My ex and I dated for like, nine months, so I feel fairly secure in saying that he must’ve liked, at least a little bit, to look at my face. He posted pictures of it on his Instagram throughout our relationship, which you don’t do if you think the person you are with is embarrassing or...just not nice to look at. We broke up in the fall of 2017, he promptly moved to LA, and within a few months, we were doing the somewhat impossible thing of actually keeping in touch as friends. During all of this, my face remained a descending but still present fixture on his grid. And then about three months ago, I opened his profile and noticed that all traces of our relationship had vanished.
Scrubbing all the newly painful memories of a relationship from social media is normal. But that’s something you do right after a breakup, not months later. Our breakup had been mostly painless; we’d quickly realized we were better as friends (and had always basically just been friends), and moved easily into the good phase with the jokes about “that time we dated!!!” Why the sudden deletion?
The answer came to me slowly because I didn’t want to acknowledge it. But the more I scrolled through and noticed photos of his other exes were still there, the harder it was to deny: My face had been specifically plucked from his grid because it didn’t fit his Instagram aesthetic anymore. I’d become the human equivalent of the gaudy condiment bottles you shove out of the frame before taking a nice, staged picture of your food. Something about my (extremely normal!!!) face didn’t fit whatever brand he was pumping into the world, so my ass got cut. As a classmate from high school (who should honestly just take my job) said when I tweeted about this realization, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d gone from aesthetic…... to ex-thetic.
This is an admittedly disgusting problem to have, for all parties involved: It means my ex is someone who cares so much about his “”””Image”””” that he meticulously prunes his page; and it’s an own-by-association to me, someone who willingly dated such a person and actually checks up on his grid. But as I soon learned, via shouting about this issue to anyone who’d listen, I’m far from alone in my very niche brand of shame. As grids become more curated and people make money by creating and selling filters that make the world look like a monochromatic funhouse, not all faces or memories will make the increasingly rigorous cut.
Here are all of the reasons I can think of to delete pictures from your Instagram page: Aforementioned emotional pain; extreme embarrassment about a former thought/idea; concern about future employers; end of list. The concept of cutting specific people, especially ones you dated/fucked, for aesthetic reasons hadn’t previously occurred to me.
“Aesthetic” is, of course, highly subjective. What guides one person’s artistic posting vision may not guide another. Pablo Picasso’s Instagram would not look the same as Edward Hopper’s, art is in the eye of the beholder, etc. I can begin to wrap my mind around this if you’re someone who maintains a professional image online, like if you’re some sort of visual artist and your Instagram page is a way to advertise yourself. Nora*, 21, told me that she once scrubbed an ex plus all the photos she posted that he’d taken, months after their breakup, out of a sense of creative obligation.
“It was kind of obvious that those photos were taken by him, and it felt like I was still maybe endorsing him or supporting him by having those photos taken of me still on my page,” she said.
While this is a convenient excuse, it isn’t always the case. Colin, 21, told me via Twitter DM that he got wiped from his ex-girlfriend’s grid because he didn’t have the frat boy look he knew she wanted (even though he was in a frat). “I did not fit my GF’s aesthetic in any way, shape, form; consequently she deleted the one picture she had of us from a frat party in a frat I wasn’t even in,” Colin said.
Being deleted long after a breakup somehow feels somehow more painful (but in a different way) than being deleted in the immediate, emotional aftermath. Scrubbing for aesthetic purposes adds another layer of cruelty; it’s a message that you no longer fit whoever this person is trying to be. It’s excruciatingly deliberate to scroll months back into your feed, click on a specific square, and erase it. At least in the moments after a breakup, the ultimate plausible deniability is right there on the table: “It made me sad.” Weeks later, your feelings properly paved over with six inches of concrete, this shit is harder to explain.
A latent deletion is especially jarring because if a photo wasn’t removed right away, it feels like it’ll always be there. And then when it's gone—unless you happened to take a screenshot or have a copy—you lose access to a nice piece of your own life. Like most people probably do, Lauren, 24, said she used to visit this one specific photo a college ex had on his page. It was a picture of her alone in a hammock, with a sticky caption like, “love this girl!” “I would go back and look at it, and it was like, Oh, this was when we were really in it. It felt nice to look at it and prove to myself that it wasn’t fake,” Lauren said. Then one day she went to look at the photo and noticed the caption was gone; actually, all of the captions on their photos together were gone. She blocked his page to cut herself off from her own bad habit.
A few months later, a friend told her that her ex’s page was looking extremely strange lately. “It was when he started getting into like, being a fuckin’ Soundcloud rapper or whatever, so I unblocked him and he had cleaned out not just photos of our relationship, but photos he deemed uncool,” Lauren said. “It’s clear he is deliberately changing his aesthetic to match something he is not.”
There’s a brutal scene at the end of Call Me By Your Name where Oliver calls Elio to tell him he’s engaged. They talk for a few minutes, and then Elio says his own name into the receiver, the way they used to when they were together over the summer. The first time he says it as a question, and then he repeats it in a whisper: “Elio? Elio, Elio, Elio, Elio.” There’s silence on the line, and Oliver says his own name back, and then, “I remember everything.” It’s a very nice thing to say to someone who is in pain over you.
People won’t always give you the courtesy of acknowledging shared memories; one nice thing about Instagram is that it will. Scrolling back through the years on even your own feed can be surprising, like reading a diary entry about a mundane day in high school that you’d forgotten about. Also like reading old diary entries, it can feel embarrassing to see how old versions of yourself looked at and thought about the world. I posted stuff in college, for instance, that I’d never post now: heavily filtered photos of records; my boyfriend playing his guitar; earnest hashtags like #newbookexcitement on a blurry photo of...a new book. I will cop to archiving some of my most gruesome content to hide it from my feed, but I like to leave most of it there. I like to remember everything, even (especially) the stuff that looks deeply uncool.
"It’s clear he is deliberately changing his aesthetic to match something he is not."
My ex, who still knows me well despite deleting my face from his Instagram, told me he was awaiting the day I’d call to ask why I got scrubbed from his grid. I asked why I didn’t make the cut when other exes of his did, and he laughed at me, and then apologized. “It’s not that exciting, I’ve just grown less into social media,” he explained. “There are images of previous relationships and some people get skipped over—I think you got kinda skipped over because you were in the transitional period of my life, and when I say transitional period, I mean aesthetically.” A likely story, but still, ouch.
My suspicions were confirmed, but then he did one kind thing for me, and said the pictures had never actually been deleted, just archived. A sap like me, he wanted to be able to look back on his own uncool, non-glamorous memories (with me, plus others) and reminisce. I guess if he doesn’t wanna do that publicly, that’s fine with me. Am I still deeply offended to not make his edit? Fucking of course!
*Name has been changed.
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