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Faking It by Phoebe C. '18

self-consciousness and struggling and pretending to be cool, woo

warning: the post below is probably the cheesiest thing i have ever written. it is highly unedited and makes me feel both embarrassed and proud. i usually like to sculpt and edit neurotically, but i’m trying to see what happens when i don’t.


The week before my freshman year of college started, I went to Amsterdam and Vienna with my brother and aunt. It was a last hurrah, my final journey into the world as a child. I took this picture lying in my aunt’s bed, listening to my favorite song of all time, “1979” by The Smashing Pumpkins.

current mood: amsterdam tomorrow, college in a week, “1979” on repeat forever and ever

A photo posted by Phoebe (@phxbe) on

(I haven’t updated Instagram in over a year, so my profile is cluttered with content from freshman year–short pink hair (big mistake), the room with dragons, a walk through Boston, a photo from my second-ever concert.)

Today, I listened to the same song and suddenly felt overwhelmed by awareness of all the ways I have changed and not changed since that night. I thought about what me-back-then might think of me-today.

I think that I have become, outwardly, one of the sorts of upperclassmen I revered as a freshman–overcommitted but never crushed, attends class minimally but is academically successful, has non-academic interests and hobbies, has a pretty good social life. I think I subconsciously have an obsession with never looking like I’m trying too hard. Maybe a lot of people are like this–in the first lecture for worldbuilding, Junot Díaz talked about how people need to escape to fictitious worlds to come to terms with the fact that they are weak and vulnerable, because in the real world no one wants to grapple with that, because in real life we all want to be cool.

Note also that I am probably a person who could write a treatise about vulnerability and the importance of being emotionally open, but in real life I am not like that at all. I want to be cool, too, and it sounds incredibly lame when I say it out loud, like that, but there it is.

Let me tell you, first of all, I am not cool. Go to class; it is not cool to look like you’re not trying. I panic about all the class that I miss, mostly because I lack discipline when it comes to sleep. But the story is always, “I didn’t go to that class at all and I was fine,” not “I spent hours making up the lectures I missed and did fine in the class but am unsure if I learned the material well enough.”

I thought about the semester when I spent weekends crying in bed, the exercise journal I kept and meals I skipped for the sake of losing weight, the times I was scared to leave my room and walk to the bathroom because I might run into people, things we don’t talk about. Freshman spring, I was the loneliest I have ever been. And yet the public-facing documentation of that semester is 6 straight A’s–the best semester I’ve ever had.

I’ve been sitting in bed trying to read notes for 6.867–the class I haven’t attended this semester–and thinking about image, facades, clothes, signalling/posturing, being “cool.” The things you think about when you’re a teenager, I guess. I’ve noticed that an irrational sense of shame surrounds my participation in things that are labeled feminine, because, I guess, a lot of those things are also associated with being superficial and unintelligent and emotional. Like fashion and confessional poetry and chick flicks, like watching my weight, like the humanities. My self-esteem sometimes seems to track how good I feel I am at math, because that’s the thing I point to when I feel like nothing else counts–like, “look, I am participating in the study of this very Hard And Scientific And Rigorous field, and I am good at it, so it’s okay that I spend my time on these other frivolous things.” At first, I was embarrassed that I thought like this, but then I was glad that I had noticed, so that I could try to change it. Tomorrow, I’m doing a puzzle hunt and I’ll probably also be happily overdressed, and it will be a lot of fun.

Last semester was difficult, too, because I was sick and sad–I’m worried about the winter, about November and the sun setting early. I get nervous thinking about spring semester and the way burnout from fall semester seems to carry over, about how difficult things become. But things have gotten better. I remain irrationally self-conscious about gaining weight but I understand that crash dieting doesn’t work. I struggle with feeling sad and lonely, especially in the winter, but I know to go through the motions of making plans with people and showing up even when I really don’t feel like it, and I know to exercise and to eat and to get enough sleep.

And I know that people have struggled harder than me, and I know that I’m really, really privileged. It occurred to me, though, that I never write much about how difficult I find things, about struggling, and I think it’s because I’m concerned that I’ll look like I’m complaining. I’m not. I love MIT. I was awash with love for MIT today, the day when I slept through too much of the career fair to find it worthwhile to go–I thought about the UROP I’m about to start with (in my humble opinion) one of the coolest professors in the (Course 14) game (i will write about this later when it actually begins), the fact that I get to spend six hours a week in a class taught by Junot Díaz, an author I worshipped in high school. I thought about everything I’ve learned in the past two years, when I wasn’t paying attention, when my mind was on meeting deadlines and trying not to feel crushed. Somewhere along the way, I became a different person. IHTFP.

Some things haven’t changed, though. I went to FredFest (a concert in the East Campus courtyard) today and saw three of my favorite people at MIT, all of whom I met freshman year or earlier. I realized that when I’m old, they are going to be my “college friends,” and if/when I get married they will likely be at my wedding, and even though I’m not graduating anytime soon, I’m excited to see how our paths cross after college. But that can wait, and for now, I’m excited just to wake up tomorrow. (sorry, cheesy and gross, i know, but it’s true!)

1 This made me think of two things I’ve read in the past few months: “Realizing Tupac Wasn’t Cool, 20 Years Later” and “The Philosopher of Feelings.”

From the one about Pac:

  1. “[Tupac] was cool as s***. He dressed cool and sounded cool and he did cool stuff. But he was so vulnerable. Maybe it’s just one poser recognizing another.”
  2. “In ‘Changes,’ Pac raps, ‘It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other.’ Cool kids didn’t talk about healing each other. They weren’t wounded to begin with.”

From “The Philosopher of Feelings,” about the philosopher Martha Nussbaum:

  1. “I wondered if she approaches her theme of vulnerability with such success because she peers at it from afar, as if it were unfamiliar and exotic. She celebrates the ability to be fragile and exposed, but in her own life she seems to control every interaction.”
  2. “The story describes the contradiction of the philosopher’s ‘paean to spontaneity and her own nature, the least spontaneous, most doggedly, nervously, even fanatically unspontaneous I know.'”

Also “The Power of Vulnerability,” a TED talk I had bookmarked on my computer for all of high school. Anyway, if you watch it and think, “Well, gee, I make myself pretty vulnerable, I’m doing great, I don’t need to worry!” you’re probably not working hard enough.