Keira Bell was betrayed by the live-your-dream philosophy. Credit: Alamy Stock Photos

December 9, 2020   6 mins

In 2005, I changed my name to Sebastian, because the internet told me to. That was a fairly eccentric thing to do 15 years ago. Now, it seems like everyone’s at it. Far from being a set of fairly stable cultural norms with a few outliers, gender is now at the heart of an insanely toxic debate, which seems on course to swallow all of culture and politics. The right to personalise one’s gender is now backed by corporate philanthropy, well-funded third-sector lobbying and prominent celebrities.

But while it may feel like mainstream culture has gone down the gender rabbit hole with bewildering speed, the enabling conditions have been gathering force for some time.

In 2004, on the soundtrack to the Disney family comedy Ella Enchanted, Amanda Remanda and Bryan Adams sang: “Believe the voice inside of you, live out your dreams and make them true”. This sentiment is so common across children’s movies that songs voicing it are difficult to tell apart: we can transform our public selves if we only believe hard enough. But it wasn’t until the noughties that this idea crossed the line from being a metaphor about hope and perseverance to beings something that felt achievable, as they say, IRL.

I’m old enough to have got all the way to my late teens without the internet. But as a not-wholly-heterosexual and not-at-all-comfortable-in-my-own-skin teenager in the late Nineties, I fell deeply in love with the online world the moment I discovered it. Here was a social space, in which I could just be ‘me’, a disembodied consciousness, engaging with others like me purely through the medium of words. It was exhilarating.

MySpace was founded the year before Ella Enchanted came out, and Facebook the same year. Sebastian happened (I think) the following year, existed approximately 2005-2008 (though most of that decade is a bit of a blur) and would never have been a thing without the then-nascent phenomenon of social media.

In search of ‘my people’, I fell feet-first into a ‘genderqueer’ subculture that’s well-developed now. If I were in my early twenties today, I’d doubtless have a full bore ‘non-binary’ identity, complete with flag, fancy pronouns and a raft of internet friends lining up to validate me becoming my authentic self.

In the noughties, though, this subculture was just a tiny corner of the wild, emerging world of online communities. In its London incarnation, it had two hubs: one weekly bar night, and one corner of a then-popular lesbian messageboard. We’d all meet up offline for beer and chat, but the lion’s share of the culture-building happened online, via all the classic traits of an online subculture: in-jokes, micro-celebrities, sacred truths, fantasies and friendships and spectacular messageboard fights.

For someone who was, like me, uneasy in the End of History normie world of globalisation, Jamie Oliver and the New Labour Third Way, it felt liberating. Online, you could be anyone you wanted. Someone who was, in real life, a pudgy woman with a moonface and a buzz-cut could be magically transformed, via the collective story we wove on that messageboard, into a brooding hybrid of James Dean and Oscar Wilde.

In 2005, hardly anyone was Very Online enough to have a whole parallel internet persona who came out IRL only among kindred spirits. But times change: between 2005 and 2015, the average amount of time teenagers spend online every week tripled. Today, by the time kids reach their teens, they spend an average of 20 hours a week online.

And it’s not just the kids: in 2005, the average UK adult spent around 10 hours a week online, but that doubled over the next decade to 20 hours. This year, under lockdown, average internet usage is nearly 30 hours a week. As you might expect, the Very Online approach to identities and social groups is no longer a fringe activity.

And as it goes mainstream, the costs are becoming more visible too. Last week, detransitioner Keira Bell won her case challenging the Tavistock Clinic’s ‘affirmative’ treatment model for children and teenagers with gender dysphoria. Bell recounts a now-common story: a child who didn’t fit normative social stereotypes about how boys and girls behave and, once she reached her teens, went looking online for her ‘people’.

But, unlike me, Bell grew up in a world where we’re all used to creating ‘selves’ largely divorced from our physical bodies. Today, we’ve grown used to digital social lives where we can edit, control and curate our selves to suit how we feel on the inside.

