Most of us feel a grumbling discontent about how Instagram makes us feel. On the one hand, we’re hooked on scrolling through perfect pictures of perfect people, and on the other, we compare and self-flagellate because we don’t match up. The truth, of course, is that we will never match up. Not because we aren't wearing the right clothes or doing the right diet but because these perfect lives literally don't exist.
Behind the influencer's curtain is all the mess of human life that the rest of us go through. Break-ups, money worries, eating dysfunctions and so on.
All of this means that we're are mostly confused and angry at how to feel about social media, because even knowing the truth behind a post doesn’t insulate us from the FOMO vortex because that chain reaction of compare, contrast and despair happens in seconds.
However, there is a movement that aims to start a truthful conversation about the impact this ‘perfect life’ approach is having – not just on people like me who use the app – but also influencers, with the hope of creating a slightly more honest approach to posting.
Author, former Grazia fashion editor and influencer Katherine Ormerod is one of those leading the charge with her new book Why Social Media Is Ruining Your Life, which aims to disrupt what we think we know about social media.
Katherine references a 2017 research paper, which says that an increasing number of women look to influencers rather than traditional media, for guidance and inspiration. The stakes have never been higher.
Yet influencers don’t have it sorted either. Katherine, who has nearly 50k followers says: “At times I’ve legitimately loved taking pictures, (and) felt creatively challenged and fulfilled… However, I’ve also dealt with the full gamut of emotion social media can generate. It has…made me question myself, made me wonder what’s wrong with me and why people don’t like me.”
For some people, that cost can be incredibly high. Pixie Turner, 25, is a nutritionist and science communicator. She is also an Instagram wellness influencer with 122k followers. She started her account because she had just been told that she probably had familial hypercholesterolaemia - genetically high cholesterol - and that if her cholesterol didn't go down to normal levels she’d have to take statins.
She was given a year to try any lifestyle modifications in case they worked. While researching, she found a whole bunch of wellness bloggers who claimed to heal various ailments with their diet.
“They looked radiant, healthy, beautiful, and successful. Their posts told me that I could be healthier, all I had to do was eat like them. So I did.”
But what started as a visual food diary ended up as a severely restricted diet because she wanted the same praise and recognition as other bloggers. “I went from eating everything to cutting out meat, fish, gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, and refined sugar. I used #eatclean and stated how wonderful I was feeling now I wasn't eating all these things. It was a constant pressure every day to post the perfect food and I ate so many things I didn't like, just for the gram.”
It completely started to rule her life, she says, and was anxious and miserable behind the scenes. The irony, of course, is that there were probably thousands of followers looking at the posts and thinking the same about themselves. But what they were buying into was a lie, because as Pixie found, her diet didn’t make her skin get better or have loads of energy. She even did a raw food challenge because they were trendy for a while on Instagram, but secretly abandoned it because it was making her miserable.
She developed orthorexia – the obsession with eating healthy foods. “My poor parents had to buy me a raw vegan birthday cake, they had to eat in weird restaurants in London that they didn't want to go to, and they watched me have a mini meltdown when there was no courgette in the house.
“On my birthday at uni, I snuck into lectures late and left early so my friends wouldn't ask me to go to lunch with them. I knew they would suggest a Chinese buffet and that was too scary - I didn't know what was in the food.”
After a breakthrough moment – she was on a wellness blogger trip to Australia when a fellow blogger loudly stated that she was anti-vaccination – she decided that she couldn’t do it anymore. The sponsored posts for companies whose products she wasn’t 100% onboard with, the posts about things she was supposedly eating.
But she was stuck between how to tackle it on Instagram. Where is the line between full honesty and aspiration? It’s a question Katherine poses in her book. “Recommending total social media honesty is largely going to fall on deaf ears because our capitalist societies still lionize youth, slimness and financial success, and it’s difficult to escape that conditioning.”
When Pixie started to post pictures of eggs, for instance, she got a lot of vitriol from vegans who called her a “horrible person” and advised others to unfollow her. “Every time I do a post on the myths around dairy and cancer, or how eggs aren't as bad as smoking cigarettes, I lose followers,” she said. A post calling the Medical Medium a charlatan lost her 500 followers, while changing her username cost her 2,000.
A few years ago, this would have sent her into a tailspin, but now, she realises – like a lot of other influencers – how powerful the truth is. Not just because it may be trapping them as influencers, but because without the context of honesty, it traps everyone who follows their feed into that same cycle of self-loathing.
“I wrote a piece apologising for all the misinformation I had spread,” said Pixie, “because I felt it was important to own up to what I had done wrong, which certain bloggers didn’t do – they just deleted or edited certain posts.
“It got the biggest response out of anything I’ve ever posted.”
While the debate rages on about honesty and posting, one thing is for sure, authenticity is here to stay.
Sometimes it can descend into mob mentality - take, for instance, travel influencer Harimao Lee who got lambasted for posing in a first class cabin wrapped in fairy lights , or Scarlett London who got horrendously trolled for a paid sponsorship post which depicted a completely unreal depiction of her morning.
But the hope is that a middle ground can be found if the conversation keeps evolving and maturing. It’s a fine line, when your livelihood depends on it, but as Pixie says: “I think I've reached a point now where I value quality over quantity when it comes to followers, and I think focusing purely on numbers is a miserable mind-set.
“I would urge influencers to remember that social platforms come and go, but if you maintain your authenticity you can carry that with you throughout your life, and that's far more valuable.