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Imagine logging on to your Instagram account to find that your latest post of your significant other is flooded with comments from people who think you should be with someone else.
Celebrity couple Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin married in 2018, but there are still fans who think he belongs with ex-girlfriend Selena Gomez and make it known – to the point of tagging them in fan account posts or commenting on Bieber and Baldwin’s social media posts that they preferred when the pop star was with Gomez.
"I absolutely loved and love Selena, she will always hold a place in my heart, but I am head over heels in love with my wife and she is absolutely the BEST THING that has ever happened to me period," Bieber wrote in response to fans' comments a year after his wedding.
What Bieber and other stars experience is called "shipping," when fans obsess over a romantic relationship between two characters or celebrities. Fans have always had these opinions, but social media has normalized these conversations and highlighted some of the pitfalls.
Why do some fans take their interest in celebrities' personal lives so far as to ship celebrity couples? And what impact does it have on the stars?
“Fans tend to project a lot on to the celebrity relationship: a lot of their own fantasies about what the relationship is, what it was, what it means,” says Jenn Mann, a licensed psychotherapist known as "Dr. Jenn," who has authored several books on relationships and families, including "The Relationship Fix." "There's a lot of fantasy fulfillment for the fan."
The evolution of shipping
Shipping isn’t a new idea – the concept has been around for decades in fan culture. “Star Trek” fans were shipping Spock and Kirk in the ‘60s and ‘70s before “The X-Files” fans in the late '90s popularized the term “shipping.”
Yet it’s one thing for fans to root hard for two characters to get together (think: Ross and Rachel) but things get messy when it becomes about celebrities' real love lives.
Fans of "The Office" rooted so hard for Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) to get together that many wanted the actors to date in real life, though neither was single.
"If it you makes you feel better," Fischer tweeted in response to a fan, "I found my Jim and he found his Pam – they just happened to be named Lee (Kirk) and Emily (Blunt)."
“There's a level of distance between the fan and the celebrity that makes them feel like they're not as human as they actually are,” Mann says. "They come out of their house looking perfectly made up, wearing fabulous clothes and (have) their cool, expensive car. So there's a lot of aspirational kind of aspects to it. When we see that we kind of go like, ‘Oh, they have it better than me.’ And it ends up making us feel like we can comment, and somehow they're untouchable.”
On her show, "Couples Therapy," Mann has worked with stars who struggled with the “enormous amount of stress” put on a relationship when fans weigh in on their love life.
More "experienced" celebrities are used to setting emotional boundaries and not getting sucked in to the world of online commentary, she says. But for those newer to the game, “it can definitely influence them and make them think twice, or have some level of frustration and dissatisfaction.”
The problems with fan fiction
Some stans will create computer-generated images of their favorite stars together. Others will write detailed or even sexually graphic fan fiction.
In 2001, Fanfiction.net banned stories about real people – but that wasn’t enough to keep it from popping up online. One Direction fans in the early 2010s were still writing fan fiction on fan sites and Tumblr, depicting members Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson in a romantic relationship.
Chrislene Accius, a 21-year-old college student who ran a One Direction fan page during the height of the group's fame, now looks back on some of the more intense parts of the fandom and wonders whether it went too far.
“(Now) I'm like, what was I watching? What is this?” Accius says of the One Direction and Justin Bieber fan fictions she used to read on YouTube. “I knew it was about a real person. I just knew the story was fake. ... But it might not be as ethical as we thought anymore, especially with how far people go.”
There’s been a pushback among fan communities in the past few years to do away with writing fan fiction about nonexistent or unconfirmed celebrity romances — particularly in cases when the fan fiction is explicitly sexual and/or involves minors, as most of the members of One Direction were when the boy band began.
“If you ship Larry in this year, it's zero respect,” Accius adds, using the fake couple name for the boy banders. “You don't have respect for their feelings, and you do not care.”
But even five years after the group's hiatus, a sector of One Direction fans will not let up on their belief that Styles and Tomlinson were romantically involved.
Beyond fan fiction, those fans piece together quick video clips, photos and song lyrics to depict the stars as a couple. Tomlinson has said recently that the fan obsession hurt their friendship.
"When it first came around I was with Eleanor, and it actually felt a little bit disrespectful," he told The Sun in 2017. "I’m so protective over things like that, about the people I love. So it created this atmosphere between the two of us where everyone was looking into everything we did. It took away the vibe you get off anyone. It made everything, I think on both fences, a little bit more unapproachable. I think it shows that it was never anything real, if I can use that word."
Shipping has a deeper meaning for some fans
There can also be a certain catharsis in finding queer subtext in celebrity relationships for those in the LGBTQ community, says Julia Golda Harris a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, studying queer and lesbian history.
Karlie Kloss was a member of Taylor Swift's much buzzed-about group of friends in the early 2010s, and some fans insisted they were in a romantic relationship despite Swift's rep denying the rumors in 2014.
“Celebrities are real people. Taylor Swift is a human being who exists and has a subjective human experience, and I think it's important to respect that,” Harris says. “But at the same time ... seeing yourself through popular culture is a way that people understand themselves.”
Ultimately, while delving into nonexistent celebrity relationships can be enjoyable and sometimes even beneficial for fans, it shouldn’t be done in a way that comes at the expense of the stars in question.
"All relationships are vulnerable. Everyone has fights,” Mann says. "And I think where it comes into play is in those vulnerable moments where maybe that celebrity couples having a fight and maybe they go, 'maybe I should be with Selena Gomez.' But also keep in mind that … it can be very painful at times, for fans to bring up that person, not knowing that person (may have) really hurt the celebrity that they are still pushing for them to be with.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Hailey Baldwin and celebrity shipping