Leaving the auditorium of the Royal Opera House last week after The Sleeping Beauty, I passed a woman taking selfie after selfie in the mirror of the hall. She had snuck out during the curtain call to have the red banquettes to herself. When she should have been applauding Yasmine Naghdi and Francesca Hayward — goddesses, Olympians, immortals — this complete nincompoop was basking in her own glory. All so that someone will post beneath her picture: ‘Hot lady alert.’ If I’d had a bouquet I’d have thrown it at her.
We hear a lot about abuse, the coarsening of discourse, the howls of ‘fascist’, ‘nationalist’, ‘snowflake’ and ‘boomer’, the constituents who torment politicians with nightly threats. I don’t wish to deny or diminish this side of social media. I quit Twitter on the principle that I would not willingly sit in the stocks next to a basket of rotten eggs and an invitation: ‘Test your arm! Penny a pelt!’ But the other online extreme, the hurrahs and hosannas, the garlands of hearts and stars, is insidious in its own way.
Post a picture, whether a barefaced humble-brag or a full Kardashian paint job, and the comments come. ‘Couldn’t. Love. This. More’, ‘Cutest human’, ‘Gorgeous girl’, ‘What a babe’, ‘UNREAL’, ‘Pure flame’, ‘Oh hello…’, ‘Wow wow and, I mean, wow.’ Whose head wouldn’t turn? ‘Smoking!’ chorus our followers. And for a moment we think: ‘Damn right I’m smoking. I am a goddess of fire and light.’ Only for a moment. The hit wears off. You post another photo. Beauty. Another. Stunner. Another. Perfection. You post, they applaud. On and on in an escalating cycle of attention-seeking and adulation until you start to believe your own artfully styled, sepia-filtered Insta-legend.
It is not enough, though, for others to love you. You must love yourself. The phrase ‘self-love’ has been used 34.6 million times on Instagram posts. Inspirational quotes and morning motivations receive thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of likes. They range from the improbable — ‘I am a kick-ass person who’s gorgeous and interesting as a whole’ — to the metaphysical: ‘You are love, light and life.’ My favorites are the mytho-phenomenal ones that urge ‘Be more rainbow’ or ‘You are your own unicorn’.
I’d like to propose an alternative: ‘Be more carthorse.’ Shoulder the burden. Take the load. Embrace your role as the reliable old nag who never lets anyone down. There’s scope for a whole scroll of nannyish sayings: ‘Be nice to your old mother’, ‘Put others first’, ‘Do as you would be done by’ and, crucially, ‘No one’s looking at you, dear’.
Much of this inspirational motivation is meant well. To go through life tormented by inner demons, a martyr to lumps and bumps and fat and freckles and infinite physical failings, to feel you are falling ever short of some unattainable mark, is no life at all. But believing your own hype, being accompanied every step of the way by choirs of all-hail and praise-be angels, leads to the sort of derangement I saw on opening night. You are not Princess Aurora. You are the flat-footed punter in seat 24G.
Some years ago I wrote a feature for The Spectator about the cost of silence. Online, the piece was illustrated by a picture of a model raising a finger to her painted lips and breathing: shhh! In the comments below, a lively discussion was underway. Was the model in the photograph also the author? Some enterprising soul looked up my byline photo and responded that no, the model and author were not the same. ‘Laura Freeman is perfectly pleasant and fragrant-looking,’ he wrote, ‘but not totty’.
Yowch! was my first reaction. My second: fair enough. I am the ugly teenage duckling who blossomed into… a perfectly pleasant duck. Over time, I’ve become quite attached to this assessment, finding it a useful guard against both unwarranted preening and bad-hair-day despair. It would make a good anti-beauty campaign slogan: ‘#nottotty — and proud’. If the line has stuck, it is partly because, in the scheme of internet feedback, with the bile of the trolls (‘may you burn in the fires of hell for a thousand years’) at one end and the extravagant praise of the fan girls (‘omg babez you look amaaaazing! heart emoji heart emoji flame emoji’) at the other, the verdict of my online critic was uncharacteristically balanced.
All of us benefit from a little healthy self-loathing. Just enough to keep egos in check and our sense of place and proportion keen. And this is where a short corrective comes in handy. When the selfie itch strikes, when the urge to upstage the bride, best the prima ballerina and out-pout the guest of honor threatens to overwhelm you, put down your phone, step away from the mirror and, in a clear, stern voice, say to yourself: ‘Not totty.’