The title of 'influencer' doesn’t quite capture the nuanced personality of Serena Shahidi, better known by the internet as @glamdemon2004. She’s more than an online character—she’s a qualified extremist. She’s pretentious yet intelligent enough to warrant it, authentic yet detached enough to escape vulnerability, interesting yet unbothered about the way she is perceived. In fact, she fittingly describes the majority of the current online scene as “monotonous” in comparison to her content and approach. Yet her reception has been stellar: Her largest platform resides on TikTok, where she has amassed over 370,000 followers and nearly 21 million likes.
The 21–year–old junior at the Fashion Institute of Technology rose to fame following the onset of COVID–19, where she recorded her hot takes about romance in her New York apartment. At times, it can be difficult to decipher if you are watching a 21st–century progressive feminist deconstruct dating stereotypes, or a ’50s pin–up model listening to herself talk. But do not mistake that for an insult—Shahidi blends the two facets of her personality so effortlessly that her cross–sectioned niche itself has become the brand, her aesthetic the intermediary between traditional high–brow culture and contemporary chaos. Her go–to drink order is an espresso martini, yet her beloved iced coffee order features lots of Blueberry flavoring from Dunkin’ Donuts.
“It tastes like battery acid and Splenda—that’s what I like,” she says, laughing from the corner of her bedroom.
When introducing herself to me, she deems her persona as one who “likes to ride the line between sincerity and irony.” Before the pandemic, Shahidi performed stand–up comedy and embarked on the process of formulating her stage presence. There is no point in trying to fit inside a box, she says, but rather you should capitalize off of what you actually like about yourself and want to enhance.
“I like to just be what I think is interesting; I feel like most people on the internet are not interesting.”
Last August, Shahidi decided to utilize her hot takes for more than the 60 seconds TikTok allows and began a podcast, Let Me Ruin Your Life. With 21 episodes and several guest hosts (often other TikTok influencers), Shahidi breaks down the relationship between the digital world and actual world while offering advice on how to embrace self actualization. At the end of every week, her fans eagerly refresh the program’s page in hopes of hearing about her coveted Tech Boy interactions, or how to find respite in the newest stage of lockdown.
Yet her listeners have been surprised with much more. Shahidi does not shy away from probing into widely accepted ideas as a young woman. She heavily disagrees with footing the bill on dates, accepts that the choice to wear makeup is not independent from the male gaze, and tastefully goes on tangents about how trends on the internet are not as boldly feminist as they are portrayed to be.
Choosing which parts of yourself to enhance leads us into the conversation of choice feminism. Shahidi has often ridiculed this new facet of feminism, which is the idea that each individual activity a woman does in her daily life is inherently feminist because she is a woman making her own choices. A woman choosing to wear mascara is feminist, and the act of making coffee in an empty apartment liberates her from the patriarchy.
“I think the idea of like, liberal or choice feminism, or whatever you want to call it, came along because it was just more palatable than other forms of feminism … [It’s] a lot easier for men to wrap their heads around.”
However, she says, this only works to reduce women's roles because no one chooses to brave the conversation about sex equality outside of the simple framework that “men and women should be equal.” If choice feminism thrives in the context of women relinquishing a free meal or wearing lipstick everyday to prove their autonomy, Shahidi says that it results in more harm than good: “I think it's important for young women to learn that feminism isn't necessarily about giving things up—it's not necessarily about sacrificing parts of your femininity or parts of your life to become more like men.” Giving things up as a woman in the dating sphere especially is not an option. When Shahidi moved to New York as a naïve 19–year–old, she began dating an investment banker and quickly realized that this was not what she wanted to have to do in order to procure the traditional stability a woman would sacrifice her freedom for.
“I certainly believe in women dating up, but I think if you have to give up a part of yourself to do it, it's not really worth it … There are statistics that prove that marriage shortens women's life spans while lengthening men's—so if you think that giving something up to date a man as a woman is going to be worth it, or beneficial to you, it probably won't be.”
Beyond simply advising women not to give up parts of themselves while dating, how do we begin to gain these parts back? The answer is not on the screen. Social media trends have saturated the online stream lately to showcase women in traditionally sexual roles, such as thirst traps, that appeal to the male gaze. Girls in their 20s have always been encouraged to dress nicely when going out, in pursuit of free alcohol and luxury treatment. While there is nothing wrong or shameful about wanting to feel sexy or cute on or offline, Shahidi urges us to ask ourselves if we truly are the only ones benefiting from participating in these trends, and if we’re okay with the answer.
“The part that bothers me is when we act as if appealing to the male gaze is inherently progressive, because nothing's changing when we say that it is … We're still doing the same thing—we still look the same way.” This change in phrasing can be apparent especially in the concept of women wearing regular everyday makeup for their own sake; Shahidi says there is nothing wrong with “slapping a face on,” to feel cute in the eyes of others as well as yourself, but the problem arises in choosing the regular activities of everyday life to be the means of female liberation.
Outside of navigating the internalized and externalized male gaze, Shahidi expanded upon her philosophy of dating as a young, heterosexual woman, and argues that your own opinion of your life is still the most important. Women often are burdened with the task of appearing to be enigmatic, or too busy to be reached, in order to be alluring to men. Shahidi says regardless of whether you choose to come across that way, you should not live your life worrying about dating to the point where you calculate how you are perceived. Women should date for the sake of having fun and something to pass the time, not to fulfill a vacuous hole that only a romantic partner can occupy.
This is true especially in college. In a life not laden with the COVID–19 pandemic, Shahidi would frequently go on several dates a week—more as a semblance of social life rather than in pursuit of a forever partner. She says it taught her how to define her standards for the future: “It's very surprising, but very pleasant, how much people will attempt to impress you and attempt to work hard for your affection … because I don't like giving it to them loosey–goosey.” On her podcast, she advises listeners to portray themselves in luxury settings on their dating app profiles so that others will associate them with high–class dates and standards, rather than simply pandering to the "cool chill girl" aesthetic young women have been fed by popular media.
Dating is low–stakes in Shahidi's eyes because she recognizes the value of her time and chooses to spend it on what she calls the opposite of "grind productivity"—doing activities that genuinely interest her regardless of how lucrative they may prove to be. Whether this means going on an art history spiral one Thursday night or becoming infatuated with Bitcoin failures, this type of productivity prevents us from wasting that time wallowing in agony over not being motivated to grind.
Above all else, Shahidi urges us to move past the self–deprecating humor and mindset that has tinted most of Gen Z culture. To everyone consumed with Zoom learning and crafting the next best tweet, she wants to remind us to still live our best moments offline. And based on the quality of her content that we see, you can only imagine the fun she has away from the camera lens.