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belle zhao


2015 Instagram name at

the time @bellesux

My mindset, what I was trying to achieve, how I attempted

it, who I was at the time. What I was trying

to say about myself/what I wanted people to think

about me:

In fall 2013, I was expelled from my dream high school. It was the

school I had gotten straight A’s so I could get into, after they accept my

applications and pick me over the thousands other bright eyed 13 year

old applicants. Mid semester, of my freshman year however, I received

my expolsion letter. I was caught for attending the school even though

I lived on the county border at the time. Heartbroken, I moved to a

school in the next town over. But my heart was still in San Francisco,

with the friends that no longer wanted to keep in touch. Insecure and

now clinically depressed, I took to Instagram to show my old friends how

happy I am, and my new friends how cool I am. Years later I went back

and deleted most of my 2013-2014 photos out of embarrasment, which is

why this collection of analyses is beginning in 2015.

This was the start of me drinking lattes even though I never liked coffee,

and going out of my way to places where I knew I could get a cool photo.

I started treating Instagram like a full time job, and going to brunch even

though I was never a breakfast person. But that wasn’t why my camera

always ate before I did. I just wanted to seem like I was living my best


by living a necessary double life, and masking my severe depression by:

increasing brightness: +10

lowering warmth: -10

increase saturation: (slightly) +3

increasing fade: +20


Ok I lied. I didn’t delete all my 2014 pictures. I was embarrased to talk about

them because I hate the style of these pictures. But I’m throwing this in

because my ability to cringe shows growth. 2014 was the true beginning of

my full attempt of a trendy Instagram aesthetic. During this time, I had just

begun my enrollment at my second high school. Even though I was at this new

suburban school, my family actually moved back into the city. So on my way

home everyday, I passed by my old school and was taunted by it.

I can tell from my photos I was trying to create a new persona for myself

to embody on and off screen. I started following people I thought were

cool, rather than just my friends on Instagram. From these accounts, I took

inspiration to seem cooler, unbothered, and fun. I wanted people to think I had

a lot of friends, so I started posting pictures with friends I wasn’t close with.

I started going across and around town to go to cafes for food to take a photo

of for my pre-planned instagram grid. I had a list of punny photo captions to

use, and I truly did do things for the picture. I wanted to seem unbothered by

my expolsion, and I showed that through a fake lifestyle and VSCO editing

everything. Afterall, look, my photos are faded - that must mean that I’m

super chill.

It’s obvious to me that I was trying to press reset on myself. I was spiteful so

I took to instagram to show how much “better off I am now”. After all I was

running for class president during this time and won, and I said yes to two

proms as a freshman at the school I was kicked from. As redemption, I made

sure everyone knew it (even though I was not interested in my dates.) I only

posted photos tagged in San Francisco because I wanted to somehow flex how

I was a city kid on my suburban classmates. I so desperately seeked validation

because I was so lonely.

At my previous high school, for the semester I was there, I was really happy

for the first time in a long time. I had few friends in my elementary/middle

school (it was a small k-8 school), so I felt a sense of earned freedom when I

had gotten accepted to the school I worked hard to get into. I had plenty of

friends for the first time in my life, was running for student council, and guys

were into me. Looking back, it makes sense that I wanted to rebuild myself

into something better after my accomplishments came crumbling, but by doing

that, I isolated myself from my classmates at my new school out of pride,

driving myself further into isolation.

Filters: A6, A7, A9, or S2 +5 to 10


2016 was, if I recall correctly, horrible. At this time, I was a junior in high school.

I was taking SAT prep classes, looking and applying to colleges, struggling

with school and depression, all the while my physics teacher was preying on

me consistently during and after school. Honestly, I blocked a lot of this year

out. This was the year that Tr*mp became president, and also the year I started

going to therapy and taking antidepressants. Not a coincidence. The physics

teacher was a 26 year old man named Stanley Luu. I was 17. Thinking about

him gives me goosebumps. He wrote me love letters where he would threaten to

kill himself, made a playlist for me which he regularly played during class, go to

places I’ve checked into through Yelp, would wait for me by my locker and leave

things for me on my desk in other classes as well. I stopped going to physics class,

stopped doing homework, stopped showing up for tests, and skipped my final.

My therapist called child protective services but they couldn’t do anything unless

I reported it, and I couldn’t because Stanley somehow knew where I lived and I

didn’t want to get kicked out of school for not living within the district (again). I

tried filing a restraining order, but it was too much emotional labor for me to dig

up all the receipts and present it to a cop I don’t trust. There’s no way I should

have passed, but I made it through physics with a B.

Last time I checked, Stanley became a middle school teacher.

