Alexa was choosing a dress for a party. It was taking a while. This always happens, she gets carried away with every little thing. She was late, but she wasn’t worried because everyone’s always late, apart from her boyfriend Olly, who is always on time and was already there, which she felt bad about because he was only going to the party to support her, just like he always did. The decision about what to wear was painful because she had to figure out what would look right. Not what would look right to someone else, or even to herself, but what would look right in a photo. She’s always thinking about how things will look in a photo. She’d already posed the dilemma to her followers on her story, Instagram’s video feature which self-deletes after 24 hours, and there were dresses strewn across her bed. The party was a press launch for an ethical jewellery company called 64Facets, which sells conflict-free diamond necklaces and bracelets for upwards of $10,000. It was happening at an opulent bar in Blakes, a hotel in South Kensington, and there’d be pictures all over the internet, so the outfit had to be right. There was the flowing dress which meant she wouldn’t have to suck in her stomach all night, or the dress that covered her upper arms which she generally liked to keep hidden, or the dress she thought made her look like a chunky bat. She couldn’t decide. She always does this – she’ll try on everything in her wardrobe and have a frickin’ panic attack and then she’ll be back in the first thing by the time the Uber has arrived. The trick for the photos is getting the blogger pose right, where you sort of flip forward a knee to make your legs look longer, which is different to the mirror-selfie pose, where you contort your body and pop your bum out, so that you’re in a full S-shape, Kardashian-style. Make-up’s easier because it’s always the same: cat eyes, foundation and contoured cheekbones which is another Kardashian thing, although she doesn’t actually give a shit about the Kardashians, she thinks they’re a joke. The one thing she knows is that she’s not going to wear tights for maybe the third time in her life. She used to be so self-conscious about her legs. If you’d told her a year ago she’d be going out with no tights on, she’d have laughed in your face.
Alexa Abraham, @alexa.abraham, @rexrayy, is 24 years old. She is small and likes being small and has straightened dark hair that frames her face. She shares her name with Amazon’s virtual assistant, a coincidence that once made her cry when she discovered that the only reason her boss had hired her was because she liked the idea of having a real-life Alexa to order about. She was born in New York but grew up in London, and her parents and two younger siblings now live back in America. Sometimes she feels like she’s having an identity crisis because although she sounds American, and can only vote in America (Hillary, or it would have been if her postal ballot had arrived in time), she doesn’t always get their cultural references as she didn’t spend her teens there. At the same time there’s plenty she doesn’t get about Britain either, like the lack of healthy alternative food options and the limited range of equipment in gyms.
Alexa lives in a flatshare on the third floor of an ex-council block in west London, which looks a little worn from the outside, with concrete staircases and faded white balconies, but has been jazzed up on the inside, with a shiny red-lacquer kitchen and two en-suite bathrooms. It’s always immaculate because Alexa loves to tidy. Her dad, an ex-banker, pays her rent for now. She works at a PR startup, called Prezzroom, which represents clients with wellness and fitness products, such as KIN Nutrition (vegan protein powder), Boundless Nuts (nuts activated to release nutrients using Aztec and Aboriginal techniques of soaking and baking) and New Motion Fitness (techno-soundtracked gym and yoga workouts). Alexa started there a year ago, as an intern, and literally had to write out a script for herself before cold-calling. Within a few months she found she had a knack for sourcing clients on Instagram. The original CEO promoted her to co-founder, and now Alexa can just march into a room and pitch to a bunch of 40-year-olds.
Since she graduated from university in 2017, Alexa has metamorphosed. Back then, she never would have spoken in public or worn shorts; now she posts pictures of her abs on social media and broadcasts on her Instagram story daily. A year ago, she had only just met Olly in a sticky student bar in Fulham. Now, she was about to spend a weekend in Dorset, where Olly grew up, to meet all of his family for the first time.
