Every day, I get a notification on Facebook: “On this day, x number of years ago, you posted…” And nearly every day, I open that up to see if I need to delete something embarrassing. I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve eradicated almost all of my pre-2012 Facebook statuses, but occasionally I’ll still find a post that I haven’t managed to take down. It’s a cleansing exercise, I suppose. Also a humbling one. I cringe every time I see those posts: they’re juvenile, or unflattering, or dumb. Mostly they’re desperate. I had such a naked desire for approval. I was trying on all kinds of ill-fitting identities, looking for one that worked, looking for one that other people would like.
I’ve been thinking about this specifically with men. One of the things I so awkwardly laid claim to, that I tried to publicize, was having “guy friends.” I have been friends with a lot of excellent men over the years. In retrospect, though, I stunted a lot of those relationships by too self-consciously claiming them. I wanted to solidify those friendships by publicizing them online. I was posting photos, or tagging them, or commenting on their posts because I wanted to be the kind of girl who had guy friends.
This was—is?—an art. We all hated the girl who “only hangs out with guys” because she thought “girls cause too much drama.” That girl is a traitor. We didn’t say it, usually, but there were other unspoken assumptions: that girl is a slut. She might be a lesbian. Those were bad things to be in a Christian high school and college in the late 2000s. But if you didn’t have any guy friends—well, first of all, it seriously limited your romantic prospects. The only way to get a boyfriend was to hang out with boys, and if you didn’t have any ostensibly platonic guy friends, you didn’t have many chances to attract them. You had to be a cool girl. You had to have the tacit approval of a critical mass of dudes. You had to manage the possibility that you would ever date any of them, strategically doling out and seeking approval without creating undue expectations. You had to “hang out”—not too often or too exclusively with any one guy because people might talk about it. But not too infrequently, because then no one would ask you to homecoming.
My parents were often confused by this. “I hate this term, ‘hang out.’ What does that mean? What are you doing?” or “What do you mean they’re ‘talking’? What do you mean they’re ‘a thing’?” I could never explain the politics of it, but somehow we all knew the rules. Every girl I knew was playing the game.
I’m embarrassed, now, when I see the Facebook posts. I’m trying so hard to act in on the joke. I’m trying so hard to seem chill, and fun, and like the kind of girl who doesn’t mind watching you play Xbox or listening to you joke about hot female celebrities, like I’m smart but not intimidating, like I’m athletic but clumsy in a cute way, like I have opinions but never when it’s inconvenient. A few months ago, I asked a high school friend what he remembered about me from that time. “I remember that you didn’t take shit from people,” he said. And I laughed, pleased—but that’s not how I remember it. That’s not how I remember me.
It got a little better as I got older. I was lucky enough to be friends with mostly good guys who have become good men. But I still remember grasping. For several years of college, I had a co-ed weekly breakfast group, most often organized and championed by the women in it. And at every intimation of the boys’ indifference—if they were late, say, or they wanted to cancel, or the conversation petered out—I felt a tiny stab of fear. It felt crushingly important to me that they affirm that I mattered to them more than other women did. So I tried to claim that intimacy—on Facebook, with photos of us climbing or camping together, in person, by creating “inside jokes,” or referencing shared experiences or teasing them about being bad drivers, by presuming invitations to things I was afraid no one would ask me to attend. I had to show them and everyone else that we were close. I had to be a girl with guy friends.
It’s unclear to me, still, how much of this was based in an adolescent desire for male approval. It seems to be tied up with an ongoing desperation for friends I could depend on and a stable place in the social order. It’s about gender and power, in places, and I know a lot of it is just growing up. What I lament most is this: that we all spent so many desperate years looking for friendship. Me. The guys I was trying to befriend. The other women I saw as challengers to that fragile intimacy. We were all busy being lonely in the same place. That’s what makes the “On this day” Facebook reminders so painful, I think—remembering that desperation and suspecting that I was not entirely alone in it, after all.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.