You on Your Best Day: Tinder, Self, and Depression

“It was too much effort. To look passable. To look pretty enough. To make sure all the seams lined up and everything matched and she looked as much the her in her mind’s eye as she possibly could. She did not know even who she was dressing up for. So much effort to go through to smile smugly at her mirror reflection. Saying yes, this is you on your best day.”
-Kate Zambreno, Green Girl

It starts at a high school party, as so many regrets do, slung across someone’s leather couch like a ragdoll, sleepless brain-fried me. My friends know how to convince me to do stupid things. They know how to embolden my wanting into doing, even if daytime me cringes, nauseated, would never. They write my boldness into beingnot coercion, but confidence. Or so they say.

“You should get on Tinder!” Oh, no. “Yes, yes yes. You have to.” Do I really? “C’mon, it’s not a big deal. Do it for the memes. You don’t have to actually meet up with anyone.”
Okay, fine. I’ll do it for the memesas adequate a reason as any nowadays. To me, the app epitomizes contemporary hookup culture in all its disorientation. The app epitomizes casualness, effortlessness, painless connection. As if there is such a thing.

In high school, my teachers all offered the same criticism: Sofia’s writing tends to be too convoluted. Let the ideas speak for themselves, not the sentences. I have a tendency to marble big thoughts in superfluity, intricacy, wordiness. Maybe because I have so little faith in the quality of my ideas that my sentences must overcompensate. I can make words sing so that they resound with that quality of euphony. Trusty Wikipedia defines a euphony as “a word or phrase which is beautiful purely in terms of its sound, without regard for semantics (i.e. meaning.)” A good example: the phrase “cellar door.” The meaning meaningless, but the sound of the phrase, gorgeous. I littered my essays with cellar doors. Not to say, Look what I can do, look what adjectives I can glaze these paragraphs with, look what stylistic illusions I can make out of nothing. No: arrogance, show-offiness wasn’t my problem. Maybe at first glance, but really, I overwrote so consistently because I didn’t think there was anything underneath those cellar doors. I thought myself capable only of hollow undergrounds, of garnished echoes.

Depression as desert: hollow, droughted, rocky succubus of quiet and solipsism. Depression as a windowless room: mausoleum-like, monotonous, The Shining-esque cabin fever within oneself. Depression as a word problem: something I most definitely cannot solve, layered in red herrings and off-map attractions to derail your grasps at the answer, to distract you from this business of living. Depression as this, as that, as anything but what it actually is. I try and try and try, but I cannot analogize it away.

So the mess of Tinder: to somehow “put myself out there,” to gloss myself into something easily comprehended, easily liked, undoes me. I cannot stand the cruelty of making ourselves vulnerable, weeding out desire through swipes, through a handful of selfies and carefully selected photos, the brutal rumination over our mini-biographies, condensing these amorphous prickly selves into a concise, flirty-but-not-too-flirty, bold-but-not-too-bold, witty, likable paragraph. I cannot stand such self-cruelty.

Being on Tinder as a person with…mental health kerfluffles. Being on Tinder as a person with malfunctioning brain chemistry, in other words, is not so easy. With a head like this, “connection” is scary as shit. For everyone, probably, but especially so for those of us with histories superimposed upon histories, traumas scaffolded upon traumas. Those of us with panic in our blood. Maybe I should be honest. Maybe I should tell the truth in my Tinder profile: Will probably disappear now and then, but expect you not to. Will probablylikelyinexplicably retreat from the world sometimes, crawl under covers and lock myself into silence. Will have bad days where I cannot speak to you or anyone. May experience random panic attacks in the bathroom of a party, so that we’ll have to leave early and you’ll be irritated and I’ll be shaky-silent. Probably won’t want to socialize as much as I should. Would prefer to watch horror movies all night which ironically tend to alleviate my existential dread while eating sushi. Probably wants too much aloneness. Might drive you insane with my moodiness, my silence, my disrepair. Aren’t I the complete package? Aren’t I the quintessence of the word “lovable?”

Tinder, incompatible with anonymity, and so, the knots in my brain cannot be sewn pretty in namelessness. Talking to people. Talking to strangers. Talking to men. Talking online, one thing, but then, in person? Slow down there. With Tinder comes expectations of romantic intentions, and, frequently, of physical intimacy. Maybe without the emotional intimacy. I’m not degrading that type of relationship; I myself am not cut out for it. I care I care I care so dreadfully much.

I try hard to embody sex positivity, to destigmatize sex in our wonky puritanical culture. Sometimes, though, sex positivity can tread into that queasy space of “gameness.” If I am not embracing my sexuality, I am doing something wrong, it feels. If I am not acting on it, I am doing something wrong.

This approach can erase those who identify as asexual, though, and can also murk the freedom to not be sexually active, to require emotional connection before physical connection. Sex positivity must include asexuality. Sex positivity must also recognize those of us with triggers, with a deep and complicated need for breathing room, for perhaps extreme slowness, for emotional intimacy preceding anything else. Yes, Tinder absolutely works for many of its users. I know how incredibly liberating access to a (relatively) self-directed sexuality can be. It often transcends romantic relationships and can become a friend-making tool in a new city. Tinder can undoubtedly put some goodness out there. But. 

