It was after a 24-hour journey from Beijing to London that the true nature of Instagram’s grasp was revealed to me. I had just arrived off of a long (and delayed) flight from Krakow and I thought catching up on the month’s events on zero sleep was a splendid idea. Bar from a handful of iMessages between myself and a small few, I had been entirely removed from social media for the trip’s two-week duration. Certainly, while it had been refreshing to be out of its chokehold – like the Pandora’s box it is – I could not wait to catch up on all that I had “missed”. Of course, what my Instagram stalking had missed was my boyfriend liking a photo of another woman in her underwear. This in itself is no heinous crime – I understand it was harmless – however, it triggered something in me that left me sobbing in baggage claim with nothing but a travel pillow to console me. While I think it is perfectly reasonable for a girlfriend to take umbrage with this tactless use of the like button, the problem was not entirely him…it was my social conditioning.
To reflect back, in 2012 I attended my first proper new year’s party. I had bought the perfect dress and the perfect jacket and, vainly, I thought my outfit was worthy of a midnight kiss. Upon arriving at my friend’s party, however, I was promptly greeted by a sea of exquisite women. Though having left the house elated, I quickly found myself acquainted with being the worst dressed person in the room. This image existed only within my own head, yet, I could not shake the feeling of distinct otherness. I probably looked the best that my 16-year-old self could ever look, but standing there in my £40 Topshop dress I perceived myself as being both a fraud and a phony. I subsequently spent a portion of that night crying in the bathroom with a skittle shot in-hand thinking “I should never have wasted my money nor dared to look as good as them”. Although this tale of woe is incredibly self-indulgent and the worst kind of middle-class vain, I believe it is the type of dialogue most girls have with themselves at the age of 16. We all know that, at school, acquiring happiness is synonymous to buying clothes; Jack Wills literally has the power to transform social lives…even if it’s just the tote bag. So, in the throes of a forming identity, I measured myself up to those around me in a futile effort to “fit in”. Thankfully, now, with the growth of Instagram, I can do this 8 years later with people I don’t even know, from the safety of my own home. These days, the crying just takes place on my sofa with a brew.
Temporarily unemployed and facing the prospects of living back at home, it pains me to say that I have started to feel both isolated and disconnected from the people that I once spent my days with. With nothing but my phone as a means of staying in touch, I find myself turning to Instagram for some insight as to how I should be coping with this period of upheaval. When I look at photos on Instagram, however, I only see all the things that I so obviously lack. I think: I should dye my hair; I should run more; I should get a boob job; I should learn to do my makeup better; I should buy nicer clothes; I should go to Australia…the list goes on. Though this thought process can be true of both men and women, there is no doubt that women are particularly raised to critique themselves in this way. How can we not when we’ve been required to rate ourselves out of ten since, well, year ten?
The truth is that, when I saw my boyfriend’s like on that girl’s Instagram, it felt like a confirmation that he too thought that I needed to do all of these things. My jetlagged brain, coupled with my default insecurity, deduced that secretly he wanted that kind of woman and not a me kind of woman. Obviously this was a projection and a destructive neurosis at best, yet, it is how many of us have felt long before the like button even existed. Since the age of 12, I have instructed myself to make these modifications, because I think that somehow my life will alter with each completion. I wake up each day longing to not know but see that the sum of my entire being is bigger than my individual body parts. However, these days it feels like there is always something more for women to strive for; we have to support each other’s achievements but also be girl bosses in our own right; we have to be sexy but not seeking validation; naturale but not pretentious; we have to be confident but not bitchy; we have to essentially “just be us” but not at the expense of them (meaning women plural). So, now I not only feel bad about envying women but I feel like I’m letting my entire gender down for envying women and, truthfully, I don’t know which feels worse.
Perhaps, this obsession with Instagram is because, when we are unable to change the external environment, we turn inwards for some sort of resolve. We change what we can immediately and put on a brave face for the things that we can’t. Even now, the right dress, the right hair-do, can mitigate all feelings of rejection and insecurity, by simply being a form of armour in a self-inflicted storm. Yet, what I always find to be true is that I might look “better” on the outside but inside I’m still me…I’m still that girl at the 2012 New Year party. Although, I’m working through it and slowly beginning to put limits on my use of Instagram (okay, I mainly follow food accounts now) I believe it helps when people are a lot more open and honest. So, for anyone that has seen my Instagram recently and for whatever reason has looked at my photos with envy, all I can say is you are not alone…and in fact I can kick that envy’s ass.
Actually – if it helps – I can quite literally shatter the curated allure that I have created on this platform and admit that: I was genuinely trying to be sexy in those bottom two photos. Yes, that top left photo is of me drunk in a toilet cubicle. I am conscious about having no boobs. I wear the same outfit in succession because I’ve gained weight and can’t fit into half of my clothes. I post pictures from 8 months ago and I only ever run when my 45 yr old mother makes me…she’s faster than me. I have chin spots every week because I live on a diet of Pipers crisps and houmous. Half of my photos take a 1000 tries and I almost always look at them thinking “they’re not as good as such and such’s”. I am living at home, I live in my loungewear (okay, pyjamas) and my only friend that doesn’t have any prior engagements 99% of the time is my dog Basil and maybe my parents – they have a better social life than me. But you know what? That is me and in order for us all to be kinder to ourselves in this digital world that we live in, I think we need to embrace the reality behind the superficiality; the provenance behind the provocative.
While this does not imply that you can’t be both a perfectly manicured influencer by day and a sofa dweller by night. I think that these two things should not be seen in total opposition but, simply, sides of the same coin. The intention being not to drag empowered or content individuals down but to counteract this perception that there is a way that we should or shouldn’t look or be living our lives. Marilyn Monroe once said “Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.”
…and it’s also a waste of forty pounds buying clothes that you’ll never wear again.