Tara Isabella Burton on Does Giving Up Social Media for Lent Deny the Flesh? It’s Complicated

Social media apps on a smartphone. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

For the second year in a row, I gave up Instagram for Lent. Social media, particularly visual social media, is a particular indulgence of mine, a vice to which I am often particularly vulnerable: the desire to be seen, to create a public and visually arresting narrative of my own life, to create myself through images of vintage clothing (or historical costuming in Venice).

Last year I took it further, giving up Facebook and Twitter as well, but between the increasing necessity of Twitter to the practice of journalism and having a book coming out this spring, giving up all social media isn’t practical. Anyway, while I appreciate Twitter and Facebook’s facility networking, I am less addicted to the one’s river of argument and snidery, and to the other’s mirror: A lifelong struggle with eating disorders and body image issues make every tagged photograph of me on Facebook a referendum on whether I have been sufficiently good, or at least disciplined, that week.

No, for me, Instagram is the true sacrifice. The desire to create a digital avatar, an online doppelgänger who is better, is and has been, for much of my life, inextricable from my difficulty with being present in a given space. The person I am online, not a body but an idea of a body, is constantly part of a narrative that always exists for others, rather than privately in space. It exists to be seen, to be experienced, rather than to see and experience itself.

I am cautious, of course, about the notion that Lent doubles as a form of self-care or self-betterment: that, by fasting or “giving up” something bad for us, we can improve our health and our lives. Such a vision of Lent renders it little more than a spiritualized diet regime: an excuse to cut chocolate or booze calories with an Almighty watcher ensuring we don’t slip a hand into the cookie jar. At its core, the sacrifices of Lent are designed to focus our attention on God, rather than worldly distraction.

So I am wary of my Lenten sacrifice becoming merely a digital detox, something I have aimed to correct through a more active, and consistent, Lenten prayer life. But as I have attended to the dangers of social media and the lure of creating a disengaged self in the dispassionate realm of digital space, I have been struck that we need a new, and better, vocabulary to discuss the characteristic sins of 2020.

Lent has long been about fasting and physical self-denial. To give up red meat, or alcohol, or dessert — the traditional sacrifices — rests on a fundamental of human frailty as appetitive: We want too much; our bodies’ desires are, if not bad and shameful, then nevertheless base and excessive.

On Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, the final day before the start of Lent, we drink too much and carouse until the wee small hours and make delicious pancakes, all ready to begin our regimen of asceticism the next day.

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Source: Religion News Service