We’ve seen it before. Scrawled on the wall of some grubby gas station restroom are the bubble letters in bright pink: “Stacy luvs gus 4eva.”
But consider these words: “Why does everyone go to Wall Street?” Or how about this: “I am loosing my fucking mind without my meds. It hurts to breathe. I can’t talk without crying. I wish I wasn’t born like this.”
At least five years ago—no one’s sure exactly when—the stalls of the women’s bathroom on the first floor of Adams House became informal confessionals. Upon the peeling white paint of the swinging doors, students—female, one could assume—scribbled their fears, phobias, and questions in different colors. Layers of writing collected on top of the paint: words overlapped, private exclamations collided with sober questions, and old inscriptions faded as fresh ones took their place. Some of the writing is admittedly frivolous—of the gas station variety—but most of the scribbles reveal deeply personal thoughts and concerns, the sort of intimate details reserved for the best of friends.
The stalls also display trickles of dialogue among commentators. To the individual who found it difficult to breathe, someone offered words of earnest encouragement: “Pray ’cause God loves you, and He knows how you feel. And the way you are—it’s the world crushing you. I’ve been where you are and it gets better, I promise.”
Some of the interchanges showcase the advice of those with appropriate experience. One student wrote: “I throw up once or twice a week. Is that bulimic?” Her response? “Talk to someone. I’ve been bulimic for seven years.”
And yet other conversations are best described as forums; as one individual asks, “What do you do when you realize you’re in a relationship that’s not quite right but you don’t think you’ll ever find someone better?” Apparently, enough people felt strongly enough about the question to leave several different answers: “Leave.” “Never settle.” “He’s not worth it. Snap out of it and move on. You are too awesome.”
Of course, this last response is somewhat disingenuous; the commentator has no way of identifying the original questioner, whose inquiry was left unsigned. But the nature of the response—supportive, empowering, uplifting—reflects the general ethos of the stalls. Forget the faces behind the questions and the personalities that extend far beyond the writing. At the very moment that a student leaves her anonymous mark on the wall of that bathroom stall, she knows that she is in a safe space, an open space without faces or names.
A few weeks ago, the Adams House custodial staff painted over the writing. According to Adams House Master Judith Palfrey, the aesthetic of the bathroom stalls was unpleasant, and Palfrey asked that the doors be painted over. But though the layers of writing and the collage of confessions are no longer visible, they are still there, locked away beneath that smooth, egg-shell surface.
How can we explain all of this covert activity on the stalls of the Adams bathroom? And is there a reason why this is happening here, at Harvard?
Shoshana S.R. Tell ’10 and Kacie M. Rounds ’11 are co-directors of Room 13, a confidential peer counseling service located in the basement of Thayer. From the velveteen purple couches of their office, Tell and Rounds, like all Room 13 counselors, listen as students reveal their most guarded vulnerabilities. Some students shed tears, while others sort through issues that they would not share with anyone else—proctors, parents, roommates and friends included.
In their experience as counselors, Tell and Rounds say that there is certainly an image that Harvard students seek to maintain.
According to Tell, students want to be seen as organized, on top of their stuff. “It’s not true for everyone, but at a high-achieving school there is a sense of the importance of looking put together,” she says.
Of course, Tell’s is not a strictly literal observation. Many students wander around in sweatpants, and the scramble to finish a problem set or print a paper just before the deadline are part of the normal grind. For Tell, “looking put together” is more a matter of obscuring any personal issues like those on the Adams bathroom wall.
“Harvard is such an environment of driven, ambitious people who are goal-oriented, who have a similar goal of success—either at school or in life,” Rounds says. As a result, she says, students are often reluctant to show when they are not successful at a particular extracurricular or academic endeavour, however that success may be defined.
“It is much harder to be able to be willing to let that be shown in a place where they think that everyone is trying to succeed,” Rounds adds, commenting as a student and not from her position as a Room 13 officer.
According to academic psychologists and counselors, as well as the accounts of students themselves, personal and private outpourings in public spaces stem from a very human need for self-expression. Yet the competing need to erase any identifying traces leads, as in the case of Adams’ bathroom stalls, to a phenomenon of anonymous authorship.
According to Kennedy School Professor J. Richard Hackman, a specialist in social and organizational psychology, the phenomenon of anonymous authorship recalls an argument made by sociologist Erving Goffman in his text “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.”
When interacting with others, Goffman argues, an individual “will have many motives for trying to control the impression [others] receive.” As a result, Goffman writes, most individuals will calculate their manners, and in an effort to impart a specific type of impression, will “accentuate certain matters and conceal others.”
