It Happened to Me: xoJane Made Me Evil
2011 was a seminal period for the internet, in which we were on the verge of utter obliteration via Instagram and the Maya calendar (both set to blow up the following year), but spent the remainder of our quickly-dwindling time on Blogspot, obsessively checking our RSS feeds and wishing we had written any number of the words we read on strangers’ sites (in this instance, “we” is to mean me, and maybe a handful of you, too). It was the last hurrah for the long-form, rambling closeness that blog posts afforded us before the short, witty captions of Instagram overtook the online.
I was 14 years old and beginning to hate cap sleeves. I dared wonder: is there more to this life than off-brand Uggs tucked into bootcut jeans, or hyperactive cami layering? The first steps out of the not-Uggs are always the hardest, but fortunately for me, 2011 also fostered the inception of two (vastly different) fashion/lifestyle magazines, Rookie Mag and xoJane, and marked the one-year anniversary of Man Repeller, which was to become the internet’s most loved/hated fashion site for the (wealthy) offbeat.
Rookie Mag, founded by a then-15 year old Tavi Gevinson, was my first fashion fixation. It really nailed the trials and tribulations of growing up in the Information Age━ written by teenagers, it was updated “when it’s really late and you should be writing a paper but are Facebook stalking instead.” It embraced being young─actually young─as in, in eighth grade and being afraid of high heels, not just young in a NewYork-girlboss-Sex in the City kind of way.
But for every Rookie Mag, there is an xoJane. Let us be clear: I loved xoJane, but sweet and understanding it was not. It was for the grown, yet marketed toward anything with a pulse. Read me, feed me! It seemed to scream, blaring headlines such as “It Happened to Me: My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina” and “My Former Friend’s Death was a Blessing” across the screens of the tragically impressionable (the best part was that these weren’t even clickbait).
In my quest to dress a little less Midwestern, I had stumbled across a feral, desperate website that sensationalized the most private parts of its staff for clicks, which was a scheme that ultimately paid off: I, young and dumb, wanted to be Cat Marnell, xoJane’s resident drug-addled beauty guru who made crucifixes cool and racoon liner glamorous instead of pathetic. Her constant updates to the site included snorting bath salts in the xoJane offices and “going crazy” for a week, which earned her the description of “dust-smoking suicidal narcissist downtown swinger beauty columnist” via Gawker. Are you kidding? For an unwillingly-shy kid from Chicago’s coziest suburbs, there was no more thrilling profile. Cat didn’t dress like a cool girl; she was THE cool girl, staying up for days at a time and going on wild escapades around New York. Her signature look (a Dior slip and heavily-smudged makeup) balanced high-class and impulse; she represented both the glamorous media culture and a down-to-do-anything-anytime attitude. In fact, Cat’s life was so tragically interesting at such a young age that she got a book deal, which to me was the best thing that could happen to anyone.
By the time I realized that Cat Marnell needed help and not wannabes, I was off to college and onto Man Repeller. Man Repeller was Marie Claire for girls who thought they hated cap sleeves, and Leandra Medine represented success by way of blog. Her Elizabethan-ruffle-and-athletic-shorts combos earned her millions of readers, from which she flipped her personal blog to a clamoring fashion site filled with a staff of trendsetting journalism graduates. The MR women were cool in a different way than Cat was cool. They embodied an elite persona that prized restraint and aloofness. They were artsy, or merely presented that way, which meant that, to me, they were golden. I was unaware as the site began to spoil, setting my sights on the facades of the chronically online and what life could be like after college for (yet another) writing major.
But spoil it did, albeit after many years and the folding of my other two favorite websites. Their deaths came every couple of years, beginning with xoJane in 2016, then Rookie Mag in 2018, and finally Man Repeller in October of 2020. The endings were deserved (except, perhaps, for Rookie), and I can see that now, a month out from the long-awaited Man Repeller demise that had seemed to stretch on for a year. These three sites were not, of course, the only fashion/lifestyle outlets for the new generation, but they were the most compelling. Five years later, there is still buzz around the cat hair confessional on xoJane, and Tavi Gevinson still (rightfully) has a strong online presence.
I’ve always gravitated toward the eclectic (I know━ give it up, Manic Pixie Dream Idiot), be it clothing, decor, music. These sites that I grew up reading taught me that everything worth anything is in the details, and living through something, however small, is more compelling than reading about someone else living through something. Maybe the online personal essay has become the new blog post. Here I am, spilling my guts (It Happened to Me: the Internet Stole My Intellectualism!), and here you are, reading it for whatever reason.
This is my formal, public plea for a shift back to blogging. I miss the Blogspot usernames and Aubrey Plaza’s sea hag alter-ego (shoutout Blazin’ HagXXX), and, yes, I miss the searing confessions of the women who sold themselves out for fifty bucks and fifteen minutes.
I wish I had your guts.