Only the Best Cake

Essay

Aug 04 2020

Gold Tape
(Or, Why I Left Instagram)

Dear Reader,

I’ve been taping things to the wall. 

Doodles, collage art, loyalty cards from coffeeshops I would write in, back in the day, when I went places. Just washi tape directly on the walls. We spend all day looking at these walls. They might as well make us happy. Just for us, not for show.

It’s a refreshing way of considering interior design, inspired by my favourite Netflix feature film Unicorn Store, and Grace Quantock’s book, Beyond the Boundaries: Finding Freedom & Fulfilment Within Four Walls. ‘I have papered my space, floor-to-ceiling, with photos and pictures,’ says Grace, ‘I’ve painted poems 5-feet-high across the walls’ (p.53). In Unicorn Store, Kit’s paintings extend beyond the canvas, and onto her clothing. Her friend Virgil builds her a unicorn stable, a gallery of childhood art projects rescued from storage boxes. When other artists dare to defy the norm, they spark in me an oo! Wait a minute. Life doesn’t have to look how everyone else says it should. This dreamy feeling is what I chase, the only place I’d like my attention to be.

What else can I do? How else can I dream? I yearn to make my life more and more my own. Once I get rolling, I can’t stop. It started with taping things to the wall, and with the thrill of tumbling down a hill, I realised that I could leave Instagram. And Twitter and LinkedIn and Facebook. I realised that I could paint outside the lines, create outside the grid, make things just for me, and for anyone who happens to be in the audience.

Social media is not a requirement, said Alexandra Franzen, and I heard it like a whisper.

Wendell Berry still does not own a computer. Even Sara Tasker, Instagram Expert, spent an entire summer offline. If these artists can do it, so can I. And by ‘it’, I mean doing things their own way. I want to be that example too. I’m not here to impress, for the applause (though it’s tempting). I’m showing up as I am: forever on a journey of discovering what my own way is.

Years ago at a beauty event, I was talking to a makeup artist about my website, Fashionably Light. ‘If you want to be a fashion blogger, you have to get your eyebrows done,’ was her advice. I don’t want to be a fashion blogger, was my reaction. It’s funny: I wasn’t offended by her critique of my face, but by her insistence that I follow the trends. I refuse to be that kind of role model. I’ll pluck my eyebrows if I want to, not as a prerequisite for achieving your definition of…who you think I want to be?

In My Last Post on Instagram I wrote, ‘I’m leaving Instagram to live deliberately’, a spin on Henry David Thoreau’s: ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately’.

That same word, ‘deliberately’, comes up in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, and it chilled me in its truth. She writes: ‘I am concerned about the effects of current social media on expression — including the right not to express oneself — and its deliberately addictive features’ (p.xii). I left Instagram to reclaim agency of my expression, to reclaim my energy and attention. I left because I don’t want my presence on the platform to be any part of anyone else’s reason to stay. It’s my way of acknowledging the damaging effects of social media, designed to make us reliant on the apps, dividing our attention, promoting consumerism, profiting on discriminatory advertising, and manipulating our anxiety.

It’s a hard truth to realise, in a digital space that feels a bit like home because my friends live there.

If you choose to stay, that’s what you’re up against, and I wish you well in your quest to create within. For me, it’s not worth the cost to my creativity. It was not worth scraping at my wellbeing. I don’t endorse Facebook’s practices, so if I can drop their apps, I ought to.

When I decided to leave Instagram, I realised how much energy I was spending defending it. Trying to find the good. Giving it credit for reigniting my childhood passion for photography, reminding me that I love when things look pretty, and inspiring me to add digital doodles in the margins of my published writing. It was a good place to publish essays; maybe it brought me more Readers, but — I’m no longer searching for excuses. I love to be a fan. I love to be loyal. But I can accept when something has flaws. And I’m ready to take credit for my own creativity.

My life is as gorgeous as my Instagram, and I would like to live in it. 

A friend of mine was surprised to find that my home and my outfits and my planner were in fact as portrayed online. I was like… yes? But over time, I learned that on Instagram, people operate on assumption: that the coveted aesthetic is fake until proven otherwise. Huh! I wasn’t bothered by the pastel perfect lifestyles; they inspired me! What I was bothered by, was having to insist upon the authentic pink-ness of my own life – really! The attitude on social media is Prove It: Prove that your life is this lovely, but Prove that you are human.

I fell in. Caved to the pressure to speed up: document and share my life, constantly. Meaningfully, though! I tried to tell myself.