Olly is two-and-a-half years older than Alexa. A grandpa. He’s dark blonde, wears glasses and well-ironed shirts and has the kind of deeply English sensibility that makes him ever-cheerful and rigorously polite. Olly went to a rural boarding school and then a local Dorset grammar school. He works in finance in an office in the City and eats meat. Alexa went to a private London day school, works all over town, at her living-room table or on her phone in the middle of the night and is – mostly – pescatarian.
When they first got together, Olly found Alexa’s constant chronicling of her existence on the internet to be both intrusive and a serious case of bad manners. He had stuck with his BlackBerry for years. When he finally surrendered to social media he assumed it was for posting stuff you were doing, or Being Yourself. He used to clog up his Instagram with pictures of coffee. Alexa found them uninspiring, and would text him after each post, “What the hell is that?” She taught him how to do it properly, how to make your day look prettier and more fun. She always knows when a male friend has a new girlfriend as his Instagram feed will suddenly and dramatically improve.
Early on, the gulf between their online habits caused some ups and downs. They had to figure out if they could adjust to each other’s ways. Now, Olly can see how important Instagram is to Alexa and her work. He’s come to terms with being an Insta-boyfriend – he thinks that’s the word – appearing constantly in her pictures and her story, being filmed at the gym or at a party or at a restaurant or in the park or just walking down the street. He’ll even arrange activities specifically for their Instagram potential, like an Aperol Spritz brand event in Hoxton, where you could row a boat along an Aperol-orange canal. Alexa has found ways to compromise too. She has learned how to put away her phone for the whole day when they’re together, knowing how much it will mean to him.
Both Olly and Alexa were a little nervous about the Dorset trip. Alexa wanted to make a good impression. Olly was worried about Alexa experiencing some kind of culture shock. His family have layers of private games and incomprehensible in-jokes that might seem odd or excluding. They could be boisterous and strange. He grimly anticipated his father reaching for the obvious gag about her name.
Alexa wants to grow her personal brand and become an influencer. She’s already an ambassador for an active-wear company, Seeing Things, and a vegan condom brand, Hanx, and if she can gain enough followers on Instagram she might transfer her profile to YouTube where some of her internet heroes have popular channels, such as Grace Fit UK (434,000 subscribers) who has the most amazing body and work ethic, and Anna Akana (2.4m subscribers) who posts some of the most original content she’s ever seen. Alexa used to play a lot of video games and her male friends have suggested she could grow her online profile through Twitch, the live-streaming platform that broadcasts people playing video games. Girls, being scarce, tend to do well on it. But though video games were a part of her more tomboyish youth, now that she’s into the whole wellness and fitness scene, Instagram is her natural home.
She’s also on LinkedIn for work and status anxiety, because she’s always spotting some ex-classmate now working at NASA or Goldman Sachs and making her feel inadequate; Tumblr for private self-expression in the form of dark and moody images that she finds on other people’s feeds and curates into a kind of personal gallery that she definitely wouldn’t want anyone she knows to see; and Twitter for news, song lyrics, stream of consciousness, retweeting memes and political outrage. But Instagram is queen. It is the engine of her life, the medium of her job, the thing she’s on at three in the morning telling herself “five more minutes, five more minutes”, while Olly sleeps beside her.
Alexa has posted nearly 600 times since she joined in March 2014 and has about 1,500 followers. Recently she’d been noticing that the more pictures she posts of herself and the more care she takes with her hashtags, the more followers she gains. But it’s nerve-racking. She used to post whatever she liked without thinking about it but now she’ll post something and be like, “uuugh, is that a good idea?” and sit there anxiously waiting for comments. It’s important not to say the wrong thing or to upset a prominent influencer because they could easily ruin your career.
She knows that some of her old school friends see her feed, like when she’s posting a mirror selfie from the gym, and think “what the hell happened to Alexa?” But the fitness crowd of personal trainers and nutritionists on Instagram post gym selfies routinely. She finds it motivating and inspiring though she could see that if you’re not part of that community you might think she was an asshole too.
That’s why she likes posting on her story, because in a video she can be closer to herself than she is in curated photos. Instagram Stories reveal how people actually are rather than how they’d like to be seen, or that’s the idea. Alexa gets good feedback on hers. People message privately to tell her she seems genuine and funny, like when she choked on protein powder and clowned about or showed off a disastrous fake tan. It’s important to Alexa that her Instagram persona is as genuine as possible – literally her but online.
