I spent the 10-year anniversary of One Direction watching their old video diaries, interviews and blasting their discography on repeat. For many, myself included, One Direction was more than just a boy band. Fans watched these five regular boys make it in the music industry after being formed together on The X Factor. When One Direction was formed in 2010, I was 12 years old. Now, at 22, I am just as big of a fan as I was 10 years ago (maybe even more).
Perhaps, that is why they had such a strong impact on their fans; many of us grew up alongside these five boys—Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Niall Horan and Louis Tomlinson, who we watched from our phone and computer screens. We were there when they dropped their first single, “What Makes You Beautiful,” all the way to their iconic “Story of My Life.” For five years, 1D always had something new up their sleeves. From their documentary to their seven hour live stream, fans always felt connected to the band with an unlimited amount of content to access.
So when Zayn left 1D in 2015 to launch his solo career, I was crushed. In the group, he was notoriously branded as the “mysterious one” in the boyband paradigm, a label he never chose for himself, which only made his departure that much more shocking. No one saw it coming. The One Direction Facebook page put out a general statement about Zayn leaving to be a “normal 22-year-old,” but still, we were left with thousands of questions as to why he really quit the band. In the years that followed, things turned ugly. There was a heavy amount of shade between the members, a public feud between Zayn and Louis and reports about Zayn’s declining mental health while in the band. His relationship with the boys became nonexistent, and that was heartbreaking for fans worldwide.
With One Direction’s recent 10-year anniversary on July 23, I had hoped that we would get a tweet or even an Instagram post from Zayn that would hit us with all the nostalgic feels. All of the boys except Zayn posted a picture that included the five original members; Niall and Louis even tagged Zayn in their posts. It was touching to see them come together and seemingly put behind their past issues for the sake of celebrating their incredible accomplishments. If not for them, but for their fans. It put a smile on my face to see Zayn included, and I hoped this would inspire him to potentially create a post of his own. However, as I watched the rest of the members post one by one throughout the day, it became obvious that Zayn would not be doing so. I found myself being disappointed, as most fans were, and then I quickly caught myself: Why did I feel entitled to a statement on what might be attached to painful memories?
Ask any 1D fan, and they will tell you exactly where and what they were doing when they found out Zayn was leaving the band. I was visiting New York for the first time. After years of trying to convince my mom to take me to visit the city I had been dreaming of living in since I could remember, she finally agreed. I was at the top of the Empire State Building when I received a text with a link from my best friend. I remember having a sinking feeling as I clicked on it, and my worst fears were confirmed.
For the past five years, One Direction was everything to me. I attended numerous concerts, stayed up to listen to their new music and waited outside for hours to see them—I even had a stan account dedicated to the boys. Part of what made 1D so great was the unique personalities each member had. There was a member in the band each fan could relate to, and One Direction wouldn’t be One Direction without Zayn.
Zayn leaving the band was ultimately a decision that was made based on his mental health. And yes, his departure hurt, but instead I should have felt happy and proud of him taking the steps to improve his mental state. This is something I am able to understand in a grander sense now than I did when I was 16. But at 16, all I wanted was for this boyband to stay together. At 16, you aren’t fully aware of how damaging their jump to fame was at such a young age. Although we’d love to believe that we feigned a relationship with these members by constantly consuming their content, the truth is we don’t know them enough to have strong inclinations about what their mental health requires. Which is something that is easier to understand now that I am older and I reflect upon the 1D years.
Zayn’s notoriety did not shield him from the Islamaphobic comments he endured as a British-Pakistani Muslim. In a 2013 interview with The Sun, he said, “I thought we had moved away from that and we’re living in the 21st century and people could accept people from different religions.” Recently, fans rallied to take down an islamaphobic song targeting Zayn off Spotify, which is just a snippet of the abuse he experienced in his 1D days. Zayn hasn’t mentioned One Direction in years. And despite their feud, it’s been years since that dreaded day in 2015. Each one of them has gone on to have wildly successful careers, and two of them have become dads. Zayn will soon be joining this list with his upcoming baby with model Gigi Hadid.
Zayn made a decision that was best for him, and if he had the ability to remove himself from this unhealthy environment—why wouldn’t he? And why wouldn’t we support him? I’m grateful for the memories, and I’m sure Zayn is too, just maybe not in the way we imagine. Moreover, for all we know he could be in a group chat with the boys right now having sent words of sentiment privately. That, however, is not something we’ll ever be entitled to know. So let’s agree to stop asking Zayn if he hates or talks to the 1D boys—OK?