January 3, 2022

Do you ever feel, feel so paper thin
Like a house of cards, one blow from caving in?

Katy Perry’s Firework was perhaps the ultimate chin-up-tits-out song for the first generation to be fully net-native from childhood onwards. And not just because in the official video Perry shot sparklers from her boobs.

Her song struck a chord with many: Firework peaked at number three in the UK charts, and number one in the US. Her prescription for feeling bad is simple: don’t feel bad. Instead, all you have to do is “own the night like the 4th of July”.

But how, in practice, is one meant to “own the night”?

A new book offers some suggestions — aimed, it seems, at the adults who were once teenage Katy Perry fans. Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before? invites us to see becoming less paper-thin as an important form of self-improvement. “To me,” opines author Dr Julie Smith, “working on maximising our mental health is no different to working on our physical health.”

Looking through the problems Smith describes, one can infer a few things about the implied reader and their struggles. This person is anxious, perfectionist, keen to be liked, prone to minutely dissecting social interactions, spends a lot of time scrolling through social media and worrying about others’ perceptions.

This suffers “low mood” and “anxiety”, struggles with “stress” (there’s a whole chapter on it) and thinks a great deal about couple relationships (another chapter). Typical self-limiting beliefs include imagining that failing at one thing makes them a ‘loser’, or that because someone hasn’t called in a while it’s “because she hates me”.

Dr Julie never explicitly addresses her book to one sex or the other. But I’m willing to bet you know more women than men who fit the description above, an egregious bit of stereotyping that is supported by studies which show women consistently score more highly for anxiety, perfectionism and neuroticism than men.

It’s tempting to suggest that the kind of neuroticism addressed in Dr Julie’s book is new: a product of the navel-gazing social media age, perhaps. And considerable evidence has been amassed now to suggest that social media is making young people more neurotic — especially young women.

A few months before Firework reached number one, in October 2010, Instagram was launched. In the four years that followed, as girls sang along to Katy Perry’s song about transcending your insecurity to wow the crowd, the rate of hospitalisation for self-harm among American girls aged 10 to 14 doubled.

Similar trends are visible in the UK: the Guardian reported in 2017 that over the decade 2007-2017 the rate of hospitalisation for self-harm among girls under 17 had risen by 68%. And Instagram is heavily implicated: summarising its effect on self-perception, a 2019 internal presentation by Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, reported: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls”.

But delving into historic medical literature on women’s mental health suggests that while Instagram may not be helping, it’s possible that the platform is exacerbating something that already existed. Feminists have long written critically about sexist portrayals of women’s emotionality in medical literature. Over three centuries ago, in 1681, the physician Thomas Sydenham offered a description of what he calls the “hysteric diseases”, which sounds strikingly like the emotional world experienced by Dr Julie’s implied reader:

“They indulge terror, anger, jealousy, distrust, and other hateful passions; and abhor joy, and hope, and cheerfulness… They love the same persons extravagantly at one time, and soon after hate them without cause… So unsettled is their mind, that they are never at rest.”

Unlike Dr Julie, Sydenham wastes no time in attributing this form of mental distress more to women than men. Few women, he asserts, “are quite free from every species of this disorder”. But unlike the ancients who thought neurosis was a function of female physiology, Sydenham thought it was mostly an effect of material ease.

In his observation, women who do hard physical work don’t suffer from “hysteria”, while men “who lead a sedentary life, and study hard” do. Sydenham called this male version “hypochondria” rather than hysteria, but describes both ailments as characterised by similar symptoms: “lowness”, “disordered mind” and “incurable despair”. For Sydenham, this ailment of ease inevitably includes more women than men, for men “cultivate the earth, hunt and kill wild beasts for food, and the like”, while the wealthier a woman gets the more likely she’ll be to be exempt from such gruelling work.

But perhaps material comfort is a double-edged sword. We might infer from Sydenham’s comments that without a healthy channel for aggression, and a sense of being able to act on the world around us, both sexes grow restive — and a historically sexed division of labour has made this especially the case for women. The accompanying sex role stereotypes, meanwhile, have long since taught women to bury all such dark and dangerous emotions.

Far from pursuing agency and a full range of emotional expression for its implicitly female readership, Has Nobody Told Me This Before? continues the time-honoured tradition of teaching women to internalise. Sigmund Freud based his theories of the human psyche on the twin pre-rational drives of sexuality and aggression; but these, considered fundamental human drives by psychoanalytic psychotherapy, barely feature in Dr Julie’s manual for self-optimisation: two mentions each. In contrast, “anxiety” appears 77 times. And while there’s a brief discussion of anger, this is only in the context of grief. Implicitly, anger is never about aggression — it’s always a cover for something cuter and more deserving of sympathy, such as fear or loss.