Alexa fell in love with the internet aged 13, the age when everyone falls in love with something. She’d be on it at 3am, chatting with friends or looping round YouTube, seeing how many posts she could get on her Facebook wall. When her parents clocked her nocturnal habit, they’d confiscate her laptop, she’d wear them down with promises, her mum would spring a midnight ambush and the whole cycle would begin again. Her parents were strict, but she gave them hell.
Her younger siblings, aged 17 and 18, have a totally different relationship with social media. They’re not into sharing and mock her for the relentlessness of her Instagram. It’s like how she used to be with Snapchat where she’d have stories – a sequence of images from a 24-hour period – that were 200 seconds long and her friends would be like, “oh my god can you please stop”, and she’d be like, “sorry I was drunk”. Now Snapchat is over, and Alexa only uses Facebook as a photo archive, to publicise an event or announce a relationship. Becoming Facebook official, as she and Olly did last year, remains significant. “Does it matter?” Olly asked at the time. “YES IT MATTERS,” said Alexa. But if you were to post a status on your wall these days you’d be a goddam social pariah.
One sunny morning in Alexa’s flat, the doorbell went and a parcel of active-wear arrived containing a monochrome ombré bra top to match some monochrome ombré leggings. Ombré – where a colour will shade from dark to light through a piece of clothing – is a thing. So are parcels. Alexa’s bedroom is covered in packaging. The problem with the sheer quantity of online ordering she does is the consequential number of returns she has to make. She loves receiving mail – there’s something “woah” about it – but the idea of having to physically post a package makes her feel anxious because she isn’t fully confident that she knows how a post office works. Her bed is covered with the boxes of various subscription services, like Tribe (snacks) and the Pink Parcel (sanitary items and Votes for Women bracelets) which arrive weekly or monthly and bring with them a feeling of specialness. Some are better than others. “My issue with the Pink Parcel”, said Alexa, “is that it’s mostly just tampons.”
Alexa put on her new ombré top and went down the road to her local PureGym, a dark grey, industrial space, mostly underground, containing the usual rows of machines and sweat-damp men lifting weights in front of floor-to-ceiling mirrors. She considered what to do. She chooses her workout according to her mood – cardio if she’s tired and needs to wake up, or the stairmaster if she’s hyped up and wants to calm down. Today she went for the stairs to de-stress: she was trying to organise some birthday drinks for a friend and her group were proving hard to round-up on WhatsApp. She always plans everything.
Alexa doesn’t go out as much as she used to – too tired, too stressed, too busy. Sometimes, her favourite way to spend a Saturday night is at the gym. She used to go every day, religiously, but over the last year she’d let the habit slip which made her feel bad about herself. It’s better when Olly goes with her as the gym can be fraught. She’s been hit on and asked out. She’ll never go in rush hour as it’s crazy in there. If she does go alone, there are parts she’ll avoid as they’re usually crammed with pumped men. The free-weight section can be hell on earth.
Birthday drinks! The friend’s cake was a Camembert and everyone was drinking Prosecco. The smokers gathered on Alexa’s balcony. Everyone else was in the living room where dance music was playing. Alexa brought out the Camembert with a candle wedged in it and everybody sang.
In one corner, the conversation turned to Harvey Weinstein, and what you’d do if a boss was pressuring you for sex. “I’m just saying you have to deal with the life choices you’re given,” said a pragmatist. “You either take the moral high ground or you suck his dick.” There was general dissent. There should be a middle way. Someone said there were laws. “I’m not saying he’s a good guy and should get away with it,” the pragmatist continued. “But people are fucking twats.”
The smokers drifted in from the balcony. One said, “I eat everything organic but I smoke like a chimney.” Olly told a story about a friend of theirs who is vegan through the week but gets drunk on weekends and binge-eats chicken nuggets. Someone was remembering the last time they took LSD. Alexa looked appalled. She had to “trip-sit” friends on LSD once. They started to vomit. She would not trip-sit again.
