Is Insecurity Instrumental To Instagram’s Success?

Realty VS. Edited Reality

It’s frighteningly easy to take a happy image on social media for face value, but how can we ever know what’s going on behind the scenes? A gushing essay expressing the depth of a couples ‘relationship goals’ could be unhealthy in person, or even on the verge of breaking up. Likes on a bikini selfie could be that person’s reward for not eating all day and worrying endlessly over their body image. I mean, it’s hard enough in person! We fall so far down the rabbit hole of our own thoughts, that we forget we’re on the bus, and we just missed our stop. We suppress our feelings from our own awareness and the classic ‘I’m fine’ famously conceals a multitude of anxieties from others, in the pursuit of holy happiness. That’s confusing enough to navigate, let alone what we spectate online, left up to our interpretation with only black and white captions as an aid. What people edit and choose to post vs. real life emotions and situations are often very much worlds apart. Logically, we know that though, right? It’s kind of old news, especially compared to the addictive chase of peeking in on people’s personal (yet public) photo albums. ‘I wonder what they’re up to?’ leads to ‘How can I look like them?’. We’re thirsty for love, inspiration, scandal and truth. It’s glossy. But toxic.

I proudly deleted all my social media 7 years ago, after being cyber-bullied and watching the documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply which raised some disturbing privacy concerns about the colonial Zuckerberg, pre-Cambridge Analytica. I imagined lying on my deathbed, croaking my last words ‘I wish… I liked…  that post’. My final exhalation quietly fades to silence as the tiny violins begin their outro. I was sick of wasting my sweet time. Guess what? 7 years on, I need that carbuncle for my creative career. How am I supposed to showcase my work and get more work without social media, when the world has moved so solidly in that direction? Instagram isn’t going away, but we can adapt our relationship to it. I’m trying to keep it strictly for business, so that my personal life doesn’t merge into a commodification extravaganza, but it’s hard. I’m not the first to admit, it’s addictive. We need to be critical about the way we engage with Instagram; or in fact, the way Instagram engages with us. 

I know it’s fake, so why am I still being sucked in?

Research shows that Instagram users experience a decrease in self-esteem after using the app (Goldstraw and Keegan, 2016). To peel the banana skin off that point, RSPH ranked Instagram the worst social media sight for young people’s mental health (Macmillan, 2017). Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I’m starting to think that this feeling of inadequacy is actually instrumental to Instagram’s success. We compare ourselves to others in the same pool that we search for our validation. It’s an attractive cycle. Reasoning Instagram’s un-helpfulness is easy, but emotionally defusing is a whole other ball game. When a glossy post emotionally draws us in, it’s difficult to identify what’s going on. I’m concerned about those of us with low self-esteem who are targeted for that very reason. We are more susceptible to being hooked in by the prospect of being valued. There have been countless academic articles written about Instagram’s negative effects on women’s self-esteem: likes equating to self-worth, celebrities posting ads which influence our purchasing activities, the impact of ‘fitsperation’ on self-compassion, all of which validates our negative self-belief systems. 

The dangers lie in the fact that Instagram elicits the same bodily response as a face-to-face interaction. Someone’s nice to you, you feel good. You get likes and notifications, your body releases endorphins. People show interest in our life and, as social creatures, we feel valued. Except, it’s not face-to-face. You’re alone. Unless you’re distracted from those around you. Either way, it can be isolating. Isolation is the classic tool that manipulators use to get under your skin. ‘Positive vibes only’ leads to alienation because we all experience ‘negative’ emotions like sadness, anxiety, disappointment, anger and envy. But that doesn’t get likes. Simultaneously, avoidance won’t make those emotions go away. Shame surrounding these feelings is reinforced by Instagram, driving us to reach for an unattainable trap of constant happiness. You won’t find self-acceptance on Instagram, in fact, the opposite. You might even find some pro-anorexia tips. The self-compassion I see pretty skin deep. Surely, we should strive to accept every aspect of life, rather than edit together a filtered portfolio filled with lingerie, diet smoothies and the best boyfriend in the world?

The Dangers of Data

Compared to my male friends, I am much more targeted to buy ‘sexiness you can wear’… What’s that all about? OH YEAH! Capitalism, doing what it’s famous for: creating a problem, then selling you an unachievable solution for it. Apparently, self-hatred is a lucrative industry. Our online activities are carefully monitored so that, not only our political views can be manipulated, but our mood taken advantage of by advertisers. Low mood can be shown by how long you’re online and at what time. Uber can hike up its prices when it registers our phone battery is low and we are desperate for a lift. The star of that TV show you watch can advertise to you, based on YOUR demographic. To me, this all sounds pretty much out of my hands, but what can be done?

Solutions

Can we use data positively? RSPH proposes we use data to identify when users are suffering from mental health issues and subtly signpost them towards support, instead of summer-bod-shakes. What a wonderful web that would be! If you want to learn more about data usage, Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women (which exposes the data bias in a world designed for men) springs to mind.

My No Spend Year by Michelle McGagh

Michelle McGagh’s Ted Talk ‘My No Spend Year’ may seem a tad extreme, but it made me think about my purchasing habits. Maybe you want to travel, create, build a home, spend time with loved ones or be better in touch with your feelings. We all need to ask ourselves the question: Does this thing bring me closer to what fulfils me or further away? Quarantine is bound to test the boundaries of your basket!

Feeling low self-esteem after scrolling through Instagram? You can’t control how others perceive you, but you can know exactly where you stand. Confidence is of course more complex than this and an article won’t fix a lifetime of engrained habitual thought. There is no quick fix for an ongoing process and eating disorders will need trained support. However, in concert, one of my favourite musicians, Sampa the Great, comforted her London audience by reminding us that we set our own beauty standards.

Healthy Magazine, 2020.

A few weeks later, I was thrilled to see stomach creases on the front page of a health magazine. Since then, the amount of hairy armpits I’ve seen on female models is astonishing! FINALLY! Encouraging self-acceptance is cool. Clearly, body image and diversity has a long way to go, let alone emotional acceptance; but right now, body positivity is growing, which of course capitalism has squeezed like a lemon.

I want to build on the support network by saying, though your body is yours and yours alone; you are not your body, it does not define you. You could lose a leg and you would still be you. Even your values could change, and you would still be you. From a Buddhist perspective, the only thing that defines you is your awareness; without this, you cannot be. So, the thought system I want to develop is one that views exercise as an activity that makes me feel good mentally and sees my body for what it is – something that I inhabit. Let’s celebrate body diversity by thanking our bodies for being such powerful tools, naturally suited to our every need as they do an outstanding job of keeping us alive. Youtuber Anna’s Analysis encourages people to revert to a child state, where looks are irrelevant and playing is imperative. Buying uncomfortable material products to achieve love is only going to work in the short term. You are loved for what is within and can only love what is within; as much as a glossy Instagram post would subtly like to make you feel otherwise. I will finish with the wise words of Rupi Kaur: ‘don’t come here with expectations and try to make a vacation out of me’.

Bibliography:

Goldstraw, D. and Keegan, B., 2016. Instagram’S ‘Fitspiration’ Trend And Its Effect On Young Women’S Self-Estee. Manchester Metropolitan University.

Macmillan, A., 2017. Why Instagram Is the Worst Social Media for Mental Health. TIME, [online] p.1. Available at: <https://time.com/4793331/instagram-social-media-mental-health/&gt; [Accessed 8 April 2020]. 

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