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I read the worst things written about me on the internet. This is what happened.

I'm 16 and in a photo taken on someone's digital camera, I'm standing on the street ready for my Year 11 social. 

I've bought the most expensive dress Mum would let me buy, which was about $90, and I've done my own hair and makeup and fake tan. I don't feel beautiful — I've never felt beautiful — but I've groomed and painted and straightened my way into a basic, low-level beauty standard that I hope gives me a sense of anonymity. 

It seems disingenuous to claim that the hours and hours I spend 'getting ready' are really an attempt to not be looked at, but it's true. Perhaps if I follow the rules about how women are supposed to look, an onlooker's eye will simply scan past me and deem me acceptable. Unexceptional. Invisible. That's what I'm hoping for the evening of my Year 11 social. 

Watch: Lauren Curtis social media is all smoke and mirrors. Story continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

The next day, I'm scrolling through MySpace. Photos from the previous night have been bulk uploaded in a way that would terrify the modern Instagram user. There are hundreds of photos, with no filters or strategic angles, for awkward teenagers to pore over while pretending they're not.

Then I see it. Under that photo of me on the street, smiling in the self-conscious way that's reserved for a camera lens, there's a comment. 

"Omg lol that chick looks like a Chihuahua."  

It's written by a person I don't know. A friend of a friend, I assume. As soon as I read the words, I can see exactly what she means. My hair is teased at the roots and with my black eye makeup I can understand why her first impression of me was that I resemble a small, not particularly attractive dog. Still, it hurts. I'm embarrassed. I feel visible in a way I hadn't asked to be. Had I?

Those were the very early days of the internet as we know it, before the term 'social media' had even entered the mainstream lexicon. In the years to come, we'd sign up to more and more platforms to share images of ourselves, as well as our thoughts and opinions, and it would become more and more common for commentary about you to become commentary towards you.

For me, this became particularly pronounced when I started to write on the internet about 10 years ago. By then, I wasn't naïve. I knew that if you were going to have work published online — especially work that contained an opinion or perspective — you were entering into a conversation. A reader wasn't a passive consumer but an actively engaged component of the story, and they'd tell you what they thought. For the most part, I quite enjoyed this dynamic. I didn't mind if someone disagreed with me, and wanted to share why. Every now and then I'd be struck by a comment or observation that didn't seem fair, like the time someone wrote, 'eugh this is just that annoying blonde woman from the TV who got the boob job,' and I couldn't resist commenting, 'I think you have me mistaken for someone else??'

But the longer you spend on the internet the more opportunity there is to see the remarks — however tiny — that other people have about you. There are podcast reviews and comment sections that go rogue and direct messages that were meant to be sent to someone else to b**ch about you but have been sent to you instead.

There’s the time you write an article you didn’t think would make people angry but does, and you spend a night at your parents’ house listening to voice messages from strangers yelling into their phones.

There’s the time a well-respected Aussie comedian describes you as ‘embarrassing’ on Twitter, and another time people start flooding your old Instagram photos with comments about your appearance.

There’s being called ‘weird’ and ‘annoying’ and having people discuss in public forums that they just don’t like you but can’t work out why.

Clearly, I’ve never known what to do with the minefield that is Caring What Other People Think. We're meant to build some sort of resilience, where we decide other people's thoughts about us aren't our business. We're meant to have enough self-esteem to separate other people's judgments from what we know to be true about ourselves.

I'm not there yet, obviously. I still remember a MySpace comment from 2007. Word for word.

But I'm fascinated by how we're meant to maintain our confidence, creative instincts, and gumption in a world where we're exposed more than ever to the commentary of others. I'm thinking of young people growing up online, trying to find a sense of self when they're exposed to external opinions we didn't previously have to contend with. Or teachers or nurses whose profession is often the subject of very public debate. Or business owners who are now subject to constant, round-the-clock feedback that has the power to seriously impact the success of their product or service.

I don't know how we choose what to listen to and what to ignore. How we thicken our skin.

On my podcast, But Are You Happy, I talk to high profile Australians about their complex relationship with happiness, and this season, several conversations have turned to how people cope with the public perception of who they are. I've asked people like Matty J, Laura Henshaw and Britt Hockley about what commentary hurts and what doesn’t, whether they read it, and how they decide what to take on. 

It's a lot to ask of someone. To squirrel through the words and phrases they've come across that have stuck to them against their will, and to share their impact. To be forthcoming about the commentary that feels like it's pressing on a bruise, because it's the thing they're most insecure about themselves.

So, ahead of the release of season two, I decided it was only fair that I turn the question on myself. That I had some sense — however small — of what it felt like to know what people think of you. What happens when you confront it? How does it feel? 

Listen to But Are You Happy, On this episode, Clare reads some of the most cruel online comments about herself and then unpacks them with psychologist. Post continues below.

Our producer waded through the parts of the internet I usually spend a lot of time avoiding and found some of the harshest things that had been written about me. Of course, I'm not very interesting or important, so there isn't a huge amount out there. It's simply by virtue of having written on the internet for a while that people have shared things publicly that might otherwise be discussed in your standard group chat about that person who annoys you. 

Here's the gist: 

- My skin is bad and I'm in desperate need of moisturiser 

- My eyeliner is very daggy and looks awful

- My hair was ratty on my wedding day and my foundation was the wrong colour

- My writing is unfunny and so bad, a reader can't get through it

- I'm 'weird'

On But Are You Happy season 2, episode 0, I unpacked these comments with a psychologist — Sahra O'Doherty, a practice owner at Mindscape Psychology and a Director of the Australian Association of Psychologists. 

What struck me as particularly helpful was a passing comment she made about 'objective truth,' and the absence of it when it comes to people's judgments and opinions of each other. I've always assumed that what people say about me in some way resembles the truth. They wouldn't have said it if it wasn't true for them — if it wasn't an honest, transparent reflection of what they see. 

But 'truth,' of course, is far, far more complicated than that. When I think about my beliefs and how much they can differ from the next person's, it's obvious that the world is full of conflicting, incompatible truths. Some people hate dogs, a perspective I cannot understand as I write this against the backdrop of my snoring, greying Staffy-Labrador. 

Which, weirdly, takes me back to how this all started — with a comment about how I resembled a dog. 

There's an unavoidable sting that comes with reading or seeing cruel things about yourself on the internet. I'm not sure any normal, well-adjusted human can overcome that. But there is a mindset that acknowledges diversity of opinion, and the fact that someone can not like you, without everyone not liking you. 

I'm also never, ever going to seek out these kinds of comments again. Where possible, it's always better to not know what strangers on the internet think about you. I get feedback about my work every single day, from people far cleverer than me who have the ability to make it better, and who are able to filter external feedback in a way that's constructive. 

As for my eyeliner and my hair, well. I'm sincerely sorry. I hope it hasn't caused too much distress.

You can listen to But Are You Happy Season 2 on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. For more from Clare Stephens, you can follow her on Instagram

Feature Image: Instagram

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