Trigger Warning: This post references suicide and cyber bullying.
Mae Natacha, 2004. I was 10 years old.
Mon Caf, when in public, you must put on your social mask and not give away who you are. People can be cruel and you do not want to arm them against you.
10 years old and already my mother was instructing me in the importance of the private and public domain. One existed within the household where I could be angry, ranty, unhappy, happy, it didn’t really matter. The other was where I was to only have one visible emotion, one posture: a stoic one, impassible; this was because my mother saw the creole society as an extreme judgmental one, ready to attack at the first given occasion. I was to develop two personalities: the one I let the world see and the one I bottled up – a weakness if exposed to the public. I never questioned this back then; I took it as something to embody.
* * *
Growing up in the bush in Réunion with barely any electricity, I did not know what a computer was, nor for that matter the internet for a long time. I was only exposed to the magic of it all at school, when I turned 10. We were to play an educational game on the computers, supposedly enhancing our spelling abilities. That was all we did that semester, every fortnight, on a Monday afternoon. I remember praying to God and our family spirits, thanking them for this wonderful blessing. I felt as though I no longer only belonged to my Creole community, but that I also belonged to the world at large every two weeks, for 30 minutes.
Three years later I was offered a scholarship to leave Réunion and the bush behind and go to a ballet school in France. I took it. At the time I was 13, ignorant, naive, impressionable, eager to fit in, even to the detriment of not being myself. I was going into another world in which I did not wish to be a misfit.
Man I did not expect to be faced with such an extreme new world.
When before, I used to think of myself as a public and private being, I soon discovered that the European youth had another way of being, that of being public and private all at once. Every one was connected to each other in one way or another through the social media of the day. MSN, Skyrock and what not became my new evangelic obsessions. It seemed customary to give away your personal thoughts, your privacy, what I considered did not belong to the public domain. I did not wish to do that, nor did I wish to remain outside that world. I sought to create a balance, one which would enable me to seem open in the public’s eye, without really being my personal self. I thought I would be clever enough to do so.
Except, I was not that strong. I fell into an infernal spiral of not feeling good enough, not feeling good in my own skin. To make matters worse I had severe acne. And yet, nobody knew I wasn’t confident: I took my mum’s lesson to heart. Nobody knew Bryan when he was not answering to teachers, performing ballet, or smiling just to appear happy. No one. No one knew that for the first time, I was looking at myself, disgusted, constantly internally comparing myself to others, to the point of making myself sick.
Not even my childhood best friend, who got into the same school as me at the same time knew what was going on. Elio, like me was affected by social media and yet he didn’t manage to keep it together when faced with the virtual world; he decided to end his life just two years ago. He used to be very confrontational with white kids from our school, who would tease him on social media, never taking their insults. I always thought he was strong; I never imagined his responses to be a call of distress. He was 19.
Let’s take a step back. For three years we shared the same twin room at school. When it was time to move to high school, however, we went our separate ways. Our school allocated us wherever they thought our talents would be most profitable and fruitful, the result being we were sent to different schools. We kept in touch, of course, through Facebook; but we saw each other only four times a year for the next three years.
High school was a fresh start for me; no one knew me. The person people would come to know was the person I chose to let them know. It was at that time, I really harvested the power of social media.
I was the overachiever, the promising young talent: Young Ambassador for the French and American Embassies, uploading pictures of me in Washington having lunch at the Ambassador’s villa, posting statuses about me and other colleagues when we were granted the honour of sitting by the Supreme Court Judge Stephen Breyer’s sides, even in his fragile health state etc. Having been consistently teased at school for my background and told I couldn’t make it, I used Facebook to embrace my achievements. In spite of other people’s lack of faith that I could achieve anything with my life, I conquered. So I thought…
Half the response to my posts was: you have such a brilliant future ahead of yourself Bry, keep up the good work. The second half was: seriously? Could you be any more boastful and proud? Like do you even have any decency bragging about the advantages you were born with?