A supermarket cake had been bought, iced to resemble a caterpillar, for those who did not want to celebrate with cheese. Alexa was holding a slice.
“I’m allowing myself this,” she said. “This is my treat today.
I spent three hours in the gym.”
“She has this gym thing,” said Olly. “I’ll go to the gym for 45 minutes to an hour.”
“He’ll leave before me,” said Alexa.
Olly added: “I’ll go and buy her food like mushrooms or soup.”
Alexa is lactose-sensitive, gluten-free and has a drawer full of supplements and vitamins from which she takes a few when she remembers. Activated charcoal. Gentle iron. Branched chain amino acids. She has become so good at taking them she can swallow a fistful. Sometimes she’s too busy to eat proper meals and will just eat protein bars or shakes. She develops obsessions. Olly recalled their holiday last year in Lanzarote.
“Without fail every day you had squid at least once,” said Olly.
“I did not actually,” said Alexa. “They didn’t have it everywhere.” In the centre of Alexa’s and Olly’s dietary Venn diagram there is just one item: salad.
This was another worry about Dorset. The food, Alexa figured, would most likely be classic rural British. Heavy on the carbs, rich in dairy, meaty as hell. She was planning a trip to Waitrose to stock up on healthy snacks.
Alexa’s brain goes round and round, a constant cycle of everything she should be doing. Write that post, send that email, set up that meeting. It’s become so connected to her body that she has a near-constant pain in her chest. Her main anxiety used to be physical, a self-consciousness about her body which meant she hated exposing her skin and found even crossing the road a challenge as she didn’t like the idea of someone in a car watching her without her being able to see them. Now she’s more worried about her career, about how well she’s doing or feels she should be doing. Her university graduation was the worst day of her life – the memory of it alone makes her cry. She stood on the stage in what should have been a moment of celebration and had a panic attack and afterwards lay on the floor of a toilet cubicle and sobbed. It felt like the end of everything, like she’d never be able to hold down a real job, like she couldn’t possibly be successful. Everyone else always seems to be going faster, doing better, winning.
Sometimes it feels like a thing now, being anxious. Everyone’s anxious. Or depressed. On social media you have to have a backstory, something you’ve been through or some kind of condition, in order to have credibility. She feels jaded about it, until she remembers that not long ago people wouldn’t even mention the fact that they had a mental-health problem for fear of losing their job or being stigmatised in some way. Surely it’s better to be open and honest. To over-share than to share nothing at all?
Sometimes, Alexa feels like a baby trapped in a grown-up’s body, or like she’s still six years old. She knows that people in their early 20s have probably always felt bewildered or lost, and that maybe there’s nothing new about feeling beset by pressure and self-doubt and financial insecurity. But she also knows that she’s come of age at a moment when the odds feel tilted against her, when the world feels unstable and the future uncertain, when the likelihood of having a predictable job or owning a home seems remote.
Standing in front of her mirror, trying to choose the right dress for the ethical-diamond party, Alexa recalled an episode of the historical drama “Jamestown” that she’d watched the night before. The programme is about the first settlements in Virginia. She loves historical dramas like “Britannia”, “The Vikings” and “Victoria”. Often she finds herself strangely attracted by the limited lives of the women in these shows in comparison to the paralysing set of choices she faces, though she doesn’t want to sound like she is in favour of arranged marriages.
Anyway, “Jamestown”. “This couple got married and they were so happy and everyone was cheering for them and I had this moment of, there are no cameras!” said Alexa, turning to see her reflection from one side, then the other. “No one has their iPhones out. It’s 16-whatever. There’s no technology. And I was like, this sounds like heaven. I would be so much more comfortable in everyday life if these things didn’t exist and yet they are my existence. You know? I have to plan my whole life round it.”
A scroll of notifications five thumb-swipes long. Shit. Everyone was at the diamond party already. Olly was waiting for her. Alexa chose a dress (the first one).
