On my first day of high school, when I’d just freshly turned 13, my thoughts were riddled with a healthy mixture of anxiety and joy. To my surprise, upperclassmen gave me encouraging smiles as I walked down the red-locker-coated hallway. I grew more comfortable with the daunting concept of high school as the day went on. I felt my former all-girls school self become more mature and womanly as I sat with three boys and one girl at lunch. How exciting! Boys! And they were talking to me! Halfway through the meal, a boy asked me why I was vegan. I responded, “I don’t know, it’s really a big missed steak!” The boy hurled the word “cringe” at me without missing a beat.
I remember my cheeks beginning to burn as I struggled to hold back tears. I fought the urge to cry, thinking it was the hardest thing I’d ever have to do. While I felt my self-esteem marinate in the deep, gut-wrenching regret of my little pun, I knew I never wanted to be called “cringe” again.
Some may chalk up my emotional reaction to the fragility of a young girl’s self-esteem, but I argue that the word “cringe” is a more hurtful insult than your average negative comment. Unlike ew, embarrassing, or the recently trending term, flop,the word “cringe” has been weaponized. It’s employed frequently by middle schoolers to devalue one another. It’s used to mock the girl who sings “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked” at the talent show, ensuring that she’ll never perform publicly again. It’s used while laughing at the heartfelt letter a boy’s mother left in his lunchbox, effectively leading him to tell his mother to rein in her affection. Adults indulge in this bullying practice too, as the subreddit r/cringe has more than 1 million members and overflows with insulting comments.
In order never to experience that lunchroom shame again, I made a set of guidelines for myself. Rule number one: No more silly faces. Those were too reminiscent of Lele Pons, a content creator who receives never-ending hate on the internet for her videos — most of which include her making goofy faces. If my face was not perfectly positioned with open, friendly eyes and a smile that made me appear nice (but not too eager), then I was to look intensely focused with furrowed eyebrows so that people might think I was up to something important. Occasionally, I would throw in a big smile or frown — but never a silly face.
Rule number two: Dress unremarkably. I regularly fashioned leggings and a t-shirt, both always slightly too big and neutral in color. If I were to bravely deviate from that uniform, I would either dress in business casual attire (why was I wearing a J.Crew secretary skirt to Algebra 1?) or One Direction concert merchandise — ironically of course (because yes, going to their first ever Madison Square Garden appearance was an elaborate work of irony). A clause to my dress code was that I would never repeat an outfit. How embarrassing would it be to wear the same shirt with the same pants twice within a school year? This rule was nearly impossible to keep up with, so I (thankfully) left it behind after freshman year. Nonetheless, the obsessive quality of my wardrobe law reveals just how much my fear of being “cringe” controlled me.
Other staples in my code of conduct included not watching animated television, not admitting my liking for Twenty One Pilots, not dyeing my hair and not over-using internet slang (yet understanding what it all meant). A list fraught with nots and constraints. I followed it strictly.
God forbid I touched my tongue to my nose or admitted that “Stressed Out” was my number-one song on Spotify. If I did, I might risk being pelted with the terrible C-word and thereby marked forever by others as an untouchable and unenjoyable person.
And how exhausting was it to be intentionally unnoticeable! Balancing not being great at anything and not being so removed that I became an outcast was nearly debilitating.
My extreme commitment to suppressing myself and my passions culminated in the spring of 2021, when I found myself at a religious college that I hated, studying a major I didn’t want to pursue. I was troubled by the impossibility of defining myself in a community I knew I did not belong in. Sitting on my decrepit College of the Holy Cross twin XL bed, feeling dejected, I started to reflect on moments when I did not feel like a poseur. A smile slowly crept up on my face as I replayed moments of authentic joy that weren’t tainted with the fear of judgment from others.