In 2016, I started touring colleges. Yearning to leave California, wanting to

grow up but wanting savor the last years of my teenhood, I turned to tinder for

friendship. I was already on tinder in 2015, but this is when I kicked it into high

gear and started actively seeking friendships and connections through the app.

And honestly it made me feel cool that I was dating college students as a 17 year

old high schooler, but now that I’m the age those guys were at the time, god

that’s fucking predatory.

This was also the same year I was ghosted for the first time. But I’ve always been

too prideful since then to reach out and ask why he did it. To this day, I wonder

sometimes. Thinking back now, it was probably because of my age, which was

always one of my biggest insecurities growing up. Because no matter where I

went, I felt like I didn’t fit in with kids my age. Desperate for friendship, I’d

seek older kids, and was almost always looked down upon for that reason. For

someone I cared about so much to do that to me as well, I internalized it more

than I should have. I’m realizing now that my dating patterns right after I was

ghosted makes sense now. I should have been better to Anojh. (But also earlier

this year he tried to trap me in a elevator to pressure me into having sex with

him, so I guess we’re even)

Filters A6, A7, A9, or S2 +5

Brightness: + 15

Warmth: -4

2017 changed ig name to


2017 was when I graduated high school and began on my gap year before

attending my first choice school (at the time), Eugene Lang of TNS.

From what I remember, this was a great year. I was traveling, finally free

from school, working as a barista, exploring my sexuality, and in love. I

felt like I finally had some control over my happiness, and through travel,

work, and not being in school anymore, I felt more comfortable stepping

into an art style that was authentic to me. Truthfully, I miss how I felt

in 2017. And it pains me to yearn for something from my past because I

like to think that I’m much better off now. And while that’s true for the

most part, I can’t say my optimism has grown...

God this zine has been hard to write. Looking back and reflecting on high

school is like peeling back a bandaid to see if you’ve scabbed over yet.

Regardless, I’m glad it’ve over, even though writing about 2017 makes

me miss my youthful wonder and hope for my future in NYC. Now that

I’m where I always wanted to be as a kid, I question if what I have will

ever be enough. But I digress.

2017 was hopeful. My Instagram photos are more me, and I started

posting what I would have normally only posted on my “finsta” (side

account). There was less at stake since I wasn’t going to see most of

my followers again (since a lot of them were from school), so I took

advantage of this opportunity to flourish indepentantly as my friends

started college.

This still doesn’t mean my social media usage was healthy. I still

compared myself to everyone on screen, and heavily stressed myself over

how my feed looked. But I was starting to become more intentional

about how what I post reflects me.

And even though I have fond feelings for 2017, that doesn’t mean I

wasn’t hurting. I was just less mean to myself about it.

Brightness: +15

Highlights: +5

Saturation: +5

PS. Some lessons I learned in 2017: I am not a liability. I can be hurt

and still hurt others. I feel the strongest and happiest when I travel.

Vulnerability is strength. Everything is temporary. Pee after sex.

Today, 2020, @rly.cool

Fast forward to 2020. A lot has changed, and a lot hasn’t. I changed my

high school instagram name to @myhellscape, and I only post on what

used to be my “finsta” now in order to give my old social media alter-ego

a break. I’m still very conscious of how others perceive me, and I still do

care about how my feed looks. I will admit this. But I’m also working

on detaching my internalized self value from the opinions of others. I’m

a lot more transparent now about who I am, and I seek to share my

vulnerabilitites as a practice of strength. I’m a lot more intentional about

what I share, and I post a lot less often than before. For the most part, my

content is my art and things I see that inspire me. I care less about likes,

and more about community and friendships. In high school, I wanted

people to look at my page and think, “I want to be her.” but now, I want

people who see my page to think, “wow, she seems like a real person.” I

think this is because I’ve really grown to value genuineness because I’ve

become tired of chasing what isn’t real.

My username is @rly.cool because when I was 15 I thought it’d be ironic

since I felt like the opposite of cool.

A week ago, when my friend Kylie came over one night with ice cream

to share. We sat on my bedroom floor and talked for hours when she

asked me what my definition of coolness even is. This was a question I

hadn’t considered before. I realized “cool” to me was anything I deemed

as attractive yet unattainable. But if the very definition of coolness meant

that it is out of reach, why was I trying to become something impossible

from the start? Who decides when I’ve reached it anyway? And will I ever

be enough for myself?

The truth is I have always been inherently enough. Who you are and who

you aren’t is up to you to develop. A growth mentality is beautiful, but I

am already cool.

Brightness: +15

Saturation: +5

Sharpness: +15

New definition. Coolness: anything or anyone that exemplifies empathy,

and genuineness.

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