At the micro-scale, the book offers uncontroversial and often practical advice on how to be slightly less neurotic. Our minds can play tricks on us, Dr Julie advises, so troubleshoot practical reasons for feeling low, such as tiredness or thirst, before you catastrophise. Try not to obsess about things that go wrong: go for a short walk and think about something else. Write down three things a day you feel grateful for. Get enough exercise, sleep regularly and for long enough, eat real food and not too much of it, stick to a regular routine.

But its overarching message is unnerving. In Dr Julie’s world, there’s no question of using kinetic emotions such as anger or aggression to change anything around us. Rather, when experiencing strong emotion, she encourages the reader to use “physical movement” to “use that physiological arousal in the way it was designed to be used”.

I doubt Dr Julie has in mind the physical movement of her reader’s fist toward someone else’s face, which is arguably how the “physiological arousal” of anger is “designed to be used”. But this bait-and-switch exemplifies the pervasive message of this book: that somehow, we’re all alone in a world of shadows, where authentic encounters with other people are not possible. Nothing we feel can ever be expected to change anything, so it’s best we learn to manage it.

When experiencing strong feelings of any kind, she advises, the solution is never to act on them but rather “build your awareness of how you respond to various emotions” so you can “practise stepping back from them and responding to them with compassion”. In other words, “managing our mental health” means not becoming more immediately present in your social world. It means learning to detach from the kind of strong, kinetic, engaged and embodied feelings you’d need if there were real people out there, and instead detonating excess emotional force in a carefully controlled vacuum.

And this should be enough, the book implies, for each individual contains the solutions within them. As Katy Perry puts it:

It’s always been inside of you, you, you
And now it’s time to let it through

The chapter on “values” makes this clearest of all — for it invites the reader to compile her own ex nihilo. “Getting clarity on our personal values can guide us on setting goals that will bring meaning and purpose,” she declares, a statement that a cynic might observe is on the circular side: deciding what you understand the meaning of life to be will help you to determine the meaning of life.

One might also wonder if it’s a little cruel to ask an anxious, neurotic, socially uncertain and emotionally labile perfectionist to conjure a viable personal philosophy into existence without help from external referents. But leaving that aside, Dr Julie doesn’t acknowledge how the demand that each reader determines her moral system in a vacuum can backfire. For while it holds out a promise of self-containment, it also explains why anger is so curiously absent from this book.

For there are forms of righteous anger that aren’t covers for fear, loss or past trauma. This kind of anger is a fundamentally social emotion that expresses outrage at some other or others violating a set of shared principles. But in Dr Julie’s world, there are no shared values. And this means anger can never be righteous – and thus can only be detonated safely, in isolation, and never employed constructively in social encounters.

This presents further difficulties, too. For losing the shared terrain on which legitimate anger might be expressed doesn’t eliminate the underlying human tendency to aggression — even if Dr Julie doesn’t acknowledge that such a tendency exists. And if Sydenham catalogued the psychic distress more than three centuries ago of people who lacked healthy means of expressing agency and aggression, those means have shrunk still further today.

This is especially the case for girls, 84% of whom were shown in a recent study to be too sedentary — a higher figure than for boys, just as in Sydenham’s day. At the same time, studies show girls are more likely than boys to be both the victims and also the perpetrators of online bullying.

No wonder, then, that girls and young women are miserable. We raised a generation with few direct outlets for healthy aggression, and the most sedentary lifestyles in history, and told them not to assume any shared values with those around them — which meant they could never be legitimately angry. Then we handed them a set of social media tools for covert interpersonal aggression and watched their mental health implode.

Fittingly, Dr Julie first attained the fame that landed her this publishing deal on Instagram. She has thanked her audience by writing a book which denies the existence of any basic human drives and disavows the social importance of any shared values, while reinforcing every young woman’s essential isolation and concurrent duty to self-improve.

I’ll say this for Dr Julie’s book: it offers some useful tips to the Instagram generation, in coping with the main modern delivery mechanism for covert female aggression: Instagram. But it offers nothing to broaden the Instagram view of life: a competitive, value-neutral performance, where self-optimisation is everything and other people aren’t entirely real.

Every young woman is a firework; every young woman owns her own night. And no one is coming to help her with it.

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