Are we all just doing it for the ’gram? It’s a social media world (whether we like it or not).
A list of things you’ll see on my Instagram feed: exaggerated and unsustainable yoga poses, homemade baked goods of varying edibility, heavily filtered sunsets, professionally styled hair, latte art positioned in close proximity to my laptop to create the illusion of caffeinated productivity, and nail art — so.much.nail art. An inventory of things that haven’t once been documented in my nearly seven years on the social platform: relationship-induced snotty crying sessions, moments of existential crisis, career potholes, angry internal monologues regarding grocery store etiquette, breakouts, breakups, breakdowns, and domestic chaos that would decidedly not spark joy in Marie Kondo.
The discrepancy likely isn’t surprising. This is what we do after all, isn’t it? Create virtual versions of ourselves that kinda sorta look like us, but better. Or at least, we feel like they’re better. Our Instagram selves seem so much fun! They love to work out! They eat at chic restaurants! They’re literally always smiling and it’s not even creepy!
“MY RAINBOW CUPCAKES THAT GOT 70 ‘LIKES’ WERE TERRIBLE.”
What’s baffling about all this performative, photogenic behavior is that some of us who preach against it continue to participate in it. Or, to avoid generalizations and be totally transparent: me, it’s me — I participate in it and I feel like a total hypocrite about it. I’ve studied and written about media literacy and body positivity for at least twice as long as I’ve posted pics to Instagram. When I first started volunteering with About-Face, a local nonprofit that educates girls on the cultural forces that negatively impact their self-esteem, social media hadn’t even evolved past MySpace. I wrote blog posts and led work-shops on the pervasive deception in advertising, the blatant and frequent use of Photoshop, and the unrealistic standards set forth by “the media.”
Fast forward a decade, and now not only am I an official member of the media, but we all live in a world where social media has eclipsed traditional media in influence, immediacy, and — in a lot of ways, though it pains me to say it — importance. Kids (and often adults) aren’t flipping through the pages of glossy fashion magazines or envying the ward-robe of their favorite TV stars. While I would have given anything to turn heads in a plaid button-up like Katie Holmes in Dawson’s Creek or rocked way-too-low-rise jeans like Britney Spears on the cover of Rolling Stone, my nine-year-old niece is looking to YouTubers and beauty bloggers as her idols. And while I’d love nothing more than to protect her from the falsity of these “real” people-turned-influencers, is my habit of posting only the pretty, polished parts of life setting any better of an example?
The easy answer: No. The truth: It’s complicated. We’re all still figuring out what it means to exist in modern reality (virtual and otherwise). Planning, styling and curating our own content can be super fun and even empowering, but it can also perpetuate a troublesome cycle of artificiality and competition. While the simple answer for some might be to opt out of the game altogether, I’m still seeing more positive potential for social media than negative consequences. That might change in the future, but for now, I’ll keep sharing when it feels right and staying transparent about the fact that social posts are just a highlight reel.
And I’ll work on my baking, because seriously, my rainbow cupcakes that got 70 likes and 13 comments were terrible.