In me, it amplifies an identity crisis. I want to somehow connect with more honesty, with vulnerability that springs from sharing my “crazy.” We can gloss ourselves away, detach ourselves from the turbulence of personhood in the free-fall of internet “dating.” Our edges flatten, the screen-self less a mirror than a “final draft” of our best selves…we self-edit so much that any “realness” is cut and mended. Until we retreat into the simplest holographs of ourselves, and the living, hurting, blood-running person behind our screens becomes unknowable. Because she is too much.

Roxane Gay, writing about Kate Zambreno’s novel Green Girl, says, “Throughout the novel, there is also an awareness of how sometimes, women perform their roles. They play the part of girl. The performance, at times, overshadows a woman’s identity and stands in place of her identity. As Ruth realizes, 'Sometimes she is struck by the sense that she is someone else’s character, that she is saying someone else’s line.' The green girl also does one thing and feels another because the passivity of the green girl masquerades as politeness. She wants to put her fist through a window but doesn’t because she knows that’s not what expected of a green girl.”

The suffering of a pretty white girl, the stuff of (male-authored) poetry. The term “green girl” is taken from Hamlet, a phrase used by Polonius regarding Ophelia. Green girl: ruined, lovely, indecipherable. Green girl: madness coated in romance. What we know of green girls comes from the male viewpoint, mainly, and what blisters underneath those eyes usually goes unrecovered. We criticize these green girls as difficult, frustrating, annoying, self-absorbed, overdramatic, periled with vanity. Indeed, when we refer to “green girls,” there usually comes a certain tundra of privilege: whiteness? Prettiness? What kind of problems are those? But rarely does critique of the green girl talk about thatit’s usually about how damn irritating the heroine is. Because for a girl, for a woman, likability trumps all else. For a girl, to be liked is to be lauded as a character worth getting to know.

Online, I glimpse the green girl sprout alive in the form of Tinder. I watch myself want to be liked so so so so badly. I watch myself afraid of my own suffering, afraid to claim myself as anything other than damaged.

Maybe, though, my desire to annihilate all traces of my moodiness, imperfection, self-loathing, isn’t only a symptom of mental illness. Maybe my need to cleanse the digital Sofia of all grime comes from what Zambreno refers to in Heroines: “ANXIETY: When she experiences it, it’s pathological. When he does, it’s existential.” I want to wipe myself not only of the grime of a difficult brain, but really, of being itself. Maybe I pathologize personhood.

Nomaybe culture pathologizes womanhood.

I must come to terms with the fact that people in relationships are evolving, too. Intimacy does not require a “finished” or “completed” self; a final-draft selfbecause, really, is there such a thing? My brain bludgeons me into believing that my fluidity, my fluxing, complicated self, is not ubiquitous. That I am unique in feeling unfinished, redrafting over and over, ever-recreated. I confuse my mental health issues, which are very real, with my person issues. I am a person, I am messy and changing and unpredictable and I must not feel guilty for that.

Eighteen years spent tidying myself into binaries. Eighteen years spent nudging myself away from one box into another, never considering the possibility of not having to choose. Maybe this essay has turned more into a meditation on my girlness than my mental health. We push teenage girls to choose between selves. Being many things, holding many selves, holding multiverses, is not an option we usually offer. And so when it comes to thinking of myself as a wantable person, as a woman deserving of want, I cannot help but feel shame crowding my complexity, my complicatedness, my ever-messiness. I cannot help but feel aghast at my own cluttered self. We teach girls to like this or that, never this and that. Sexuality is this or that. Gender is this or that. Until our heads cloud with binaries, and the spiderweb of human experience is tugged into a single thread.

Let me be everything. Let me be fragmented, discomforting, weird, messy. Let me not feel ashamed of my knotty brainwho is to say what a clean-framed brain looks like? Let me manage my mental health, take care of myself without that tremulous obligation to love and cherish and ever-believe-in myself.

I want an online space that abhors limitations and functions as, perhaps, philosopher Alain de Botton suggests: "One of the first things couples should do is rather than saying how perfect they are, they should say 'I'm crazy like this, how are you crazy?' Most of the time we make discoveries about how difficult people are at the moment when the difficulties have actually hurt us, therefore, we are not likely to be forgiving or sympathetic."

A meeting point for my crazy to greet yours.

Bitch. Perhaps the universal song of TinderBoys: bitch. As a mournful chanting to accent their being deprived of nudes. Or the rejection of grotesque “pickup lines” usually referring to how badly they want to “bang” “screw” “fuck”insert otherwise aggressive verbsyou. How we allow men to behave. Even on Tinder, I don’t believe that anyone should expect to be harassed. Flirting seems very distinguishable to me, and it’s certainly not the same thing as verbal violence. Or, the very best, unsolicited dick pics: harassment. Amongst the ever-growing list of things we never asked for but get from men anyways, because apparently they know what we want better than we ourselves do.

Who, then, is the girl capable of liberation and self-loathing? Who, then, is the marvelous creature able to believe in her self-worth enough to seek intimacy, and yet feel like an incurable burden all at once? The contradictions that live within us, I don’t know how to mold.

By Sofia Sears
Photo from Girl Gaze exhibition at Annenberg Center for Photography

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