“You never swim in a quarry.” My mother’s voice was in my head as I stood twelve or fifteen feet above the water of Booth’s Quarry on the island of Vinalhaven, Maine.
A quarry is a tantalizing, exciting, seductive place, a shadowy, bottomless, perilous place. Growing up in the 1970s, it seemed like they were pulling a body out of one of the quarries down in Quincy, Mass every other week in the summertime. Teenagers would head up there after dark to drink and smoke pot, get wasted probably, and then someone would stand at the edge of an eighty-foot ledge and say, “let’s jump in.” The old granite quarries were up to 300 feet deep and filled by spring-fed, but murky, water. At one point, before they finally closed them for good, the city dumped telephone poles and trees in the water to discourage swimming, but that only made things worse. The quarries were already full of hazards—old cars and shopping carts, and more than a few dead bodies.
With that image in mind, and only a brief hesitation to consider my age and creaky spine, I pushed off the warm flat edge of the machine-cut rock.
“If all the kids jumped off a cliff, would you?” mom asked.
“But all the kids are doing it!” We punctuated our carefully crafted requests to stay out late, wear a short skirt, see an R-rated movie, go swimming without adult supervision. Whatever the fad was, whatever the popular kids were doing, that’s what we wanted. Whatever we saw at the mall or in Seventeen magazine, we had to have—we’d rather die than wear the wrong thing. Adulation from your peers, and maybe a thumbs-up from the popular kids, followed if you were among the first to pair embroidered whales on a navy grosgrain belt from L.L. Bean with your lime Dickies and a pink Izod polo shirt, its green and blue alligator emblem tying the whole outfit together. Trends were set in high-school hallways, and preppy was the style in mine.
That was before social media, before the Internet decided what—and who—is popular. Now hashtags measure what’s trending. The latest Instagram trend is making headlines as nearly six and a half million posts feature the hashtag #challengeaccepted. Black and white photos of women flood Instagram feeds. The intent is to support women by posting a selfie of a moment when you felt fearless or powerful, but this empowerment party is only for the popular girls.
To participate, you first have to be nominated. Once someone chooses you, you can invite fifty more women to accept the challenge. Let’s love each other, the invitation might say—#womensupportingwomen. When my daughter nominated me— “I chose you because you are beautiful, strong and incredible” —and I presume forty-nine other women in a group DM, I balked.
Jumping on a trend can be risky. A popular hashtag might pull your post into the deep and dangerous scrutiny of social media. In the half-second before a stranger’s thumb flicks upward, scrolling on for something better, your post might grab their attention. Maybe you’ll make new friends, or maybe you’ll muddy the water. What if you try to be part of the in-crowd, and it fails? What if everyone jumps off the cliff and their heads bob up in the water, laughing and high-fiving, and when it’s your turn, you don’t do it right? You fall, and you flail. Better to look before you leap.
Oh, come on, you say. It’s just a selfie, a fun distraction, beautiful women looking confident, and sharing love for their women friends. Jump in!
First, select the right photo. Look confident but not arrogant, be pretty without trying. Then include the right hashtags, #challengeaccepted, #womensupporting women. Don’t forget to thank the one who nominated you and all the women in your life who lift you up. You could also use the caption to speak up for #votebymail, #healthcare, #childcare, #climateaction, #guncontrol, #abortionrights, #payequity, and a million other issues that affect women. But what about the #pandemic that disproportionately impacts #bipoc women? How can you forget to thank the #firstresponders and remind people to #wearamask? If you omit marginalized populations—#lbgtqrights #blacklivesmatter, #seniorcitizens, #autismspeaks, #thankaveteran—are you falling into the trap of performative activism where no real effort is required beyond your social media post?
Several opinion pieces have challenged the motives of #challengeaccepted posters, calling them “slacktivists” and questioning what value six million selfies can add to the crucial causes of feminism. Notably, another well-intentioned hashtag, #blackouttuesday, had the opposite of its intended effect. The goal was to make room for Black musicians’ and artists’ voices by quieting the Internet for a day. The result was an even greater silencing of Black voices when tens of millions of posts inundated the communication efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Some report that the #challengeaccepted hashtag originated from Tukey to highlight the country’s appalling number of femicides (women murdered for the crime of being a woman). On Instagram however, the Turkish hashtags, #istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır and #kadınaşiddetehayır, created to support the Istanbul Convention which aims to end violence against women, trend significantly lower—only about one in six of the #challengeaccepted posts include them. It’s not clear whether the movement against femicide in Turkey begat the #challengeaccepted hashtag or if the hashtag has amplified the real and important movement.
Like the quarries I was warned about, the Internet is murky and perilous; it’s also seductive. We don’t always know what is accurate or safe to share, and frankly, the effort to investigate everything before posting is too much work. But when the popular kids are already in the water, do take time to measure the depth and check for obstacles, or just jump?
On Vinalhaven, I fell awkwardly away from the cliff, one hand holding my nose closed, the other outstretched by reflex, poised to break my fall. There was only breath enough for half a squeal, a split second to feel a childlike happy rush of fearlessness before I breached the water’s polished surface. Submerged, I kept falling, floating but pulled downward. The dark marine, cool like satin on smooth skin, swirled around me, inviting me to go deeper. Not until gravity and buoyancy, fear, and joy, reached equilibrium, did I kick to the surface and join the other bobbing happy heads.