CONTENT WARNING: ABLEISM, HOSPITALIZATION, SELF-INJURIOUS BEHAVIOUR
Secret Instagram accounts are usually the territory of my younger peers. There are some twenty-somethings in the “finsta” - “fake Instagram” - sphere, but they appear to be small fish in an ocean full of teenagers with flourishing alternative online profiles.
These finstas are a space for radical sharing, a kind of semi-public diary aimed at demystifying the images we create of ourselves online. On their finstas, people post memes about their desperate loathing of themselves or others, tearful selfies with long captions detailing their life’s most recent tribulations, or occasionally even happy or silly moments that they want to share with their closest network.
It is a unique site of non-anonymous gut spilling on the internet, one of the many creative ways young people have tried to personalize a space that often alienates us from one another.
So when I got really sick, I made a finsta despite my reservations about feeling out of place as a twenty-three year old. This kind of dramatic, somewhat-public confession seemed right up my alley, something I had long hungered for but never known how to feed.
I feel things more intensely than other people. This has always been true, but it wasn’t until recently that I began edging closer to facing this truth bit by bit as time went on. When I was younger, I was constantly told that I was “sensitive.” I would cry in class when math got too hard. I would cry at recess when kids wouldn’t include me. I would cry at home when my brother would pick fights with me.
“Sensitive” wasn’t always a bad thing when people said it, but in my life it constantly seemed to get me into trouble, leave me too vulnerable. I was too sensitive. Adults would frequently respond to my tears with a stern “don’t cry.” I learned early on that to feel too deeply and too big makes those around you disdainful.
So I wrote everything down instead. Crafting dramatic prose about my suffering, no one could tell me I was “too much.” I could be as much as I truly was and that was valuable on its own.
Finstas stand in opposition to users’ “rinstas” (“real instagrams”), where your public persona lives. This version of a user’s self is carefully curated for popular consumption. It showcases your happiness, victories, and moments of beauty. It may have hundreds of follows, while your finsta may have only tens, or fewer. One teen compared it to a political candidate’s public platform versus what they share with their innermost circle.
This divergence from the numbers game of rinstas provides a safe haven for young people to share their actual lives with close friends or family. It is a breath of fresh air on a site that has been declared the worst social network for young people’s mental health.
Chloe Bryan, a writer for Mashable, describes it as such: “You can be as honest, as indulgent, as prolific, as performative as you want. And the only people who can see it — the only people who know you're doing it at all — are the ones you've selected yourself.”
This is why the finsta appealed to me so much. After struggling with a mysterious chronic illness for months, struggling with mental illness for my whole life, and keeping my queerness to myself, I had begun to uncover the ways that sharing my experience could be empowering. When it came to my illnesses, it educated people about the ableism I encountered in my daily life, the limitations I had to reckon with because of my condition, and the prejudice I faced from medical professionals. When it came to my sexuality and gender, it became the only place I could discuss my queerness openly. The shame I felt about my struggle became paired with a determination to destigmatize my challenges.
The rush I got from getting likes and supportive comments from my close friends was unmatched in my life until that point. My diary could be public. I could be publicly imperfect. No more telling me not to cry, no more being told I was too sensitive. Failure was acceptable, commiseration inherent. I posted every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and felt my chosen community grow stronger around me.
I found out I had cancer seven months after I started seeking help for my confusing physical symptoms. It was in my thyroid, maybe spreading, maybe making me sick, maybe not making me sick. I needed surgery, I needed radiation, I needed time off, I needed to change my plans, and the rest seemed to change even though I didn’t need it to.
Finstas are scorned by much of the adult public. Online articles detail the reasons why young people will regret creating these private accounts, asserting that they post pictures of sex and drugs that will later make them unemployable and expressing concern about cyber-bullying (although this claim seems to be quite disconnected from the purpose of a finsta).
This pressure to perform solely in ways that are digestible to employers is at the forefront of young people’s online lives. Brooke Erin Duffy, a communications professor at Cornell University, wrote about the intersection of these expectations and the introduction of the finsta:
“Finstas are not symptomatic of the dark side of social media. Rather, they reveal a much bigger problem with the inescapability of work in the digital age.”
In order to counteract fears about their public image, young people create various anonymous online profiles (some on Instagram, some of Facebook, Twitter, etc.). Duffy discusses with her students how this is a way to push back against the performativity of Instagram, a chance to be “real.” They disagreed.
“You’re still performing a funny version of you,” Duffy’s students told her. “Finsta isn’t tantamount to an ‘authentic’ self. It’s instead a different sort of performance, in which people can admit to flaws so long as they’re softened by humor.”
It is a performance not only of the humor in mundanity, but also of our pain. Sharing pain in a way that is both honest enough to feel cathartic while still digestible to your smaller viewership. Real enough.
As time passed, the allure of my finsta began to wane. I was getting sicker, getting surgery, getting radiation, and realizing that the people around me couldn’t relate. I was a curious outlier in their lives, and a worrisome one at that.
At first I theorized that simply by sharing my experiences through this medium I was making them more relatable, that to share my pain was a revelatory act in and of itself. I still think that, a little. But it became harder and harder to try and think of ways to phrase my experiences in a way that would yield more solidarity likes (“I’ve been there”), more commiserating comments (“This is how I feel all the time”), or more sweet messages (“You aren’t alone”). They felt real when I knew they had been there, but when I knew that they hadn’t things began feeling emptier.
Months ago, I wrote “I’m ready to start being okay with being unrelatable. I’m ready to keep my younger, lonely self company as we go forward alone in this, no longer striving to be understood.” I believed this then, and I still do. But I want to be understood too.
Every generation is wounded. What makes things different now is our culture’s new, widely proclaimed rejection of perfection illustrated in confessional online profiles. But how honest are we being? How honest is too honest? What pain do we want to be authentically shared and what do we still refuse to stomach?
In her Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain, Leslie Jamison quotes her friend, who said: “Pain that gets performed is still pain.” The hurting remains after it has been shared, especially if it is a foreign kind of hurting to those around you.
One of the kinds of wounds Jamison highlights is self-harm. She explores the hatred felt by so many towards cutters; people hate how much they “chose to” feel, how they express their pain, how people believe they are demanding sympathy.
This animosity is not unfamiliar to me. I cut myself for eight years, then I hospitalized myself for suicidal ideation a week or two before I graduated from college. I’ve been hyper-cognizant of others’ opinions of my suffering my whole life, and when I began to cut that awareness heightened even more. I repeated to myself every day don’t let anybody see, don’t let anybody know, they’ll hate you more than they already do.
So when I got sick, naturally that same framework remained. My shame was compounded by a body that would never cooperate, doctors who frequently doubted me, and people around me who despite their best intentions rarely knew what to say.
I disdained my own suffering and I badly wanted for that to end. I haven’t found that end quite yet. The performance seemed to make it live forever.
After ten active months online, I closed my finsta. Weeks later, I was back in a doctor’s office with an IV in my arm. My surgery was finished, my radiation treatment was over (though radioactive iodine would remain in my body for at least a year), and I was on a steady dose of pills to keep me in check. But one thing slipped out of balance and I found myself violently ill and barely able to stand, so my partner took me to get help.
They took a picture and posted on their finsta, remarking about how they hoped they wouldn’t get in trouble at work since they forgot they had a shift when they left to take care of me. And the likes rolled in.
I didn’t miss the applause.
Eliana Stanislawski is a writer covering social justice, politics and everything else they can. Follow them on Twitter.