selena gomez poses on a hay bale full of pumpkins with purple clip in extensions between her brunette hair and there is a glowing caption over top that says i am not pumpkin spice psychosis - the image is a screenshot from instagram that also shows a caption asking followers to claim the affirmation and write their own in the comments
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My favourite t-shirt is bright pink, short-sleeved, and it has a printed image in a square in the centre of the chest. The image shows a milky, digital, lilac morning sky that sinks into the same shade of pink as the shirt. Ethereal clouds in the background, video game-like, it has two blocky columns that stop in mid-air, holding nothing up and going nowhere. There is an edge of a castle on one side but these details don’t really matter, because most importantly there are bold white words with a hot pink glowing shadow over top of the whole scene that say, ‘I am not feeling mysterious pains.’

I saw the shirt last year when I was about 6 months into Long Covid, a new chronic illness that doctors could tell me nothing about (not that they know anything about the old ones either). I bought this t-shirt when I was definitely feeling mysterious pains. I was lying. But of course I bought it. I was feeling so many disruptive, poisonous, hot and cold, mad-making aches that I felt genuinely obliged.

All the pills the doctors had given me had failed. A therapist I trusted had told me that medicine didn’t matter because I could defeat pain with just my mind alone. Everything was a joke, and a roast, and it became surprisingly helpful to just join in with the hysterics of it all; to feel like I was laughing with the doctors and not being laughed at instead. I am not feeling mysterious pains. No, I’m really not.

The t-shirt was an active fuck you to my GP who didn’t care as much as I wanted her to; it was an ironic way of coping; and with that, it was also a clear and performative wish that the pain would in fact stop — that I would get to a point where the caption on the shirt was true again or I would at least learn why I had the pain in the first place, so the mystery part of that statement would come undone. Armour and optimism. Seeing it online felt something like fate, like this was the t-shirt I was supposed to be wearing while my body was holding out for a solution. It became my uniform for the sick life, complete with week-old joggers, greasy hair, bare feet and flushed cheeks. I loved it.

And then I wore it in a video on Instagram (my on-screen return after getting sick) and somebody commented that they were happy to see me repping @afffirmations. Afffirmations? I bought the shirt so desperately that I didn’t stop to see who I was buying it from. I didn’t realise it was part of a wider thing, that this was an established project with 969K followers after only 530 posts. Each of those was an artwork just like the one I was wearing. I felt strange and a little overwhelmed at what it was I was seeing.

The bio on the account reads, ‘✨🧸🍜🦋✨~ Welcome ~✨🦋🍜🧸✨🗺🏜 Daily Refill of Positive #Affirmations 🛩🍯🐝 #Inspiring #Quotes for the Heart 🌻 🏵💛👘 New Merch Out Now!👇’

I think I felt a little embarrassed for being out of the loop, but also for realising my susceptibility for these things… or something like that. Going from the t-shirt to the full Instagram account was like being lost on a desert highway and squinting as some headlights approach. There is a loud procession — a rowdy party bus full of strangers is coming my way. The car they are driving is powered by huge purple crystals charged by the sun. The passengers, flowers in their hair and bags under their eyes, are chanting the words ‘I am not feeling mysterious pains! I am not feeling mysterious pains!' And before I can think about what is happening, I am shouting the words with them; I am walking towards the light. They know to take me because I already have my merch on. Off we go, driving a car on our way towards the stars.

I am having a quiet panic on the party bus now while everyone continues their fun. I have been a follower of this account since I learnt about it last autumn but now I find myself looking for the exit signs or wondering when the next stop is. I think I might want to get off. Is that true, though? Do I really want to unfollow? Is it that deep that I am writing a whole text in an effort to figure it out? I guess it is.

Every post on @afffirmations is a full carousel of images styled like the one I described. They are square with thin colourful borders presenting strong first-person statements in text with a bright glow — a style reminiscent of original Microsoft word art. I am Sober Sunday with my Super Sane Family. I will meditate, not masturbate. My pronouns do not embarrass me. Being born did not ruin my life. All my friends are partying with me. America cares about women’s rights.

Each statement is finished off with batshit and sometimes forcibly banal imagery. There are celebrities, cartoon characters, stock photos, catalogue shots, desktop landscapes. There are illustrations of wolves and dolphins that would better suit the back of an oversized fleece bought in a market; lilies and stacked pebbles that you might see on the signs outside a Thai-style massage parlour on a suburban high street; rainbows made by the early Internet hippies of DeviantArt. A lot of these images are treated to some extent. Cropped, squeezed or stretched; eyes are made piercing, and people and places are overlaid with transparencies, glitter, and glowing outlines.

If we put all of that together, imagine a red carpet shot of a very young Justin Bieber smiling between ‘Headache is not BRAIN TUMOR’; a limousine covered in purple sparkles in front of palm trees between ‘All my efforts were not in vain’; an illustration of a head with lines shooting out in all directions from a hot-spot in the centre of the forehead, like a Neurofen advert, between ‘Losing money feels good’; the snowman from Frozen grinning between, ‘I was not dropped on my head as a kid’; and Ariana Grande kissing Mickey Mouse in full costume between the words ‘I am fully vaxxed and ready to climax.’

