Whether it comes in the form of zodiac signs, restrictive fashion “aesthetics,” media fandoms, or Myers-Briggs types, young people seem to find a sense of belonging by boxing themselves into identities that can be easily inserted into a social media bio.
The onset of COVID-19 not only skyrocketed the popularity of TikTok and Instagram but the amount of time people were free to spend online in the wake of a sudden cutoff from the physical presence of other people. This dramatic isolation left many at formative ages feeling lost in their crucial search for a coming-of-age identity.
The year 2020 provoked an onslaught of new, narrow online communities like “cottagecore” girls, amateur astrologers, and “alt” (short for “alternative”) fashion indulgers, found largely on social media platforms with emphasis on visual content. Some groups did feature prominent members, or follow celebrity examples, but in many, the central influencer figure was unnecessary to spur their growth. Superficial affiliation-based identities began to form among masses of teenagers and young adults. Without meaningful interpersonal or outdoor experiences to shape their personalities, many attached themselves to the few things they could control: the media they consumed, their opinions, and the spaces they occupied online.
Fashion-heavy movements are nothing new. Both hippies and the 1960s skinhead movement called for sociopolitical change, with distinct reasoning behind their appearances: the latter get their name from short, efficient hair that can’t be grabbed while street-fighting. The former used vibrant patterns to reflect their free and oftentimes drug-entrenched lifestyles. Both communities, despite being dramatically different, left lasting impressions on the societies they contributed to. Both stood for something bigger than themselves or what they wore.
However, personal expression has been watered down significantly, resulting in less substantial identities with which followers align more fiercely than they did before the pandemic. The rise of the internet, particularly social media platforms focused on photo and video content, has made the acquisition of a restrictive personal brand more accessible. They’ve also given rise to bizarre categories of makeup and dress with no real meaning behind their looks: we now have the purely aesthetic “clean girl” and the “hard-boiled egg girl.”
In the quest for a concrete, marketable persona, many young people place genuine self-reflection on the back burner. This is ironic given the recent fad of “mental health awareness” that, in some cases, enables them to define themselves by their limitations (in some cases, by wildly speculative TikTok-fueled self-diagnoses). This trend’s vulnerable facade still hides any actually thoughtful introspection: it allows participants to excuse, or distance themselves from, their harmful behavior by reducing themselves to an acronym or a prescription.
The self as a mere fad is arguably a better alternative than our predecessors’ identities — which were too strongly intertwined with race, hegemonic masculinity, or nationality. It’s far more benign to fight with a stranger over your Hogwarts house online than over your religion in a public, physical setting. The human need to engage in tribalism can be sated by these weird and obscure self-categorizations.
But, unfortunately, we’ve lost a connection to more meaningful identities. My mother strongly aligns with Greek Orthodoxy, and her belonging to a community that shares a set of values — regarding how we should treat others and what it means to live a good life — is something I yearn for in the midst of my generation’s spiritual and cultural disconnect.
To connect with her Greek identity, my mother learned an entire language so she could talk to her cousins and uncles. She eats a well-balanced Mediterranean diet and recognizes mealtime as an opportunity to bond. Her cultural upbringing brought her a rich personal and moral substance that internet circles cannot match.
While superficial labels don’t allow us to form attachments that are likely to last beyond the lifetime of fleeting fads or our interest in certain media, it’s dangerous to align too closely with, and convene solely over, markers of identity like religion, political party, and race: tribalism is a very real instinct and in some cases a threat, that might inhibit us from seeking connection with people not identical to us. The human need for community is a valuable and universal one that needs to be approached with nuance. It’s widely understood certain friendships have more or less depth than others; similarly, it should be accepted they can also be formed over different things.
Someone who belongs to both a book club and a group of childhood friends, or a sports team and a scholarship group, is more likely to be well-balanced — with a clear sense of who they are — than someone who solely affiliates with others based on one label and refuses to branch out.
We can have interests and fashion tastes, and it’s healthy to bond over them with others, but we need to remain multifaceted and know who we are outside of not just our superficial interests, but also our friends. After the widespread identity crisis provoked by COVID-19 isolation, there is a greater need for a sense of self (that doesn’t attach to the groups we belong to) than ever.