Instagram culture breeds toxic perfectionism
As much as I like to pretend that I’m not like everyone else, I, like most everyone around me, am a slave to social media. My phone might as well be a body part, and one of its most important functions is Instagram.
I am one of those people who has an Instagram theme. If it’s not a blue-toned shot run through the Gingham filter, I won’t even think about posting it.
I don’t even like the color blue.
One of Instagram’s biggest draws is the illusion of perfection. On social media, I portray myself as an organized, well-traveled writer who has a strong affinity for tea.
Maybe that’s true in part, but Instagram never sees the four stained coffee mugs piled on my desk. I don’t post about the travel days I felt sick to my stomach or the stories I threw out after three drafts of failure.
Then again, nothing on social media is really what it seems.
A 2016 study observed that college-aged people’s self-oriented perfectionism has increased over time, along with their socially prescribed perfectionism and their other-oriented perfectionism. Basically, the study found that college students have been putting up higher expectations for themselves and attaching more importance to perfection than previous generations have.
It’s pretty rare that I see a post on Instagram that’s anything less than perfect. Scrolling through the first ten posts on my timeline, I didn’t see a single one that wasn’t edited or staged in some way. Scrolling through my own profile, the same rings true.
A UK study from last year ranked Instagram as the worst social media platform for young people’s mental health. The study measured users’ experiences with issues such as emotional support, loneliness, community building and body image. Snapchat was right behind Instagram, and YouTube came out on top as the most positive.
It makes sense that Instagram would have a negative effect on how we view ourselves. I mean, there is an entire industry of people who get paid to make their lives look perfect online. I follow at least a dozen of them. It’s so easy to forget that people like them use editing apps and fancy lights and expensive makeup to craft the perfect Instagram picture.
I’m pretty sure not even Zoella actually looks like Zoella.
In fact, there’s really only one post I can remember from my own Instagram feed in which a professional social media user celebrated the way she looks in real life without using it as a gimmick to sell some kind of product. A while back, Dodie Clark, a British singer I like, posted a picture showing off her less-than-perfect figure. She also posted a few tweets explaining her decision to embrace her imperfections in hopes of inspiring others to do the same.
That post was one of the factors that drove me to check out her book, ‘Secrets for the Mad: Obsessions, Confessions, and Life Lessons.’
In one of my favorite sections of the book, “Forkfuls of Salad,” Dodie talks about a different Instagram post she made. When she was struggling with an eating disorder, she wore a crop top to the beach and posted a picture.
Following the flood of likes and comments, she writes, “My heart sank and the back of my neck became hot. I had an audience of mostly young girls, and I had just blasted their timelines with posed pictures of a smiling skeleton.”
She goes on to describe the negative effects her post could have had on her followers. The young women who looked up to her would be influenced to compare themselves to her the same way she compared herself to others.
I don’t think anyone reacts to my Instagram posts the same way Dodie’s followers react to hers. However, whether we have 10 followers or 10 million, every one of us on social media has an audience of our own. Every post you make impacts not only yourself but everyone else who sees it.
Therein lies the importance of imperfection. Forget every time you’ve heard about the beauty of imperfection. Imperfection is the truth, and, as the saying goes, the truth shall set you free. Maybe that’s the secret to freedom from the shackles of social media. By refusing to conform to societal expectations of perfection, we, too, can set ourselves free from the toxicity of perfectionism.
What’s so wrong with perfectionism, you may wonder. Isn’t it a good thing to strive to be the best you can possibly be? Shouldn’t we want others to think highly of us?
The World Health Organization reported that a record number of young people all over the world suffer from serious depression and anxiety disorders.
Harvard Business Review linked this finding to “ the excessive standards that they hold for themselves and the harsh self-punishment they routinely engage in.” The article goes on to discuss the implications of social media-related perfectionism and psychological turmoil.
The truth is, I’m proud of my Instagram theme. I feel like I worked hard to get it to look the way it does, and that scares me. There’s no reason I should care so much; no one’s looking at it anyway. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have my mental health than a pretty Instagram feed.
There’s another quote I like from Dodie’s book. In fact, I like it so much that I painted it on a canvas and hung it on my bathroom wall. It says, “If you tell the world you’re beautiful, it will believe you, and then you’ll start believing it too.”
I think that’s where we can find the balance between perfectionism and imperfection. Your social media presence is whatever you make it to be. If I want to keep posting pictures of coffee cups and landscapes, then that’s what I’ll keep posting. I’ve built a theme that I enjoy, so it doesn’t matter if it gets three likes or three hundred.
Instagram culture is such a useless thing. We should focus on building lives, not social media posts, that we’re proud of.
You are not the before and after shots in a Proactiv ad. Each of us exists somewhere in between the mountains and the valleys. I want my Instagram to reflect that, too.
Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016 by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill
“Instagram ranked worst for young people’s mental health” by RSPH
Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders: Global Health Estimates by WHO
Perfectionism Is Increasing, and That’s Not Good News by Harvard Business Review
Featured image courtesy of Pexels