Where are you the funniest, smartest, most Facetuned version of yourself? This week, the Cut explores the complexities, vanities, and pitfalls of self-presentation online.
Right now, my Facebook profile photo is a picture of the back of my head. My fiancé took it on a particularly nice day a few years ago. It’s just my messy bun, my shirt collar, and a nice view of the Hudson River.
I like the photo, even if I sometimes wonder whether people assume I am not showing my face because it is an unfortunate one. Mostly, though, I want a medal. Or a cookie. A cash prize? Because I own a human child and he does not appear in my Facebook profile photo, not as the primary subject (unthinkable) or a guest star (still bad). He’s not even in my cover photo, which is arguably okay because you only see it if you click on someone’s profile.
I feel this way because not so long ago, I had very clear ideas about where babies did and did not belong on social media. My rules went something like this:
• don’t make your baby your profile photo, oh my god, are you not your own person, this is a little too on the nose don’t you think
• why do you post photos of your baby every damn day
• that isn’t funny
• oh my god all you talk about is your baby
• I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR BABY
I would call these rules “unspoken,” but God knows they are spoken (by shitty people like me), and often. Parents do it, too. “I try not to talk about parenting stuff here, but ...” “Not to mom out on you …” “Sorry for all the baby photos.” We perpetuate the idea that talking about the reeling, transformative, endless mindfuck of having a child is in and of itself annoying or does not have a place in public conversation. Like my profile photo — we all have our arbitrary self-imposed boundaries.
Obviously, it can be annoying — maybe even has a propensity to be annoying — to an outsider, just like anything. Having a baby, to your online followers, is probably like an Apple Event, but you’re not Tim Cook, and no one else gets to buy anything, and it’s on a loop forever. When I start feeling self-conscious (or is it self-aware?), I fear that every time I say the word “baby” I am annoying someone. “My son” sounds smug, to me. “The kid” goes down easier. “My child” sometimes sounds okay, but right now I’m fearing it to be ridiculous. It’s a lot like “boyfriend” or (shudder) “fiancé.” It shouldn’t be, but every mention of it can feel like a tiny crime of obnoxiousness. You start to wish you had new words.
At the beginning, I was very self-conscious about it. I still held on to the hope of being the parent who “gets it.” I wrote funny or at least very honest captions under all my photos; I only posted one truly great baby photo every few days; I tried to intersperse photos of other things, too, as if to remind everyone that I still lived in the world, even if I didn’t see much of it.
I remember early on feeling as if I had to earn my one baby photo by posting a photo of something else. I’d look around my house. Something else, something else. Hmmm. What did I take photos of before? Funny signs? Nature? Cute corners of my apartment? Things I baked?
I had not done or seen these things in quite some time. Things I had seen: my baby. The wall I stared at while breast-feeding fully eight hours a day. Various television shows streaming on Netflix. My phone and the people talking inside of it. One in a series of frozen vegetarian lasagnas.
I don’t post photos of my kid to Instagram to show off my great reproductive prize, to brag that I ran through the finish line of society’s great mandate for women. I post photos of him to Instagram because I am bored and he is always around and at times I feel certain that all I have to offer my friends and followers are adorable photos of him.
And then of course there is a slow forgetting of the rules. The more you bend them, the less you care. I posted a photo of my child’s face without a funny caption, or with no caption at all. Then I posted another one immediately after. “It’s a series,” I told myself. “It’s casual. People will think it’s funny.”
Soon enough, I was a lost cause. Just like I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be too embarrassed to dance and sing walking down a crowded sidewalk in the middle of the day, I don’t understand anymore why I once listened so closely to my inner critic.
I would never encourage anyone to follow anything they don’t want to follow, or necessarily to care about the minutia of infant development, but I do have to say that in the right mind-set, baby Instagram is a really great Instagram. In fact, babies might be my favorite people to follow. They are like humans coming out of a coma, every day!! Also: They have great outfits. And thigh rolls! And dance moves. I really recommend it.
The key to enjoying it, I’ve found, is to remember that baby Instagram is different from, say, vacation Instagram — another genre of possibly braggy, potentially annoying lifestyle documentation. A baby-gramming friend is not just outside the frame, sitting in the sun sipping on a drink. She is probably panicking because weeks into motherhood she still doesn’t know how to hold her baby’s head while breast-feeding.
When I see someone with a new baby, especially a first baby, I now think: Oh God, they are in the shit. Yes, seeing their tiny baby with its old-man face is fun. I am excited for them, and for this brand-new person who is in the world and for how much they will all come to love each other. Mostly, though, it’s: That poor, poor woman. And from there, I find it easy to extend all-encompassing forgiveness and a free pass, forever, for them to do or say anything they want to share on various social-networking sites.
So make one of your kid’s eyes your avatar and change your name to So-and-So’s Mommy, for all I care. Work it out, my friend. Show me those baby thigh rolls. You’ll be back to posting photos of almost-funny graffiti in due time.