In August of 2008, when I started my freshman year at the University of Rochester, my priorities were pretty simple: get fucked up, meet hot guys, have a good time. I was coming off a three-week trip through Europe in which I had culturally enriching experiences like taking Ecstasy for the first time and having sex with a young man on my program in broad daylight in a grassy field on the outskirts of town.
Basically, I was one bad bitch and I didn’t care who knew it. My strategy for meeting people was to sit on a bench outside the freshman dorm smoking cigarettes and see who would ask to bum one. I pre-gamed my first Hall Meeting, didn’t attend any orientation activities and only managed to make male friends.
On the stereotypically nerdy, slightly conservative Rochester campus, I imagine must have come as something of a shock.
This was back when the infamous college gossip board Juicy Campus still existed, just before the advent and eventual demise of its offspring, College ACB (short for Anonymous Confession Board. Go figure.) As an outgoing, loudmouthed, flirtatious underclassman in the heyday of these sites, I was pretty much a sitting target.
It was probably a couple weeks into school when I heard it mentioned in conversation for the first time. There was a list of “Hottest Freshman Girls” and apparently my name was on it. That was the thing about those sites -- some of it was ostensibly flattering, but you still came away feeling like utter shit after reading it. It was just…slimy.
Seeing my name lined up in numbered ranks next to the names of other girls in my grade, I realized that this was why freshman girls had a reputation for being so catty to each other.
After I had been on campus for a few months and “made a name for myself,” it really spiraled out of control. I suppose it was also the growth of the site’s popularity among students (both on my campus and nationwide), but it honestly seemed like so much of it was just coming square at me.
Posts about me ran the gamut from people talking about jerking off to my Facebook pictures or trying to see up my skirt on the library steps to the inevitable comments about how ugly I was, what a whore I was and how I was disgustingly skinny. There were more personal attacks too –- my boyfriend was hooking up with other girls, I cheated on all my exams (despite the fact that I was an Art History major and my “exams” were made up almost entirely of term papers), and of course the ever-popular eating disorder claims.
At first I didn’t care. For a while I even found it sort of exhilarating in a weird, perverse way. Everyone had some sort of opinion about me. I was a topic of conversation. It was like these kids’ lives were so boring all they wanted to do was sit around and dream up stuff to write about me. It was amusing, almost.
People I didn’t know would literally come up to me at parties to express their solidarity, like my being able to go about my business how I desired was some sort of cause to rally behind.
I was a campus celebrity and yet I was also a victim. I was a martyr for promiscuous party girls everywhere. But, rather than feeding my ego, it ultimately resulted in me developing a level of paranoia and discomfort around acquaintances that’s still very much present in my life today.
Suddenly, I was convinced everyone I interacted with had some fully formed opinion of me and that it was most likely negative. If someone wasn’t expressly friendly to me, then they must have hated me. They must be judging me, mocking me and talking trash against me.
My friends would try to convince me otherwise, but what could they say? The proof was right in front of me –- scrawled all over the Internet. And on a smallish college campus, there was really no escaping it.
Once someone even wrote an anonymous email from a fake address to my ex-boyfriend while he was studying abroad, detailing all the ways in which I had been a slut that semester, how many guys I had slept with while he was away, etc. Most of it wasn’t even true, but it freaks me out to this day that someone would go through the time and effort to do all that just to try and screw with me.
It died down as I got older and newer versions of me began to take the spotlight. I still remember talking to a younger girl who was starting to be gossiped about a lot a few months into her first year at school. I met her while walking into a frat party and her eyes got big as saucers when I told her who I was.
"You’re Cait Munro?” she said in a tone that was a cross between reverence and fear. “How do you deal with it? What do you do?”
I laughed and told her to just be herself, be fabulous and don’t listen to the negativity. But of course, that’s one of those advice nuggets we all love that’s so great on paper and so impossible in reality. If I could go back in time, I’d tell her to transfer. Or sue.
One day, out of nowhere, College ACB shut down. It wasn’t until then that I fully realized how much the gossip and the recognition had come to define me. I was used to people knowing who I was and that gave me a sort of confidence, but it also provided me with an excuse to not take myself any more seriously than they took me.
For so long I allowed myself to be content to just meet everyone’s expectations of me. I allowed myself to become defined by partying, dressing up and maintaining a rebellious image. But this left me with some pretty big holes in my self-perception.
I didn’t know how to envision myself as a serious human being with actual talents and goals because I felt that no one else did. I wasn’t sure what came first –- other people not taking me seriously because I didn’t expect them to, or me not expecting them to because they just didn’t.
For someone who was supposed to not care what anyone else thought, I let it affect me way more profoundly than I ever should have. I never let it stop me from being myself or living out loud, but I did let it make me feel apologetic for it.
I graduated from college with a lot of wonderful things –- an amazing group of friends who I’m still periodically stunned all actually exist in real life, a knowledge of and appreciation for art, film and culture and a hell of a lot of good stories. But I also graduated college with perilously low self-esteem, and I still find myself looking for external validation to fill these voids.
I thought that getting a full-time, Big Girl Job was for sure the answer. If someone could just believe in me enough to want to pay me money to work for them, then I must be worth something. But I got that and I still feel inadequate and wrong in some essential way that I don’t quite understand.
Sure, part of that’s just the growing pains of being in my twenties, but part of it is undoubtedly also the idea that everyone I meet is going to go home and write something awful about me on the metaphorical message board of life.
Most people who meet me probably think I’m interesting and personable –- on a good day, maybe even charismatic and funny. But in my weird, twisted mind, all they can see are a bundle of flaws that a bunch of people who probably never even knew me made up for me. And that I somehow then allowed myself to adopt.
I don’t know how to divorce myself from this idea and until I figure out a way to, I’m certain that it will continue to hold me back from seeing myself as the person that I actually am –- as well as the person I could one day be.
I wonder sometimes if this is why actual celebrities –- like, people who have the whole world talking shit about them as opposed to a just few hundred sheltered college kids, have such a hard time leading normal lives or picking up the pieces after something bad happens.
Being under scrutiny by others sucks, but the worst part of it is that after it’s over, there’s no telling how long it will be until you finally stop scrutinizing yourself.