After moving in for my sophomore year, I showed my mom around campus. From New College West, we walked through the “slums” and up to the Holder Cloisters. After my spring full of mysterious illnesses and sadness, I was clogged with the anxiety of returning, which was only slightly relieved by seeing how nice my new dorm was. The buildings felt rescaled against me though I hadn’t grown at all. Every step of my foot and every turn of my head showed me another place I’d been godlessly miserable in. I became so many different versions of myself who had fleetingly existed along every point of that path, and none of them were even remotely happy. When my mom gave me a final hug that day, she said, “Have fun!” and I started crying in front of everybody moving into my building because I knew I was going to have sad instead. What I think is very silly about this story is that the entire time I was walking around campus, I kept waiting for a singular burst of joy, to think, “It’s so pretty here! I’m so glad to be here!” As if pretty and glad were commutative.
Beautiful things and places tend to make us feel good. But to expect that beauty will cancel out real woes is asking way too much of it. Regardless, we labor to surround ourselves with beauty, and even sometimes fear that without it, we will never face happiness. I’m thinking of a TikTok audio that went megaviral a few years ago, the dizzying cascade of celesta keys and the mildly muffled and echoing voice of a woman saying: You HAVE to start romanticizing your life. You HAVE to start thinking of yourself as the main character. If you don’t, life will continue to pass you by, and all the little things that make it so beautiful will continue to go unnoticed. So take a second, look around, and realize that it’s a blessing for you to be here right now. Overlaid on video montages of beautiful women in beautiful dresses in the most beautiful corners of New York City, apparently with still more left to romanticize about their beautiful days.
I know you can be a deeply sad person while looking happy and nice. In a way, I find the self-life-romanticizing posting that has proliferated all over TikTok and Instagram to be no different from everything that came before on social media, or from the human condition as it has always been, the desire to be known as the happiest version of yourself. Still, I cannot help but note that even the TikTok from which this mantra of an audio originated is already so invested in beauty. In equating romanticizing life with deliberately seeking out beauty, we leave very little room for the truly mundane to be rendered romantic, and instead attempt to replace our well-dimensioned real lives with aestheticized ones.
Take, for example, the Instagram photo dump. It’s supposed to be a chiller and realer way to present yourself, but it’s not. I’m guilty of this in the pictures I reposted after taking everything down, twice. Scattered across my main Instagram account: a mango in my hand, a text comparing Mitski’s “That’s Our Lamp” with Richard Siken’s “The Torn-Up Road,” a selfie in the screen of lab equipment, graffiti around Buenos Aires. I can tell myself all I want that this is a basically random curation of just some fun stuff, but I sure wouldn’t post any pictures of myself that are silly beyond some plausible deniability of beauty without contributing to a feeling of nonchalance or coolness. This “shift in taste from the obsessively manicured” version of social media enacted by the generation just above us is a response to “feel[ing] alienated from some kind of just-out-of-reach authenticity”, says Arushi Sinha of Vogue, discussing how her Gen Z cousin informed her that straining to get good lighting to look your best is cringe now. The cousin says, “Get a shot of your Aperol Spritz, but make sure it’s in the corner.” That is, try your best to make your life look as beautiful as possible, but pretend it was always like that, like you didn’t try. Make your purportedly authentic life double as an aesthetic one, blunder the boundaries and live in that gray area.
Consumed by the aesthetic, the self also inevitably becomes an object of aestheticization. Today I saw an aspirational moodboard on Twitter: skinny, pale-toned girls among an assortment of black and brown clothes and furniture, overlaid with a rose gold stethoscope kit, the Harvard Medical School logo, and the word “Discipline” sprawled in an ugly script font against a jarring white background. I couldn’t help but laugh at the naïveté of it all, beauty at the pinnacle of success. The famously grueling (albeit surely rewarding) experience of medical school and its implied future are packaged into an image whose primary purpose is to be visually pleasing—the only reason we aspire for success, however we define it, is for the aesthetics that follow. In the replies, a fifteen year old girl says, “the ppl in these comments just don’t understand what it’s like to strive to be the best version of themselves,” referring to those who were joking about the moodboard. She has bulimia as her location in her Twitter bio. Her pinned motivational thread reads, “romanticize your workouts: dress all cute and feel like a pretty pink pilates princess✨👼🌸🤍” and “how much pain are you willing to endure to be skinny? to look effortlessly thin everywhere you go. if you keep going, you won’t even have to TRY or suck in to look thin!” Oh, to become the aestheticized version of yourself, to live it and sever away real life. I bet it feels great. Except for the part where you can never stop being you, and the aestheticizing will never be complete.
Unfortunately, the emphasis on aestheticization only calls attention to the perceived flaws of its subject. The art critic and philosopher Boris Groys claims in “Self-Design and Aesthetic Responsibility” that “while [aestheticization] makes an object look better, it likewise raises the suspicion that this object would look especially ugly and repellent were its designed surface to be removed.” Hence, in a world built with endless beautification and marketing of objects and people alike, we are belabored by the need to erase this suspicion. I think that we work so hard to “[produce] sincerity and trust” as a result not only to fool others, but also to convince ourselves. We try to call our lives beautiful because we don’t know what we’d do with ourselves if they weren’t. After all, if we look at life and don’t think oh, this is so gorgeous, then what is it all worth? Really, if I’m the result of all my choices and circumstances thus far and I don’t like any of it, whom can I blame and how can I bear to be myself?
I don’t know. Few things scare me more than myself. What I do know is that at my absolute worst, I wanted nothing more than to see my life for what it is and still find it worthwhile. In “The Mundane Thrill of Romanticizing Your Life,” Christina Caron notes that the call for romanticization as we understand it today “[rose] in popularity during the grimmest months of the pandemic.” And indeed, that was a hard time to live through without conscious efforts to find gratitude and joy. Even while we romanticized our lives, we could not lie to ourselves, because we understood the predicament we were in. Then, we were truly able to find joy in things such as the bubbles made while doing the dishes and watching birds in the morning, as the people Caron writes about do. Romanticization is a tool to make joy easy and life worth living, not to reinvent who we are. Some things just cannot be aestheticized; to do so is a bastardization of and a disservice to the world we live in. I think the self is one of them.