a hand covering a masked face
Identity

The Pandemic Let Us Exist Without Being Perceived. Some Don’t Want That to End

With lockdown measures starting to lift, it’s normal to feel anxious about being seen again.
Nana Baah
London, GB
DA
illustrated by Derek Abella
June 7, 2021, 11:55am

This is part of a special series, We’re Reemerging. What Does the World Look Like Now?, which considers in real time how we cope while living through a historic time. It’s also in the latest VICE magazine. Subscribe here

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For the past 15 months, I’ve enjoyed being almost entirely invisible. At the start of the pandemic, I would pass neighbors in my London supermarket and didn’t have to stop to say hello because they couldn’t recognize me. On my train journey home from therapy, I could sob or rap along to my music without the chance of anyone noticing. Now, as lockdown restrictions ease and, by June 21, face coverings, government-mandated self-isolation, and social distancing become obsolete across England, it means exiting incognito mode and going back to the way we were before.

The thought of being seen again is scary.

It’s not just the physical aspect of being hidden that’s been a comfort to me. Over the course of an already unpredictable pandemic, a series of life-changing events—a tumultuous breakup, sexual assault, stress-induced balding, a series of new medical diagnoses—happened to me at breakneck speed. Dealing with most of it alone, without questions and other people’s opinions, has been freeing. I haven’t felt compelled to share anything with anyone. I post and delete on my Instagram Story so that no one can comment on what I’m doing that week, and as everyone got used to pandemic life, the weekly video-call catch-ups I had scheduled with friends slowly came to a halt.

But now that the dates of my pre-booked dinners and pub trips are starting to roll around, I am worried about divulging a year’s worth of change with the friends and family who would have usually seen it happening bit by bit. The thought of exposing the new me to them is so daunting that it seems easier to just stay in hiding. After all, if I get so stressed that my hair falls out in a clump and no one is there to witness it, did it really happen?

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When the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, Aian moved from Bristol, in south west England, back to their parents’ home and started to change. They now identify as gender nonconforming and said that they have embraced feeling more comfortable and confident in wearing clothes that blur their gender identity. To Aian’s family though, they’re still the same man they were before, and Aian is fearful that their family members will see them differently now. “Admittedly, I haven’t started using makeup or nail polish at home. I downplay it,” Aian said. “My parents are immigrants from the Philippines, so I’m unsure as to whether they’d understand or respect my gender identity. I definitely am afraid to come out to them.”

Instead, Aian’s looking forward to turning over a new leaf and reintroducing themselves to the people they left behind in Bristol last year. “I’m coming back with a completely fresh start, it’s going to be exciting with different friend groups,” they explained. “Before I moved away, I left a very toxic friendship group, and now I’ll be moving in with a friend and two of her housemates. I know I’ll make more friends when I’m back in Bristol.”

Seeing yourself through the eyes of others is jarring. It’s like when you take a selfie on the front-facing camera and the image flips and you notice that you have one eye smaller than the other, or your recorded voice is played back to you and you have to accept that that’s how other people experience you and there’s not much you can do about it.

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This particular feeling is captured in the 2013 New York Times essay “I Know What You Think of Me.” In it, the author Tim Kreider writes, “It is simply not pleasant to be objectively observed—it’s like seeing a candid photo of yourself online, not smiling or posing, but simply looking the way you apparently always do, oblivious and mush-faced with your mouth open. It’s proof that we are visible to others, that we are seen, in all our naked silliness and stupidity.”

Kreider ends his essay by poignantly identifying “the mortifying ordeal of being known.” Over the past year, that sentiment has become so pervasive that “not wanting to be perceived” has quickly become a staple trend across social platforms. It’s joined the ranks of what could be considered the “being perceived” antithesis, the concept of having main-character syndrome, where you act as though you’re the lead in your own movie and everyone else is simply an extra in your narrative. Instead, not wanting to be perceived is the desire to no longer exist in anyone else’s mind, to move through the world completely unnoticed.

