The decline of Twitter, followed by a nudge from my book publisher gently reminding me that I needed to be somebody, somewhere, in the social-verse, brought me, a generationally ambivalent 44-year-old, to Instagram for the first time a few months ago.
Oh, I expected to hate so much. The manufactured humility, the manufactured joy, the manufactured rage, the faux intimacy (“Hey guys… Hey guys… Hey guys,” “I need to tell you something”), and the way these all tend to co-mingle, boasting attenuated by self-deprecation, tenderness attenuated by irony. And worst of all, I suspected, would be the distortion of a human being into a salesperson for said human being—even when, or especially when, a successful transaction didn’t lead to money or fame.
None of this, following a monthlong adjustment period, bothers me. There are, as in offline life, obnoxious people who take things too far, and there are, as in offline life, a majority just looking to share. Nor do I, much to my surprise, resent others for their success. Yes, there is a fair amount of vanity in parasocial relationships. But what relationships don’t trade on some degree of vanity? And anyway, who am I to patrol varieties of human-to-human connection? It was, as far as I could tell, largely authentic.
There is, however, one thing on Instagram that makes my skin itch and fills me with a strange blend of self-hatred and general misanthropy. It’s when a creator of content offers me permission for something they assume I experience shame over, without, of course, knowing me and my singular bucket of shames. I’ve come to think of this as “permission culture,” and it comes from all sorts, including clothing companies, mental health professionals (self-designated and otherwise), celebrities, and at least a few women I—and probably you—went to college with.
“It’s OK if your house isn’t clean… It’s OK if your old jeans don’t fit… It’s OK if you don’t make your kid’s birthday cake… It’s OK to be lazy… It’s OK to be motivated… It’s OK if you are a mom who works… It’s OK if you are a mom who doesn’t work,” and a hundred other configurations, including the ne plus ultra of permission culture, “It’s OK if you are not OK.”
Permission culture is the love child of confession culture and self-care culture. “Confession culture” being the early-aughts phenomenon of someone, generally a woman, publicly sharing intimate details about the hard and ugly parts of life; “self-care culture” being the later-aughts phenomenon, adapted and extrapolated from the much more political writings of activists like Audre Lorde, in which someone, generally a woman, encourages others to protect themselves from the hard and ugly parts of life by doing everything from napping to taking expensive vitamin supplements. Both strains of discourse were born out of a real need to permit women more honesty about the stresses they experience and what it takes to heal from them. Permission culture bundles the two together, marrying confession with therapy, all to a depressingly hollow effect. Once upon a time, everyone needed a therapist. Today, everyone wants to be a therapist. I don’t think we are better off.
The premise of permission culture is: Women don’t know how to be upset or express themselves when they are upset, women all feel oppressed by domesticity and having children, women all feel oppressed by diet and fashion, and, most of all, women are victims to productivity culture. That many of the most frequent granters of permission to escape productivity culture seem to be diligent brand builders themselves is an irony hard to miss.
But it’s not the gentle hypocrisy of online personas, which is nothing new, that bothers me. Instead, it is the way the “It’s OK…” formula infantilizes its audience, acting as though our very real and textured struggles with how to be a person and live a meaningful life can be fixed with such simple solutions. In the logic of permission culture, those of us making decisions about whether to make holiday cookies, seek a promotion, or attempt to lose weight are all just waiting to be liberated by someone on our phones telling us that “society” doesn’t need us to do anything we don’t want to do. I often have a very good list of why I should do something, and a good list of why I shouldn’t do something, and while gendered societal pressures surely affect me, they are but one of a constellation of factors that make up my messy existence.
Permission culture has a particularly big blindspot to our feelings of obligation to others, to the fact that sometimes I do things, like make treacly holiday cookies with my kids, not because I really want to, but because my kids want to, and the memory of making them with my own mom is, if I am being honest, a really nice one. I already know it’s “OK” to not make their holidays perfect. Just like I know it’s “OK” not to seek out a perfect diet or exercise regimen or body in the new year. I am never going for perfection; at 44, I know better than that. But what do I want when it comes to my kids, house, or my body? How do I navigate motherhood, domesticity, career, and midlife vanities knowing I want to be a good mom, writer, and friend, and look decent but not lose my sanity or dignity in the process? Permissions from my not-really-friends in Reels get me no closer to figuring that out.
I know there are good intentions here. I know it well enough to feel a bit bad writing this. You could say permission givers just want to help. But so did all the women’s magazines I read in my teens and 20s. For decades I was told what to do, what to worry about, and now I am regularly told what not to do and what not to worry about. They may sound like two different melodies but ultimately are the same old heard-this-one-before song in which womanhood is presented as a universal narrative with one set of enemies and one set of redeemers, instead of a billion particular realities.
While permission culture, as I’ve experienced it at least, mostly addresses women’s concerns, there is a branch of it that transcends gender and is focused on mental health. The “permission” in these scenarios is to feel uncomfortable feelings. Some name these feelings specifically, while others prefer to keep the discomfort vague, as is the case with the aforementioned and extremely popular “It’s OK not to be OK.” While the rest of permission culture irks me in a mostly intellectual, it’s-my-job-to-poke-holes-in-things sense, this one actually hurts. My pain comes from the fact that for the past six months I have not been OK, for reasons that are not my story to tell. Seeing yet another influencer or brand telling me It’s OK not to feel OK makes me feel like someone has come face to face with the tragic nature of life and brushed it away, like crumbs off a table’s edge. If only it were so easy.
While shame around pain is a problem, the actual pain is the problem. When I tell my friends and family members about my pain, I don’t desire permission, so much as empathy. I want them to tell me, to feel alongside of me, that what I am experiencing is really not OK, to acknowledge that while such pain is indeed a part of life, our instinct to desire a kinder, gentler path for ourselves and others is what makes us human. To acquiesce to the not OK-ness is to give up; to want more and better for ourselves and others is what it means to really give a shit.
I’m aware that this is asking too much from parasocial relationships. I don’t think this level of attention and empathy I described in the previous paragraph could ever take place in something designed for public consumption. The tragedy of permission culture is not that it lacks the deep attention and empathy of offline connections—in that, it never stood a chance. Instead, it is the way it masquerades as care, while being entirely bereft of curiosity for anyone involved. Care without curiosity is no care at all.
I’ll “heart,” and almost always with an honest human heart, your birthday pics, kid pics, professional announcements, wedding photos, images of lost loved ones, and all the other life milestones captured on the grid and in your Stories. I’ll do this because I’m curious, because I care. But grant me permission to feel or behave a certain way, and there will be no “hearting,” by way of emoji or spirit. Meanwhile, my actual heart will be feeling a little more lonely, a little less understood.