Of course I was born with advantages: in the bush, advantages are everywhere don’t you know? You have a silver spoon up your derrière when you are born, golden toilet seats, running water, room service etc. Suddenly social media proved itself to be something very different from what I had first thought. This time I realised that I was no longer in control of what people perceived of me and the identity I was forging for myself was not mine anymore; it was created by other people for me, and turned against me.
I proceeded to erase my account for a few weeks and then made a new Facebook account and started using it the following year, when I turned 17 with a different public persona.
I started opening ‘myself’ to new people, got interested in very unlike me areas, such as drugs and alcohol. I started hanging around with the pre-hipsters of the day. I started hanging out with my gay cousin, who eventually introduced me to the gay scene. I thought I could finally let go, be wild and young. I said good bye to ties, shirts and formal trousers. Good bye to emphatic old French expressions and hello to ‘fabulous fashion lover’ Bryan. Hello shorts I never dared to wear before, sheer tops, and what not. Hello parties and being sociable. I thought from now on that no one would have anything negative to say, how could they?
And yet once again, I was met with mitigated responses:
OMG innocent Bry is trying sooooooooooo hard to be cool. It does not suit him. That is not who he is.
I deleted my Facebook account, paused and started again – with a new mindset.
This time everything would be different. I would not let myself be the subject of the unjust social media court room. I would not take part in its trials again. Instead I would elevate myself to the gods, to the spirits, outside of this court. I would quit adapting myself to please other people and present myself as I wished on social media. The final version of my social media accounts would be mine, ungoverned by those around me.
And this is what I’ve done. I now post as many flattering selfies, serious thoughts, shameless YouTube promotional posts and random sassy comments on my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as I like. I ignore any criticism I receive from old ‘friends’ – or just delete them and move on. As an adult I no longer feel a need to adapt myself to people who don’t or won’t allow themselves to get me.
My mother’s advice is still of importance to me. I use social media to share what I want and keep to myself what I don’t want to share. The public sassy Bryan is commonly believed to be the private Bryan. Yet, you would never see me expose myself like I really am around my mum, siblings, my man: my family. They know the private me. What I make public is what I want people to know me for and as and what those I am less close to know of me is what I’m happy enough for them to know of.
It is easy to forget that identity and personhood are ever-changing states of human beings. What I say or do today might define me for the day, but what would be of it tomorrow? I like to think that I know what I want in life and what I aspire to be. Yet, I surprise myself everyday with the changes I am willing to go through: eat ketchup, which I hate, praise Madonna when I used to publicly disapprove of her for what I assumed was attention-seeking, let people see topless pictures of me when I used to be the quintessence of prudery.
I’ve changed and will continue to change – as may you. So my friends, before categorising someone as obnoxious, annoying, useless etc. Think: what does the content I give away say about me if anything at all? Do I feel okay about people claiming to know me through what I share and do I do so with them?
* * *
Elio was not willing to give much of his private self-online. He used the platform as a means to put little spoilt brats in their right place. However, this ‘ranting’ attitude caused him to be labeled an annoyance, an angry person who was to be put down because in defending himself he was considered unreasonably loud.
After a few years of being the victim of incessant cyber-bullying, Elio decided to exit life, which, in the end, presented very little difference from his online existence.
Bryan Valery is a third year Anthropologist at the University of Edinburgh. People mistake his sometimes rather silent states during ‘wannabe’ intellectual discussions for lack of intelligent things to say, when really he is judging y’all for your inability to see beyond the end of your nose. He is a fervent advocate of the ‘one (or two, or three…) spoon[s] of Nutella a day keeps the flat booty away’ mantra and his dream is to have a successful talk show dedicated to entertaining people with his notorious sass. Bryan also thinks that Beyoncé is truly the one and only Empress of the world, with Nicki Minaj at her right hand. You can catch Bryan on YouTube here: CreoleBoy.
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(Image sourced from: here)
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