I’m listing a lot of examples of the posts on @afffirmations, more than I usually would, because I want you to feel the torrent and the loudness of the entire page as I was confronted by it and as I have continued to see it on the timeline ever since. Full carousels are created and shared daily. There are 10 squares to scroll through before another 10 burst through. Everyone is speaking all at once, all of these chants and feelings are crammed together on the one seat. The long captions under each post continue the looping songs: ’🌍👑💎Write “I CLAIM” to affirm💎👑🌍 Comment your own affirmations down below!’ The caption then lists a stream of further statements bordered by emojis, more hashtags, a reminder that there’s merch via the link in the bio. Then there are the comments, which go full caps-lock screaming to match the energy of the artworks: I CAN HAVE FUN AND NOT GET SICK, I AM ENTERING MY EMPLOYMENT ERA, I WILL NEVER BE IN A ROOM WITH OVERHEAD LIGHTING, and so on.

And between the artwork and the language and the people in the comments absorbing and then echoing back the same heady tone, it’s all just… a lot. I’m losing my mind but we all are.

I remember years ago being a timid little graduate and going to the GP because I was struggling with anxiety. I assumed that I would be referred to a soft psychiatrist in some bland room somewhere but I got a letter inviting me to group therapy instead. I think part of the embarrassing weirdness I feel around @afffirmations is realising that my mysterious pains are not unique, when a small part of me wants them to be because, in spite of the electric pain, at least that would mean I was special.

The account is like a group therapy session where everybody has been asked to grab a chair and sit in a circle to talk about their feelings, but there are hundreds of thousands of anxious strangers so the circle is not only huge but it is filled with concentric rings, and all the voices are harmonising in a way that hurts my ears. Really, I just want to be in a room on my own. And I find it overwhelming — again, in an embarrassing way — to learn that we all feel mental, and that none of us are unique in any way.

But that’s the least interesting part of my qualm, so I’m glad I’ve got that over with. I’ve made temporary peace with the presence of the other followers, of the fact there are other people on the planet I have to share with (I’m a big sister, what can I say); I can appreciate that we all need to confirm that headache is not brain tumour sometimes — I get it.

My wavering here is more to do with the artworks themselves and the way that they are framed. I feel uncomfortable about them but that discomfort really interests me given how much I loved my mysterious pains t-shirt when I first got it (and think I still do? I don’t know. I’m definitely wearing it less and less, like I’ve been worn down by knowledge of the Instagram account, and now I’m wondering why).

I think the problem — or, arguably, the greatness here — is that with @afffirmations, we are seeing a coming-together of wellness culture and meme-speak. Affirmations, if you are not familiar, pre-date this account by a long shot. Born out of New Age Thinking, the practice suggests that positive thinking can lead to success in life. Affirmations have been popularised on this side of the millennium by books like The Secret from Rhonda Byrne, self-help books in general, and also by plenty of other Instagram and Facebook accounts that try to uplift followers with some nice words on the timeline. Affirmations, naturally, rely on the pure sincere belief that thoughts can make important changes come true. It’s manifestation. It’s hope. It’s all about goodness and progress and love. It only has space for sincerity; the spell won’t work otherwise. It is straight and honest and raw. It is tender but serious too.

Memes, on the other hand, deal in irony, which is the opposite tone we usually expect in order to make our affirmations work. And yet in the posts on this Instagram account, by this singular mysterious artist, the emotional objective of the affirmation seems to come through regardless of the aesthetic it is coated in — or, I’m realising, maybe it’s precisely because of it.

Created by Mats Nesterov Andersen, a young Norwegian student on an Arabic course, at the beginning of 2021 (and modelling the success of the identical Norweigan-language account he had made just a few months earlier), Andersen explains in various interviews that @afffirmations was created in response to a 2020 social media flood of muted, text-only infographics that sought to care for our mental wellbeing. I know these accounts. I’ve followed and then un-followed the self-proclaimed gurus who run them. I always got to a point where I left them behind because I got the sense the person running the account thought they were holier than thou. I hated that I was helping them cash in on existential dread in a small way, while they offered continuous, empty aphorisms for the masses. I resented the way these accounts existed as if to replace individual, attentive therapy, knowing full well that we are stuck living lives where we can’t easily access anything better. Like, I just hate seeing niceties between adverts for online therapy that sell patient data. Everything is bad! I assumed Andersen’s @afffirmations project was taking the piss out of these other accounts. With all its neon whimsy, silly imagery, nonsense text, vapid celebrity iconography, aura-editing, and its hyperbolic ‘global self hypnosis’ title, I thought Andersen was doing hard satire to undermine all the gurus and their mantras. You know, their radical gratitude, and all the other horoscope-shit I am too scorned to believe in. They were performing sincerity and he was just having a laugh, and wasn’t that funny, and easy — okay, I’ll follow.