So where I found a tiny subculture of those who felt at odds with sex stereotypes and their bodies, Keira Bell was greeted by 15 years’ worth of mass acculturation to this avatar-first understanding of ‘identity’. She was embraced by an international, well-networked digital community, dedicated to promoting the idea that our ‘selves’ are self-created and independent of our bodies, and backed up by serious lobbying money and a well-developed medical infrastructure.

This identity-first vision of selfhood, forged in the disembodied online world, was an exciting novelty for me. For millions of now-adult children of the internet age, though, it’s baked into their worldviews as a core paradigm for reality. But the problem it faces is that once you take this paradigm offline, it doesn’t really work.

As the first incarnation of Facebook was launching in 2004, Amanda and Bryan were singing to the impressionable tween watchers of Ella Enchanted:

Through your eyes, I may see
With your love, you set me free
Wishes can come true
If you believe

It might seem unfair to subject something as ephemeral as a second-rate Disney soundtrack to a close reading. But bear with me, because the core idea expressed by this dreary ditty is contradictory in ways that have wider repercussions. On the one hand it claims: believe hard enough and magic will happen. Your true self will emerge. But it also claims that to make that magic a reality, I need to see myself through your eyes.

Thanks to the internet, we can all play at creating ourselves by believing hard enough. Online, no one can tell whether I’m really who I claim to be. Divorced from our bodies and the semi-random nature of who we know in real life, we are all free to find ‘our people’ and express whatever we feel our inner selves to be. If a ‘true self’ or group of ‘true friends’ starts to chafe, we can find another.

Offline, though, it doesn’t really work like that. Having created Sebastian, I found it easy to get people who didn’t know me well to use that name, but longstanding friends were a different matter. Put simply, it felt weird. And yet self-created identities feel unreal until they’re affirmed by other people, meaning Sebastian only ever was real inasmuch as people actually used the name. Even if my reluctance to demand validation from my parents is proof that I wasn’t truly serious about my new identity, it also pointed to a deeper truth: there’s no such thing as an identity created independently of the way others see you.

To reinvent ourselves without regard to our contexts also implies an inhuman degree of mastery over our bodies. The year Ella Enchanted and Facebook both appeared also saw the launch of one of the defining scifi series of the noughties. Battlestar Galactica depicted a fraying remnant of humanity pursued through space by the embodied-but-mechanical, humanoid-but-infinitely-reincarnated flesh/robot hybrid Cylons. In reality, though, it’s the other way round.

I can’t just upload a new face or different secondary sex characteristics when the old set no longer feel quite ‘me’. Just as our inner sense of selfhood is both consolidated but also constrained by the willingness of loved ones to recognise it, so our ability to apply the digital style of selfhood in ‘meatspace’ is limited by the stubborn refusal of our bodies to behave like a slate we can wipe clean and over-write at will with new selves.

I may have dreamed, as Sebastian, of being able to reincarnate as a new, unblemished me when the old one didn’t suit. But as has become apparent with age, I will always be pursued by the fraying, beleaguered traces of old selves: childhood scars, stretch marks, a C-section scar, the piercings I no longer wear.

Keira Bell, raised in the social-media paradigm of the authentic-but-infinitely-reinvented self, was on puberty blockers at 15 and cross-sex hormones at 18. By 20 she’d undergone a double mastectomy in search of her authentic self. And having discovered that this ‘authentic self’ did not bring the promised peace, she must now live with the bitter truth that the medical changes she underwent in search of authenticity can’t be erased by uploading a new profile picture. Her willingness to tell the brutal story of how she was misled shows enormous courage.

But in turn the traces and scars offer a clue to a more grounded and human understanding of self than the digital one. The scars, wrinkles and other traces now building up on my gradually ageing physiology are ‘me’ in a sense that’s far more profound than Sebastian ever was. And seen thus, ‘who you truly are’ isn’t something that comes from within, to be greeted with awed affirmation by a hushed and waiting world. Rather, it’s something that emerges, over time, in conversation with that world.

But the disembodied online world in which so many of us now consolidate our selves continues to repeat the lie that our selves are plastic, infinitely renewable, atomised and under our exclusive control as individuals. This untruth betrayed Keira Bell. It hacks at the foundations of what makes us human: our relationships, and our embodied limits. We should resist its further progress through our laws and institutions.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.