What students choose to accentuate or conceal is, to be sure, different for each individual, but there are things that most are generally less willing to broadcast to the masses: eating disorders, stress, family problems, relationship problems—anything, in essence, that can be perceived as a weakness. Anything that others, to borrow a colloquial phrase, might deem “too real.”
From her desk at the Office of Career Services, Robin Mount, director of the Office of Career, Research, and International Opportunities, sees students lay a piece of paper on the table, revealing the accumulation of everything from internship experiences, GPAs, high school awards, and tuba-playing accolades. Students come to her vulnerable, looking to being building a career.
Mount has found that many Harvard students, though eager to seek her advice, are unwilling to ask for similar advice from their peers; on this campus, résumés—not unlike problems at home or relationship difficulties—fall into the category of personal information that shouldn’t be shared.
Take Mount’s example of a varsity athlete. “You might be on a team and you know tons of stuff about that person, but you have no idea what jobs they are applying for because no one talks about that,” Mount says. According to her, no one talks about it because of an underlying sense of competition, because showing peers a résumé creates a vulnerability. With a résumé exposed, all the cards are laid bare.
Mount says that she and the OCS are working to let “students know that they are a part now of a big Harvard community and network and that everyone’s success is their success.” But for now, résumé-sharing outside of the walls of OCS remains rare.
Harvard students eat in dining halls designed to accommodate hundreds of people, work out in gyms where entire schools of the University have swipe access, sit in lectures that entertain over 600 people, and sleep on hallways with dozens of other rooms. With the addition of roommates, even the bedroom becomes a quasi-public space.
“Our school is pretty small and tight-knit,” reflects Tej A. Toor ’10, the creator of isawyouharvard.com. “There is a sense that you know people.”
On such a communal campus, Harvard students face a burden of high visibility, and Adams dining hall, an intimate space regularly flooded by diners from all over campus, epitomizes the state of inescapable visibility. It may be more than coincidence that the aforementioned bathroom walls are right around the corner.
Though the comfort of anonymity may not be specific to Harvard’s campus, worries about public image are heightened at Harvard, some say, because of the intensity of the environment. As Hackman wrote in an e-mail to The Crimson, researchers have not yet addressed the question of “whether people who are in communities where people know and regularly encounter one another are more or less likely to post anonymously,” but anecdotal evidence implies that in close communities, people may be more inclined to keep things covered up only to later reveal them anonymously rather than present personal matters to the community as a whole.
Toor, who runs two other “isawyou” websites at Rutgers University and the University of Maryland, says that although each campus site has unique characteristics, Harvard’s site stands out for its distinctly emotional charge: “The Harvard one is the most characterized by pent up feelings and deep-seated thoughts and that sort of thing,” says Toor, who attributes the deep-seated emotional expression to the possibility that Harvard students are less willing to make themselves vulnerable to their peers.
Similar to Craigslist’s “Missed Connections,” Toor’s websites invite students to post amorous notes about their crushes—names striken but humorous descriptions preserved—in the hopes that the crush might see the post. If professing in person, the speaker would be deemed quite bold. Yet on the Internet, the speaker is masked, so the potentially negative ramifications of proclaiming one’s feelings effectively disappear.
“You can say whatever you want to on the Internet,” Toor explains. “There is no name attached. You don’t need to put in your e-mail address anywhere. Even I as the administrator have no idea who is posting what.”
“I think doing something anonymously is emboldening,” says Ewa Sadej ’12, who posts on isawyouharvard.com. “You can put out your thoughts without having to face the consequences, and you can gauge the reaction from people without them knowing who you are and potentially embarrassing yourself.”
Anonymous expression is an escape from the visibility that Harvard students everywhere encounter. There is a certain freedom to anonymity: what a student does or says is not ascribed to that individual. The student’s responsibility is deflected.
HarvardFML.com, tag-lined “F*ck my life...at Harvard,” is a repository of bad luck, lost love, and embarrassing moments. But the stories on HarvardFML.com, though funny and light, are also the stories that you save for your closest friends. Posting on the sites anonymously “removes accountability,” says Jonah L. Varon ’13, who created and oversees PrincetonFML.com and over 20 other college FML sites. “It can mean that you can post offensive things, and if they are not moderated they will never get traced back to you. But it also means that you don’t have to worry about maintaining a reputation, you don’t have to worry about embarrassing yourself.”
INVISIBLE, BUT HEARD
But not all the posts on HarvardFML.com are humorous. Some lament lousy grades, others describe crying into a pillow on Saturday night because of unrequited love. The reasons for keeping those posts private tap into a different sort of embarrassment—one that would be much deeper were the posters’ identities revealed.