Across the interviews I read on Rolling Stone, Elle, Vice and so on, all the interviewers assumed this position too… until Andersen told them he was being deadly serious, that he considers his work art and not satire; and actually, he thinks affirmation accounts online ‘are important for the mental well-being of young people especially.’ For a second, I wished I hadn’t read the interviews because I didn’t want to believe this was the grand conclusion.

I am not a jaded critic.

I can separate art from the artist.

I am having a good time online. 

But I think maybe what is really going on here is more than Andersen or these journalists (including myself) have the words for. So, I am going to attempt to catch us all up.

If we follow meme history over the 2000s so far, we can see how things started out with a playful irony that suited the sarcasm of gen-x; we can then trace the way things flipped over to a wholesome, more sincere tone with some millennials; but more recently than that, we can see evidence of gen-z revitalising irony through the means (and the memes) of post-irony in order to be sincere again. Post-irony uses insincerity to convey completely sincere feelings and thoughts. It comes full circle but it has this new awkwardness because of the irony it passes through to get here — awkwardness that I believe is evident in Global Self Hypnosis, in the way the memes deliver these emotional messages with a hyperactive jokey tone, as if the creator and their audience are all too nervous, neurotic, young and affected to just say these things with a straight face. This is the humour they take part in culturally, and they speak through it, cope with it, and use the ironic distance to connect with each other on a sincere level — and that’s cool.

It’s like someone looking at original affirmation accounts on Instagram and thinking those ones are stupid or boring, making their own funny, lively version to undermine the originals, but actually growing to believe in the meaningfulness of this new version after all. The development goes from sincerity to irony and finally lands on post-irony, which is just as sincere as the starting point really (and makes for a rehabilitated, endearing troll who suddenly just really wants everyone to feel good inside. It’s sweet).

Whether or not Andersen would agree with this, that’s how it comes off based on the different aesthetic sentiments he is pinning together. Between the ‘My parents love the way I live my life’ and the ‘Breaking News: I’m not depressed,’ there are occasional posts that feel like slip-ups — ones without the in-between irony, just reality. Michael Scott smiles at his desk with the words ‘I am depressed and lonely.’ A yellow and white flower rests on pebbles between the words ‘Depression goes away.’ A woman wearing huge black sunglasses poses between ‘I am actually thankful today.’ And really, none of these feel out of place because, as Andersen states in those interviews, this project is completely serious to him (even if they don’t immediately look or feel that way to suspicious critics who are the old, old age of 27…).

So, I had the mysterious pains t-shirt and I felt great about that until the cult of the wider Instagram account kidnapped me into its deep-fried-memes fold. This investigation into why I felt that shift come on has actually just demonstrated my own cringe millennial need to know whether or not something is being sincere or ironic, as if nothing can exist in between. I know Andersen is being sincere because he says so in interviews. You know it too because you have read this insane essay. To all the followers of @afffirmations who haven’t bothered finding the Wizard of Oz though, they cannot know which way is up. They follow the account in that instability anyway, even though neither sincerity nor irony are flagged, which means they accept and enjoy a state of meta-irony: soup on the floor, jokes told backwards, the most serious of all news given a makeover in a meme.

I can see what’s going on but I can’t quite let myself enjoy it. It’s like what happened when Lorde’s album came out last year, you know the one where she’s jumping over the camera in bikini bottoms on the cover because she’s a carefree gal now. I remember hearing her sing, ’Come one, come all, I’ll tell you my secrets. I’m kinda like a prettier Jesus,’ for the first time and feeling panicked. A few lines later, she talks about throwing her ‘cellular device in the water,’ and then flips A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘can I kick it, yes you can’ into ‘can you reach me, no you can’t.’ Until I knew she was joking, I couldn’t stand what she had become; but the rest of the songs on the Solar Power album stay dancing along this line, and I never get on with it because I just don’t have the heart. Maybe I was wrong about horoscopes, maybe this really is my Cancer sun talking. I’m too sincere for my own good.

And I guess that’s why things felt different when this post-ironic duality of Andersen’s art just existed as a joke on a t-shirt without any of the noise of social media, where people are constantly taking sides, and I am walking around with my troll-detector because I don’t want to end up on the 4chan side of the road. When I cannot quite hear the tone of something-online’s voice, I want to know the creator so I know whether or not I can trust them; if they are being critical, I would like to confirm that, so I can gauge whether or not I agree with them or just be on my way.

Maybe I’ll always be looking for that interview to confirm what’s what. Maybe I’ll always prefer being the t-shirt wearer instead of the follower, where the terms of my engagement feel more my own, and easier to grasp. For now, I’ll continue following @afffirmations even if this whole experience has finally made me feel my age.

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a screenshot of an afffirmations instagram post showing dolphins in a magical-looking watery illustration with a castle in the background and a galaxy above begind the words my pronouns do not embarrass me