Exploring The Age Of “Vulnerability Porn”

USING VULNERABILITY VS BEING VULNERABLE

 

A few days ago, as I was scrolling through Instagram, ironically procrastinating on writing my next article, I read a caption that stopped me in my tracks. An influencer, who will remain nameless in this piece, had recently returned to Instagram after a several-month hiatus, an extended leave of absence or digital detox if you will. Upon her digital return, she shared a few posts about her offline lessons, one of them advising her followers to question the effects of sharing our lives online. She called this “the age of vulnerability porn,” and it was the first time I had heard the term: Vulnerability Porn.  

Though I have yet to find an exact definition, I believe the term to be referring to the increased vulnerability, or perceived vulnerability, we see online. One could argue that vulnerability is “trending,” and that we are living in an age of oversharing. While social media platforms like Instagram have received their fair share of criticism regarding promoting perfectionism, and thus only furthering mental health issues, there has been a radical change in how people consume and share content. It seems that instead of craving the continual picture-perfect bikini bods on picture-perfect beaches, people are longing to see their own nuanced lives reflected on screen — experiences shared with the people they follow via the posts they read. Have people traded in perfectionism for connection?

It seems rather ironic that the criticism of so-called “vulnerability porn” is that it causes a lack of connection, and it’s even backed by vulnerability researcher (and my personal hero) Brené Brown. “Using vulnerability is not the same thing as being vulnerable; it’s the opposite – it’s armour,” she writes. 

Who gets to police vulnerability anyways? And more importantly: Who gets to dictate its impact?

Alexandra D’amour

As someone who shares her life online, this statement is something I can somewhat vouch for. Sharing online does not make me vulnerable. Even my writing, which I then share online, isn’t in itself a vulnerable act. Writing has always been an incredibly healing and therapeutic art form for me, but long before I press “publish” or “share,” there are months (and sometimes years) worth of time spent analyzing, processing, and shifting my inner struggles and outer experiences. The process of acknowledging and healing trauma, and then finding language and stringing together words to formulate those experiences onto a page—that is being vulnerable for me. In other words, the interior work of processing experiences is way more vulnerable than the exposing of them on the interweb.  

While I agree with Brene Brown that using vulnerability is very different than actually being vulnerable, I am conflicted by the criticism of online vulnerability. “It feels repetitive and inauthentic,” one of my friends recently shared on the topic. I acknowledged that some posts can feel that way. I mean, how many more images of cellulite can we really consume? But this only leads me to a *really* important question: Who gets to police vulnerability anyways? And more importantly: Who gets to dictate its impact? 

A few months ago, a friend sat me down to address her concern over my emotional well-being. “Your posts seem so…dark,” she said, trying to explain her worry. I was shocked and puzzled by her distress—this was the best I’d felt in months, years even! I had spent over a year in a dark depressing cloud of grief over the loss of my father, paired with my inability to conceive, and I finally felt lighter, happy even. When I shared my utter confusion with her, she admitted the catalyst behind her concern. 

If I’m comfortable being vulnerable with the world online, does that mean I have to be vulnerable with every single person in my personal life?

Alexandra D’amour

“Online vulnerability isn’t the same as real-life vulnerability,” she said. 

I looked at her, anxiously perplexed. I was in such a good place, and she knew that. I finally felt ready to share my “dark” shit, with confidence and raw honesty. I was baffled. And considering I’ve chosen to share my life on the internet as my profession, I felt attacked. 

As I normally do when I’m emotionally rattled, I spent the next day overanalyzing everything. I carefully reread all of my Instagram captions from the last six months. I evaluated every single published article. And after several extensive conversations with my husband, he talked me right out of the worst vulnerability hangover I’d ever experienced:

“You have the right to share your story in whatever format you choose. Anyone who has a problem with that, can mind their own business.”

The decision to share is mine. The decision in how to share? Solely mine too. His reassuring statement left me with yet another question to consider on this complex topic: If I’m comfortable being vulnerable with the world online, does that mean I have to be vulnerable with every single person in my personal life? 

While I value the many incredible friendships and women in my life, I don’t feel comfortable sharing every single one of my internal struggles with each of them. And it’s not because of a lack of offline vulnerability on my end. 

Last year, when discussing struggles in my fertility journey, it was very apparent who could hold my tears without providing unsolicited advice. Advice of any kind did nothing to help me in my moments of extreme emotional distress, and instead, caused me to live in shame and isolation. My longing to be understood, and my desire for genuine connection, pulled me away from some of my friends, and instead guided me towards the fertility community online. Every caption or comment I read gave me permission to release my tears; I finally felt understood. And every time I shared, the support allowed my crippling shame to lift. Somehow, it felt safer to talk intimately to strangers online, than to the people I love the most, offline.

And I know I’m not the only one. One of our Instagram followers recently shared: “There have been times I’ve been exhausted talking about my marriage with my friends, so I hit up Reddit and read about relationship issues people have, and feel understood and less alone.”

Like my best friend recently said perfectly: “No one should be shamed for turning to the internet for support.”

Somehow, it felt safer to talk intimately to strangers online, than to the people I love the most, offline.

Alexandra D’amour

So what does it mean to connect? Can connection only happen offline? While for me, nothing will ever replace the ability of seeing emotions register in someone’s eyes, or being able to reach out and wrap your arms around someone, it’s important to examine our offline connections. More importantly, I think it’s vital we don’t place them on a pedestal. 

Connection quite simply is two parties relating on a common experience. While being vulnerable is often associated with exposing oneself to harm or risk, connection is often a response to vulnerability. Its effect and impact, specifically when it comes to connection, online or offline, are subjective. And no one is qualified to be the gatekeeper of vulnerability, authenticity, or connection.

Online vulnerability has allowed light to be shed in places that were kept dark. It’s ensured stories are represented, many for the first time. And with every #metoo, veils of shame have had room to lift. There is no right or wrong way to be vulnerable, but I do know that being vulnerable helps break through the armour we carry, regardless of whether or not we’re logged on.

Social media is no substitute for human connection, but sharing online and finding a community can be therapeutic and incredibly healing. People I have never met, whose faces I’ll never know intimately, have comforted me in ways people I know never have. And while people will continue criticizing online vulnerability, dubbing it the rise of “vulnerability porn,” I’m focusing on the good. 

Vulnerability quite simply is emotional exposure, and I for one don’t care whether you expose yourself through an app or to my face. They both hold immense value. And my reaction to either medium will be the same every time: “Thank you so much for sharing.”

LET'S TALK: what are your thoughts on "vulnerability porn"?

1 Comment

WHAT READERS ARE SAYING ABOUT THIS ARTICLE

  1. Loved, loved this post. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot as well, as I get concerned that me sharing my personal and vulnerable sound as though I’m grasping for attention, but that’s truly not the case. I agree that no one can really dictate what is or what is not vulnerable—that’s like someone dictating what love is. Of course we can try to define it in order to understand it (ie, vulnerability is stripping away some degree of armor), but I don’t think words will necessarily fit the complexity of vulnerability.

    Also, if vulnerability porn is a thing—I wonder why. Is it a response to people getting so sick of pretending to be perfect? Is it because it’s trendy and gets attention? Is it because our society makes it harder to connect through real life and we’re looking to the internet to find some level of comfort?

    I’m sure it’s different depending on who you ask, but I like to think that people shedding their skin (both in regards to internal processing and outward sharing) will ultimately connect us a society.

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