Toor also credits this potential embarrassment with part of the success of her site. Her original intention was to create a gag site for a computer science project, but over the first few weeks of its launch, she watched as more and more users began to see it as a space for serious self-expression.
“I think a lot of them—especially the male posts—are kind of sappy,” Toor says. “Maybe there is some sort of stigma attached to that sort of thing.”
Of course, people tend to be hush-hush about crushes anyway. “You might not want your crush knowing that [you think] she is the most beautiful girl in the world,” Toor adds. “I think it is the nature of the subject material—people often keep things of that sort private, so this gives them a space to make it public.”
Unlike HarvardFML.com, where a post is an end unto itself, Toor’s site can be a host for real world connections, and the potential for actual follow-up can give the posts a more serious undertone. Initially, Toor’s site lacked a mechanism for posting back or for commenting in response to posts, but she created one when she saw the utility of such a function.
Sadej first posted after the Harvard-Yale game when she found herself attracted to a fellow Dunsterite but unable to make the first move. “I wanted to try my luck and entertain my friends,” she said. “I’m kind of shy with guys. I don’t like to initiate because I feel whenever I initiate I’ve gotten hurt in the past. So I just try to put myself out there but not directly say, ‘Hey, what are you doing tonight?’”
Indeed, for those who post, the boldness one assumes—the liberty of self-expression, especially when anonymous—may be the appeal of posting.
“I don’t think that my site is enabling people to have different online personas—that’s creepy—but I guess it allows them to explore a different identity of themselves or express a different part of themselves that they don’t feel comfortable expressing when their feelings and thoughts are linked to themselves,” Toor speculates.
In real life, Sadej was genuinely interested in the boy addressed in her posted. But in real life, she did not want to approach him. So online, in the safe venue that Toor created, she expressed her feelings. Though Sadej never received a response—she doubts whether she even ever caught her mystery man’s attention—she maintains that she is glad she wrote the post.
Though Sadej’s satisfaction in the face of a failed connection may seem odd, PrincetonFML.com’s Varon explained why expressing oneself, even anonymously, can be satisfying.
“There is some satisfaction seeing something that you have written published in a public place even if it doesn’t get attributed to you,” Varon says.
Having people read what you write, Varon asserts, is a form of power—it is, in many ways, both liberating and cathartic. For those like Sedaj, a post is a risk with no cost and the potential for gain, and taking that risk was freeing in itself.
But the Adams’ bathroom walls and sites like HarvardFML.com are far from being the only spaces for anonymous expression on campus, though they may be the most spontaneous and organic. The University has a wealth of resources for those seeking anonymous and highly confidential outlets, ranging from University Mental Health Services to peer organizations such as Room 13.
HUHS’ Chief of Mental Health Services Dr. Richard D. Kadison lists relationship and adjustment concerns, academic stresses, attention problems, depression or anxiety, sometimes triggered by external academic, family, or personal issues, as well as cultural challenges and health worries about friends and family as the most common subjects HUHS patients seek to address in counseling, though they are often the same subjects students try to keep hidden from their peers.
Part of Room 13’s mission is to make each student aware that their peers are confronting similar insecurities. “That we are there as a resource that is available [is] a positive sign...that you’re not the only one who is struggling,” Rounds says. “I feel like a lot of people have this impression that everyone here has it all figured out perfectly, is on top of everything. [But] we’re not just perfect robots.”
Similarly, a Bureau of Study Counsel brochure, one of dozens of colored-paper handouts on a table by the entrance to the Linden Street office, advertises a weekly group session to deal with perfectionism, which the Bureau has tag-lined as “the double-edged sword.”
“Are your fears of falling short of your own or other’s expectations obstacles to your learning, completing your work, or living a healthy life?” the flyer asks. “Do you feel trapped on a treadmill of joyless performing and achievement?”
According to Kadison, roughly 15 percent of Harvard’s student body uses HUHS’ mental health resources, with female students forming a majority of those patients. But the portion of female students writing on the bathroom wall is a much slimmer and more informal contingent. Rather than look to a professional outlet, the students who write on the bathroom wall turn to an invisible, anonymous community.
And the angst expressed on the bathroom walls is anything but trivial; scrawled in all sorts of handwriting, the words reveal the raw and very real experiences students were not willing to share while seated on a futon in a common room or around a table in the dining hall.
As one student wrote on the wall before it was painted over, “These bathroom doors are the most honest thing at Harvard.”
In the past few weeks, the Adams’ bathroom wall has slowly come back to life.
“Why did you erase us? These walls meant something,” one student recently wrote.
And with a lonely arrow, drawn in careful cursive, a fellow student responded, “Hear, hear.”