The Uber stopped outside the discreet black exterior of Blakes and down in the dark glow of the basement bar the guests were being given champagne and small silver keys. Strings of diamonds were in glass cases lined up against the back wall. If your key fitted a lock on a small box, you got to keep the piece of jewellery inside.
Alexa went to film the diamonds for her story while Olly stood in a corner and considered the Dorset trip, which was suddenly upon them. It was a big deal she was going: in his family, you only took a partner home if it was serious. Later in the year, they were planning to move in together, somewhere in London they could afford. He was mulling south of the river, though he knew she was hoping for something more central, like Notting Hill. They had talked about the future. “She wants three kids,” he said, and added, “probably that means three kids.”
There was a minor commotion when it turned out the winning key belonged to a toddler who someone had unexpectedly brought to the party. People tried to seem charmed. But otherwise Olly and Alexa spent most of the evening in a corner, drinking and chatting. They talked about how the night might unfold, which bar they’d go on to, and how they wanted to save themselves for the following evening which was Olly’s 27th birthday.
They didn’t save themselves. In the morning, the aftermath of the diamond party was logged on Alexa’s story: long shots of Alexa and her colleagues with their arms thrown round each other in a bar, then Alexa and Olly wearing sombreros, rosy and transported. The story ran on and on, the night passing at hyper-speed through the jump-cuts of her videos, there was a sense of something coming loose, a blessed loss of self-consciousness. They were having an unbelievably good time.
If you grow up online, you know what it is to be watched and how it feels to be heard, and how the more you are watched and heard, the more you want and need to be. Things don’t feel real until they’re shared or valid until you know what other people think about them. Your self becomes something to be recorded, posted, judged and, possibly, hopefully, monetised. You can be a brand, and maybe you should be. Deep in the guts of Instagram, there’s a sense of well-meaning frenzy – a race to prove that you feel and admire and suffer and love more than anyone else. And then there’s the unspoken quid pro quo: you like me and I’ll like you. “It’s like why have we ended up in this situation to begin with?” Alexa wondered one afternoon. “Why do we need to show off our lives? I don’t know. All these weird contradictory things.”
And yet it is only on social media that Alexa feels able to talk honestly about herself, and to feel good about her body. It was online that she’d learned about intersectional feminism, and the importance of acknowledging her privilege as a white woman of means. She knows how lucky she is to be supported by her parents, to do a job she enjoys, to pursue a life she wanted. She is proud that it feels possible for her peers to talk about subjects like mental health and sexual assault that their parents had often concealed or denied. Every woman she knows had experienced some kind of sexual assault; thanks to #MeToo they can now talk frankly about it. Her generation are sick of the silence society had maintained around everything; now they are breaking the silence, noisily, freely, on multiple platforms.
Sure, the constant sharing can make her feel anxious – other people’s lives often appear so glorious – but it also makes her feel less alone and better informed. She now knows and cares about so much beyond the limits of her own sliver of class and time and place. On balance, the insight gained from all the personal revelation online, and the sense of mutual support available in a retweet, offsets most of the internet’s ill effects. “I think without that openness I’d still be a very unhappy individual,” she said. “Not that there’s sun coming out of my asshole now.”
Dorset. The weekend filled her story: an anxious cab journey to the station (they nearly missed the train); a stately home and garden tour; Olly playing golf with his brother and father; a music festival in a field; church on Sunday morning.
Alexa found Olly’s family hilarious, and they seemed to welcome her into their ranks. It all amounted to a kind of blessing: a confirmation of how they felt about each other. At the end of it all, she tweeted: “had the most amazing weekend with the boyf and his lovely fam and I think I actually improved my abs from all the laughing despite all the wine #sherborne #englishcountryside #feelingzen #familytime #ladsladslads”
Accompanying this was a video, 15 seconds long, from Saturday night. In a field under a cloudy sky was a festival stage surrounded by people. Alexa’s phone swung round to catch Olly and his father dancing, their limbs flying up and down in lunatic, joyful synchrony. All you could hear was the roar of “Mr Brightside” filling the evening and the sound of Alexa, laughing.