Scroll through Twitter and you’ll find tweets like, “I’m going to keep wearing my mask because I hate being perceived” or “if i was being perceived i would simply stop existing” or “i hate being perceived but if im gonna be perceived i at least want ppl to perceive me as hot.” They might even be illustrated with that screenshot of Marge Simpson shielding her face with embarrassment as Homer enjoys an all-you-can-eat buffet in front of an audience. It’s spilled over onto TikTok, too, with teens with their hoods up using a sound bite originally from @jacobvanlue, saying “I wanna delete everything, I want to deactivate every social media I’ve ever had in my entire life. I want every trace of me to be gone and I don’t wanna be perceived. I don’t want to be perceived. I am not the person that I was yesterday and I’m not the person that I was this morning. I’m not even a person.”

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It’s not surprising that as some of us start shifting back into the real world—reemerging as different people and being forced to look at ourselves again—weighing what other people think of us is sure to be something that crosses our minds. We’ve spent the pandemic changing: glowing up or down, learning to bake a series of more and more complex breads, or getting way too into TikTok. Quickly being immersed in social settings again means reflecting on how others perceive us and the ways we might have changed or, in some cases, how we’ve stayed exactly the same. Feeling anxious about all this is to be expected, according to Sean Murphy, a psychotherapist based in London.

“In my clinical work, quite a lot of time is just disentangling: Is that what you think about you or is that what other people think about you? Is that what you want to do or is that what your family tells you you should be doing? It’s a struggle for all of us to try and disentangle that,” Murphy explained. “What people think of us is a really big deal for human beings. It’s the same across all sophisticated social primates; we are very concerned with status and hierarchy and what people think of us. One of the muscles that has not been tested for about a year is the one that tells us there’s not a lot [about perceptions] that we can control.”

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Although for some, going months without being under the gaze of others has been difficult. Living alone throughout the pandemic has left J, a 24-year-old London resident, longing to “be perceived” again. “I’m autistic, so I’ve never really been one to know what the social rules are, so the pandemic wasn’t a huge change in that regard,” she explained. “Being with other people, I feel as though I exist, but when I’m by myself, I ruminate. I’ll question everything that I do. I’m like, Is this really what human beings actually do? Or I’ll start to question if I’m even alive. But when I’m with other people I feel like an actual human being, so I kind of enjoy the idea of being perceived.”

J says that slowly reemerging from lockdown and being able to meet friends outside has improved her mood. “You know how some people will take and post selfies and they think they look hot and they get that validation for themselves? I only get that from other people.”

According to Murphy, being online and getting validation from it, coupled with a collective sense of loss of control, could also be a cause of increased anxiety.

“In the modern world, it’s not just a handful of people who might have an opinion about us in the local village or town, it’s hundreds or millions of people that can possibly have an opinion about us,” Murphy said. “Now it’s not just being looked at, it’s being recorded too, and you have no control over what people do with it. I suspect that a lot of that anxiety is now mixed up with COVID, lockdown, and political stuff too. It’s all in the mix.”

Ultimately, whether it’s face-to-face or online, “being seen” can feel exposing. Although Murphy says it’s impossible to know what people are going to think of you and avoid judgment, he does recommend taking it slow. “It may not be that you want to be in a group of 15 or 20 people, so go to one or two trusted friends and just get the hang of it again,” he explained. “Don’t rush or try going back into the identical life that you had before. See what you have an appetite for now.”

Ultimately, I know that I have no choice but to reenter the world again—being perceived is unavoidable. It’s difficult to face up to the fact that I have completely changed and that it’s up to the other people in my life to decide whether they accept that or not, and that it’s going to happen one way or another. Although the thought of exposing the new me to my friends and family is still daunting, maybe taking it one catch-up at a time will make it easier.

Follow Nana Baah on Twitter.