In 2023, I Am Cringe But I Am Free

Photographed by Shingi Rice.
Cringe. You know, that powerful, full-body phenomenon that can make you thrash in bed like a goldfish after a flashback to something embarrassing you said eight years ago. Or spasm involuntarily in the shower, recalling that you once performed a Shania Twain song in front of your entire school in a sheer top, no bra. Or feel genuine anguish remembering the time you zoned out in the middle of a gym class and when you came to, you were facing the opposite way to 20 other people. Cringe is a cruel and altogether unpreventable certainty of life. We just can’t stop awkward things happening. But in 2023, it’s time to reclaim the hold it has over our lives. Let me introduce you to your spokesperson: the cringe-free cow.
For those of you who aren’t acquainted, I’m referring to an image (origin unknown) of a cow standing in the waves on a beach and staring off into the distance, accompanied by the words: "I am cringe but I am free." Haters will say it’s just a silly meme but dig a little deeper and you’ll find it’s really a way of life. A movement. A sense of ease and lightness that can only come with finally throwing off the shackles of "I care so much about what others think" and embracing that weird, awkward part of yourself that you’ve been taught to shun socially. This is how I’m trying to be in 2023. We should all be more cow. And it seems like the internet is following suit. 
"You have to desensitise yourself to being cringey," says TikToker @dahmin454 in one video, which has 844k views. "Every extraordinary or successful or remotely memorable person in the world has only gotten to where they are because they didn’t give a fuck about being cringey."


♬ original sound - dahmin
Dahmin goes on to give examples such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who, if sat next to you in high school, "would raise major red flags because of how cringe and socially awkward [he] was". Now, of course, he’s a billionaire. Dahmin continues: "Every pop star or singer… imagine Ariana Grande. If you went to high school with her, she was probably singing all the time, like extra af, and nobody likes that girl who’s always singing." Also "SoundCloud rappers…everyone was making fun of them until they blew up" and "every actor in action films who everyone’s always simping over were probably once just theatre school kids". In the comments on the video, people are rapturous in agreement. "Thanks bestie I needed this," one commenter adds. Another says: "This is 10000% true." One comment that has 26.2k likes (!) reads: "The fear of embarrassment is stopping y’all from being great."
In another video, aptly titled "2023 is the year of being a cringey loser", TikToker @tess.barclay makes her case that in letting the fear of cringe stop you from doing things, the only person you're harming is yourself. She admits that she used to be afraid of going to the gym, worrying that she didn’t know how to use the machines, and even of creating TikToks in case old schoolfriends would send them to each other and mock her. "People’s opinion of you [has] 100% to do with them, and not you," she says. "We need to stop waiting for the moment that we feel so confident and so cool... [By doing so] you take the power away from people calling you cringe, because cringe is in the eye of the beholder." 

The hard truth is, when you try in life, you run the risk of coming across as a bit of a dork.

All over social media there is an increasing number of videos extolling 2023 as the year of embracing cringe. We’ve seen how clean girl, pristine living and overly curated Instagram aesthetics have died a little death in favour of dystopiancore, frazzled English woman, being delusional and the celebrity cringe-chaos agents that are Julia Fox, The 1975’s Matty Healy and Chicken Shop Date’s Amelia Dimoldenberg taking over our FYP. As the world burns and civilisation as we know it crumbles, it seems we're over pretending that we’re chill, or laid-back, or that there aren’t things that we long for with every fibre of our being. If anything, the celebrity world is a prime example of how fortune favours the cringe. 
An epiphany I recently had: I had become immune to cringe. Whenever I see Austin Butler giving interviews now, his accent now permanently trapped in the lilting Memphis chrysalis of 'Elvis voice' (despite him being a Disney star from California and having never sounded like that until literally three years ago) – last year, I would squirm. This year? The guy won a Golden Globe. If he wants to keep doing his funny little accent, he’s earned the bloody right.
Even more recently, in the name of research, I forced myself to rewatch that excruciating viral video of Bella Hadid sneaker shopping; you know, the one where she tells the interviewer that if "homeboy" rocked up in Nike Air Max 95s "he would get it"? I had filed away that video as the Everest of cringe moments but now, in 2023, I've never related more. Yes, she has the wooden diction of an undercover police officer under duress but her nerves are endearing and human. She makes an earnest and enthusiastic attempt to engage fully with the subject matter in the interview and the hard truth is, when you try in life, you run the risk of coming across as a bit of a dork. I realised that I rate that over someone who disengages in the name of being aloof and 'cool' any day.
Rachel Coffey, a London-based professional life, business and career coach, believes that the timing of this renaissance is no coincidence. "During the pandemic we all learned to inhabit our own space a little more," she says. "Maybe even being able to explore interests that might not be seen as exactly on trend. Now we are back out in the real world, people are bringing their quirks and idiosyncrasies with them for all the world to see and 'being cringe' is about celebrating that and not hiding our true selves away – whether it fits with what’s expected by society or not."
Last year, in Taylor Swift’s commencement speech for the graduates of New York University, she urged students to "learn to live alongside cringe… I promise you, you’re probably doing or wearing something right now that you will look back at later and find revolting and hilarious." Cringe, Swift seems to say, is as inevitable as death and taxes so you might as well get to know it well – it’s not going anywhere.
It is all obviously easier said than done. There's a greater payoff for celebrities, whose fame hinges on the notion that all press is good press. Wouldn’t we all like to be more carefree versions of ourselves? The trouble has always been that modern living does everything to extract said freedom from our psyches. Thanks to the prevalence of social media, not only do a lot of us have a crippling fear of being perceived but we are also so chronically online. Every single thing that we do can be shared for the viewing pleasure of millions of strangers, to be laughed at, mocked, cancelled. We have never been so aware of our faces, our bodies and the way we talk and come across. We’re at peak cringe-sentience so, according to Coffey, it’s going to take rewiring what we've been taught. Hard but not impossible.
"If you find yourself changing your choices because of what others might think, press pause and ask what’s the worst that could happen?" she says. "Think of something that’s more or less acceptable to do but you think you’d find mortally embarrassing (doing a stand-up comedy set, for example), take a deep breath and do it. You’ll find getting out the other side alive totally exhilarating." You might even find that in doing so, you connect more with your identity and desires, or even find your people. "Challenge yourself – find something that would normally be totally cringe within the social circle you inhabit but in another time or place wouldn’t have even been questioned," says Coffey.
Yes, eventually it’s about taking a big leap of cringe but it starts with small acts of resistance, of caring less. Start to think of obeying the cringe as another way of yielding to negative self-talk and minimising or making ourselves smaller. Remind yourself that anything that has the potential to bring joy in life also runs the risk of being cringe: kissing, dancing, dating, starting a new hobby, travelling to a new country where you don't speak the language, making new friends, the first day of a new job.
In a now viral thread from the first day of this year, Twitter user @isabelunraveled hit the nail on the head: "If you constantly chase your edge of cringe you are probably getting closer to truth and authenticity because that is precisely what cringes people out." She adds: "Conquering the fear of being cringe is fully a rite of passage to living life on your own terms."
It’s true. So, in the name of getting closer to truth and living life on your own terms in 2023, do what makes you cringe. Do the aqua aerobics, run for the bus, be rejected by babies (I mean that torturous moment when you’re trying really hard to make a baby laugh and they start crying instead), write long, mushy Instagram captions, make comedy TikToks with your boyfriend because it's a bit of silliness in what can be a shitty world, try really hard at the things you love and never again turn down your screen brightness on your phone on public transport to hide whatever godawful music you’re listening to (it’s the Austin Powers soundtrack).
Repeat after me: To be cringe is to be free.

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