I’m Crumbling to the Social Pressures of Social Distancing

Hear me out...


Sophia Hsin/Stocksy

I hate baking. But yesterday I mixed equal parts flour and water with a glob of honey and put it in a bowl above my refrigerator so it could spend the next five days collecting wild yeast. I did that because it seemed like the right thing to do based on what everyone else was spending their downtime at home doing, according to social media. The planet’s sourdough population is soaring while its humans battle a pandemic, a sign that in addition to its superpower to “flatten the curve," social distancing brings with it another power: social pressure. In addition to becoming a baker, I’ve already done five Zoom workout classes, 10 virtual happy hours and brunches, watched three Netflix series, made three jars of quick pickles, and participated in three Instagram challenges in three weeks. But even though I’m physically alone, I’m not convinced I wasn’t coerced into these acts by an outside force.

All of that activity felt like progress considering the intense anxiety I felt at the beginning of New York’s social distancing movement, when everyone began to settle into their nests and share what that looked like for them. I’d already done my pantry-stocking shopping trip, but suddenly I was crippled by the idea that I might not have something I needed for the coming weeks. What were my friends collecting that I didn’t think of? One of my friends showed off her impressive collection of tinned fish and told me of her plans to do multiple now-free influencer workout classes per day and to make her own clay from cornstarch. Another friend posted about her bidet and hand-knit kitchen towels, while yet another documented her contactless trip around her home town collecting beer from local breweries. Did I have a solid workout plan? Did I have enough craft beer? Do I care? I’m sure my friends looked at me and felt the same.

Each delivery received felt like an accomplishment, and a welcomed opportunity to feed my social presence.

I went on an ordering frenzy, and, of course, made sure everyone on Instagram knew about it. I adopted dumbbells from my temporarily shuttered gym. I “saved” a mystery box worth of plants from a nursery forced to temporarily close, spent $30 on a local pie delivery, ordered two jars of Chinese sauces from one of my favorite restaurants trying to survive, and bought a new workout outfit from my coach who sews spandex shorts. Each delivery received felt like an accomplishment, and a welcomed opportunity to feed my social presence.

But all the while I fought a nagging sense I was acting insane, falling victim to the social pressures of social distancing—the frivolous ones that don’t matter. Digging deeper into my Facebook feed yielded the actual important social impact of our current condition. Neighbors pleading for any extra masks, and receiving them from other neighbors. Restaurants, already under enormous financial stress, delivering free meals to the elderly too at risk to leave their homes. Small businesses offering virtual guitar lessons and tutoring sessions, in hopes of staying afloat. And one by one, slowly at first, connections sharing the impacts of actually contracting COVID-19, either with their own harrowing battle story or the cautionary tale of someone else’s defeat.

The greatest thing I can offer to society right now is my absence from public places, but that action quickly feels like inaction—lazy and indulgent.

Charlotte Palermino, co-founder of Nice Paper and forthcoming skincare line Dieux, asked on Instagram if "pandemic flexing" is officially a thing. I can confirm that it is. But my incessant need to match whatever impressive activity my peers are sharing isn’t actually coming from my desire to fit in or flaunt the cherry-picked beautiful parts of my life (though I certainly do possess those instincts). It’s coming from boredom, and more importantly, a sense of helplessness.

I identified greatly with writer Molly Fischer’s sentiment in her piece on surrendering to Alison Roman for the Cut, where she identifies our current collective urge to cook as a way to feel useful—especially for those of us who aren’t medical professionals, grocery store workers, mass transit engineers or hoarders of masks and hand sanitizer turned sudden philanthropists. The greatest thing I can offer to society right now is my absence from public places, but that action quickly feels like inaction—lazy and indulgent. Its effects are hard to quantify and internalize as an important contribution. 

Though I complain to my husband about the nearly seven straight hours per day I’ve been spending on Zoom in the last two weeks, I know in reality I’m lucky to still have a way to do my work and and be compensated for it, when so many of those around me cannot do their jobs remotely or have lost them. But in this moment, the recurring calendar entry that feels most important is the one reminding me to feed my sourdough starter. It’s the one reminding me of my privilege in these times, and feeding me the distraction I need to contribute my current societal responsibility: staying home.

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