Like this one weekend afternoon, offline, making paper collages, thinking — I ought to post photos, to say Look, you can have fun with paws and paper! (They were Paddington Bear collages). I did a meditation, fluttered my eyes open, and reached to tap the share button — distribute a helpful resource, signal boost the creator! Pics or it didn’t happen! Pics or it’s greedy, selfish, to hoard something helpful, all to yourself.

I’m learning that I can, and sometimes should keep things to myself. Receive things for just myself. That sometimes, sharing might even make someone feel worse. It certainly makes me feel worse, stunting the full enjoyment of the thing in exchange for the short-term rush of perceived external validation. When I do share, I must be certain of the message. I’m taking up space — and I should, I deserve to — but when I do, it should matter.

I happened to press play on Episode 1 of the new Baby-Sitters Club tv show the same day I decided to leave Instagram.

‘Social media rots your brain,’ shrugs Claudia, and honestly, what better validation could I hope for than the timeless icon that is Claudia Kishi? The new adaptation of the 1980s book series is set in present day, and the decision to keep the club analog, with a landline phone, is a bold one, rather than a technical necessity. The girls consider social media profiles and targeted ads, but decide that there is value in personal touch. As a kid, reading Kristy’s Great Idea inspired my entrepreneurialism (I thanked Ann M. Martin at a reading, and asked her to please sign my Passion Planner). These 12-year old fictional characters remain my business cohort today.

If my life as documented online were a tv show, we’d be in like, Season 16 by now, and I want that season to be as fresh, magical, and meaningful as the first one.

If I’m going through the trouble of running a business based on my life, it better be my way. It’s messy and confusing, but it’s worth it when I insist on enjoying myself. This ongoing personal audit of my public expression involves returning to the past, my past, often. It would be amazing if each new essay were like a new episode of the BSC: built on a foundation of nostalgia, bringing forward the best of what was once young, updated with the wisdom of my present-day learnings.

I have a personal policy: Obsessions Only. 

When it comes to things I do for fun, I don’t settle. Books, tv, music, everything – I must be Obsessed. This usually involves delight and intellectual challenge. My free time is too valuable for anything else. I put the book down if it’s not the right fit. Lockdown has strengthened my personal standards, illuminating habits of mine that were not, in fact, Obsessions. I found myself ordering only my favourite cake. I realised how, when I was out and about, craving sweets on a whim, I would settle for non-favourite cake. If I’m gonna eat cake, it better the best cake.

As for Instagram, I caught myself getting into a ‘just in case’ mentality. I should stay just in case I find new Readers, meet new friends. I’m done settling for ‘just in case’ and ‘mostly okay’. Obsessions Only. Logging on to Instagram, I was in fight mode. I strained my brain to focus on what I needed in that noisy space, so I could go in and get out. I would publish a photo with a poem about depression, and get comments like ‘love your outfit!’. I had to keep striving to return to myself. Eyes on my own metrics for success.

A magical thing happens when I recognise that something isn’t quite right.

In the space created from saying no, I can imagine something better. My creativity stretches awake from slumber and devises another way. It may be a new way, or an uncommon way, but it is more me, better for me, so sparkly! I challenge myself: can I do this more deliberately? I replaced my Facebook group with a secret radio show, and an ongoing collaborative art project. I replaced publishing my essays on Instagram Stories with printing them out to send in the post, complete with doodles in the margins – from my own paws.

This work of doing better is never done. A heroine is never trained. I must keep going, because the striving is not just for me: a heroine is never alone. My learnings and actions will impact you, and Readers to come. Like artists before me — those who acted sooner than I in my lifetime, and those whose words have reached me from centuries ago — if I keep putting forward my best work, words, and actions, maybe that will help. If we all do, it certainly would.

When I moved to the UK, I learned that while high school graduation in the US is such a thing, here you don’t graduate from school. You just leave. 

You’re not a Graduate. You’re a Leaver. So maybe I left social media. Or maybe, to be extra American, and super Millennial I can say I graduated. Cue the confetti. This is my ceremonial speech. I’ll washi tape my diploma to the wall. And there should be cake. But only the best cake.

Until the Next Chapter,

Xandra

P.S. I loved doodling in the digital margins of my essays, but I love doodling in the paper margins of my essays more. So I have a new Patreon Tier, The Print Edition, in which I print (and doodle upon) essays to send to your actual, physical mailbox. Also, my audiobook Tier, Read by Xandra, is now available for $3. Here’s the link to my Patreon.

P.P.S. Baby-Sitters Club recaps coming soon to Heroine Training Podcast, What’s Your Favorite Part?!

P.P.P.S. I almost forgot – please write back! I would love to hear your story too. Just not on Instagram ;)

Further Reading:

SOCIAL MEDIA ROTS UR BRAIN

Audiobook on Patreon

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