By Katherina Hoi
When I was 16, I had 80,000 followers on Instagram. When I was 16, I learned that my body was a commodity, an ad space, a place to project a hashtag and a brand name. Without an agency or clear direction of how to manage the online sphere, I was on my own, tens of thousands eyes watching my teenage self morph and change and twist to please.
In a Pavlovian sense, I connected my neutral stance with the social platform to the positive stimulus that was free clothes, makeup, and attention. It all hinged on the maintenance of my online persona. I could pretend that my cyber self was an accurate reflection of who I was, not just a representation of everything I was not. I could pretend as if my cyber self was a true reflection, not a representation of everything I was not. Of course, I was always decked out in Dollskill and fishnets with a perfect eyeliner wing. Of course, I never had a stubborn acne spot. Of course, I constantly ate clean vegan meals or replacement matcha smoothies. And when I did stray from that image, it was always calculated to project relatability, I never fully engaged in it; there was always a deliberate separation.
This technological abstraction of me seemed far better than the reality. And for two years, I rode this high. I made friends in London and LA, received invitations to events, collaborated with now-massive brands (albeit they were underground at the time), and conducted giveaways. Getting 30,000 likes on a selfie? It was easy; effortless. ‘Fan’ art? Naturally. Obsessively checking my Social Blade profile? I had the app for that.
5 years and many thousands of lost followers later, I can say that I paid for my naivety with blood. Breaking news; declaring your body a free market at an age where your brain isn’t fully developed will change how you view it. Declaring your body a location of uncensored discussion will screw up how you think about it too. The comments of ‘you’ve gained weight’ or ‘way too skinny’ will make you think it never really belonged to you at all. You will think it is public property, collective possession, referred to with the pronoun ‘ours.’
The direct messages from fathers and husbands, their profiles filled with images of young daughters and pregnant wives, will make you fearful. Distrustful and wary, always squinting at the fine text. The threats of violence will make your permanent stance one of gripped keys and looking over your shoulder. And you will see kindness as a bargain, a trade deal, follow for follow, like for like, not because I like you, but because we agreed on those terms.
I could’ve deleted it at any time, I’ve heard this refrain already. The sarcastic poor you. But the very point of social media is that you don’t want to. It is built to keep you scrolling, posting, liking no matter the cost. It’s a gamble; you’re one post away from the jackpot, from the big win. It was the only thing I knew I could do and do well. My conditioning turned a brainwash. Cut now to me holding out my phone, the camera app already open.
Do I regret it? Yes. My teenagedom was taken and turned into a myriad of ‘jailbait’ or ‘dick tease’ comments. They formed thick blisters along my skin, leaving smooth scars that didn’t feel touch. But I was online, right? I asked for it. I was meant to be loving it. Or at least, I should’ve expected it.
My body, or rather, that body as it was not mine, became a billboard, a space for rent, to be seen and not heard. Tell me how to act, how to pose, how to move, what to say, what to write. Tell me how to be. This body has been big and small, hospitalised and cut into, groped and harassed. And it has also been kissed, loved, and held. No longer a static image or non-candid-candid photo in the Tesco Extra meat aisle. And I am still learning how to like it like this, not as advertisement, not as possession. I am still learning not to airbrush out bruises or pimples. I am still learning how to be boring, posting pictures with my friends and non-vegan unclean meals I’m proud to be eating. I am still learning how to dress without the exaggeration of a style that was forced upon me by my commoditized self.
I’m not a ‘victim,’ but rather a snake that sheds its own skin. I remove one layer to reveal another, one that is thicker and more obtuse. Proud to take up space. My body is not a product but a work in progress; a reflection of how it really has been.