetic fantasies. Why should ordinary girls be singled out as hopelessly shallow when we all live in a culture that’s obsessed with aesthetics — not just around the human body but in all spaces, across all landscapes, everywhere? As allergic as I was to such illusory self-portraits before, these days they feel like a way of refusing to shrink into the shadows at the behest of a patriarchal culture that treats older women as worse than even children, better to be unseen and unheard. “You’re entering the most luscious part of your life,” an older friend recently told me. “You need to enjoy it.” Why shouldn’t we all experiment with new ways of seeing our lives and ourselves as luscious?
Yesterday, when I was savoring Instagram’s portal into other lives without the slightest whiff of envy, I could feel how my perception has shifted. Broadcasts that once looked like preening or showing off started to look more like ways of taking up more space in a world that sees our credit-card numbers more clearly than our faces. As life on this planet grows darker, it does less justice to the light we carry inside each of us. We are social animals, trying to see each other more clearly.
You might see a self-obsessed woman or a vainglorious teenager. What I see are two humans, having fun with light and shadow, carving out a virtual place of delight and dignity, and coaxing reality into a shape that feels as luminous as imagination itself.
*This article appears in the November 11, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!