Instagram, the imperfect and polarising social media site, beloved by many yet criticized en masse. It creates virtual communities full of encouragement, brings people together to share in amazing new experiences and provides inspiration for those in need of a boost. But, it has a flip side – in creating these communities and this encouragement, it often becomes a race to be the best, to be the most perfect, with people losing sight of wellness and their own lives in an effort to live up to what they see on a screen in front of them. It isn’t a coincidence that the adjective ‘instagrammable’ has basically become a synonym for perfection.
I don’t think this is seen anywhere more clearly than in the health and fitness section of the site where, if you follow enough people, your feed will become a parade of perfect bodies with abs and bikinis and happiness and confidence – things that make you sink lower into your seat, considering your own goals and accomplishments nothing compared to the beauty displayed on the app.
The juxtaposition of photos of beautiful tanned bodies and muscles with images of beautiful food, bowls and bowls of colour and volume goes further, creating an envy, a paradox. To have a good account, you need to have beautiful photos, and if you don’t have an “Instagrammable” body, people often turn to pictures of their food, adding ingredient after ingredient, topping after topping to achieve the bowl with the most “wow-factor”. Unfortunately, this often implicates a paranoia over the effect that this food may have on you achieving your goals, perpetuating the cycle.
But, although Instagram is about the image, that perfect photo, it’s not ALL about the snapshot. Reading the captions and following the right people will give you the inspiration and the feeling of belonging to a wider community in which support is only a message away. It also allows you to enter into the world behind just the pretty faces and glistening muscles that, on the surface, only offer a superficial highlight.
That flawless body? Read the caption, follow the blogger, peruse the blog posts. You’ll be offered a view into their life, gaining an understanding of their hard work and their workouts. Go deeper and this effect of constant perfection will (normally) be shattered. You see the bloggers simply as other humans trying to be their best selves, with the same struggles and problems as the rest of us. Often fitness bloggers will even publish videos of their workouts, serving as a further inspiration for those who want to make a change. Interacting with posts and with bloggers by asking questions, whether about themselves or specifically about their fitness journeys, helps to build this sense of camaraderie and help you towards your goals.
I’ve found that since dedicating myself much more seriously to Instagram, including setting up this blog and a Facebook page, a side effect has been me becoming more serious about achieving my goals. Maybe it’s my competitive spirit (or maybe I just don’t want to lose any of my followers) but I find that having a page which I post to often holds me accountable for that workout that I want to skip, or for that day where I just feel too lazy to move from the sofa. I see other people overcoming much harder obstacles or posting motivational quotes and I feel like I’d better do something, even if it’s only a couple of miles! I also want to best myself, to take a prettier photo of my ever-present smoothie bowl or work out some other way of making me feed stand out even more.
However, if you have an addictive personality, Instagram can hinder rather than help your progress. It’s easy to get hooked on the app, get hooked on the idea of becoming a “better self”, constantly checking for updates and affirmation from the community. There is a mental disease called Orthorexia, in which someone gets addicted to being healthy and structures their entire life around the idea of fitness and wellbeing, taking it to the extreme. Platforms like Instagram, with their constant stimulation to do better, eat better, be better are categorically unhelpful to people who already suffer from this illness.
Yet, in a completely opposing way, Instagram also helps those with mental disorders, such as Orthorexia, Anorexia or Bulimia. I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve come across a recovery account of someone who is struggling back from the brink, and spent time scrolling on their feed and reading all of their posts. I’m constantly inspired by the hope and resilience of those accounts, and of the wider recovery community. Although I don’t consider myself to have suffered from an eating disorder as such (I prefer the term disordered eating for what I went through a few years ago), I am struck by how closely many of the experiences ally with mine, and I wish that I could have known to use Instagram as a tool to help me back then.
So, what’s my conclusion? I don’t really know. I love Instagram, but I also am aware of the dangers that it poses and the problems which it can cause. I’m probably already way too addicted to checking my feed for likes and follows, to liking all the cool photos that come up on my feed. I justify this to myself because I’m trying to build my base, to get a wider audience which comes with higher interaction. But I also know when I need to take a break – like last week when I had about 5 days completely off. It’s when you forget that there are limits and boundaries, that it is JUST a social network (or, even if it is a job, that it is JUST a job) that problems can happen.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the platform, or on the effects of social media in general on young adults and teenagers. Don’t hesitate to drop me a comment below or to follow me and DM me on Instagram (@primallyimperfect) if you want to communicate with me about your own private issues.