I thought back to the time my friend and I spent our spring break in Washington, D.C. We made a vlog detailing all the history we were learning. We created songs about Congress and wore shirts we bought at the Smithsonian gift shop. I was consumed with admiration for my younger self as I considered how unabashedly excited we were to see the Supreme Court. Were we probably cringe tourists? Yes. Was using a long selfie stick in front of the White House as I gave a speech about Andrew Jackson a little excessive? Yes. But I was following my joy, embracing the vulnerability that comes with outwardly showcasing the things you love.
If I could be a proud history nerd and loud tourist, why couldn’t I also be a proud artist and loud lover of Addison Rae’s music? My fear of being cringe had turned into an inability to be my raw self. Sharing simple dreams and desires was difficult. Sharing anything, for that matter, felt wrong and foreign. I asked myself: If I could be bold with my friend on a random trip, why did it not feel safe to do so in daily life? My brief but sweet rendezvous in Washington, D.C. crystallized who I really am and who I know I should work toward becoming: someone who is unapologetically themselves and unafraid to be vulnerable. When I follow where my happiness leads me, without concern for others’ disapproval, I am fulfilled with the most purpose and joy.
I think I was comfortable being myself on that D.C. trip because it existed in a vacuum; my attention was solely dedicated to my friend and the surrounding history. There were no familiar faces to potentially form impressions of me.
I prodded further: Was there a specific kind of judging face that made me more panicked? More inclined to abide by my rules? Actually, yes. Thinking back to the boy and lunchroom incident that sparked everything, it dawned on me that my life before high school was without the haunting presence of men. At my all-girls school, I more proudly proclaimed things like “I will be on Broadway” and “I have a cardboard cut-out of Harry Styles.” But, as men infiltrated my everyday life, I wilted like an orchid, losing the petals that made me unique.
In my personal experience, the word “cringe” often targets feminine-presenting people. This phenomenon is perfectly highlighted in comedy, as “cringe” is a common label thrown at female comedians. Lori Marso, a professor at Union College, theorizes that feminist cringe comedy uncovers “the perspective of female desire rather than the perspective of the male gaze,” which is a possible answer as to why female comedy can trigger hate. Meanwhile, male cringe comedy is celebrated. Two recent articles by The New York Times about Tim Robinson and Zack Galifianakis (both authored by men) praise them for their “cringe” artistry. Being cringe elevates men’s careers, while being a hurdle for women.
I fear “cringe” is becoming another word men and patriarchal allies use against others despite it being acceptable for themselves. In order to ensure one doesn’t deviate from societal norms in their work, art or behavior, “cringe” is hung over women’s heads as a shame-oriented motivator to keep quiet and to be nothing worth distinguishing. I think women and other victims of “cringe” degrading culture have a moral duty not to engage in or perpetuate this scheme of censorship.
Following my anti-cringe epiphany, I began to connect with the version of myself that was untouched by the men who called my personality “cringe,” I saw my fear of being cringe fall away. The same ecstasy I felt while singing about the Senate in Washington, D.C. returned as I finally wore a pleated skirt with colorful tights or a bedazzled Texas shirt I purchased from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. This newfound freedom from cringe even led me to enroll in a different college and major. I have dyed my hair and, most importantly, I openly share the things I love and express myself in every way possible. However, I have not magically left the male gaze, or anyone’s gaze, for that matter, fully behind. That is a life-long journey. However, as I began to remove other’s judgment from my daily thoughts, I saw my fear of being cringeworthy vanish.
I mourn the years that I allowed my insecurities to dictate my life. I grieve the memories, discovery and growth I could have experienced if I was open to being vulnerable with myself and others. If I could go back, I would tell myself to embrace my cringe. What makes me “cringe” is probably what makes me the most “Mary-Kate.” Embracing your potential cringe and freeing yourself from its shame can be a massive gift to you and those around you. The difficulty it takes to be emotionally naked outweighs the pain of hiding oneself. There exists great liberation beyond that six-letter word.
Statement columnist Mary-Kate Mahaney can be reached at email@example.com.