Instagram is a cultural pissing contest – so why does it still make us feel so bad?

"Kayla Itsines single-handedly makes me hate my life."

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Our surroundings are eminently Instagrammable. A sunny afternoon on Clapham Common. Bottles of craft beer. A sort of interesting-looking tree in the background. This, through the right filter, could be perfect "I am having a nice time" propaganda.

"I’m so glad I didn’t have Instagram when I was 13," says my friend, Monique.

I’ve taken a second out of my busy agonising-over-whether-the-interesting-looking-tree-is-Instagram-worthy life, to have a conversation. About Instagram. Having shunned the photo-sharing social network right from the get-go, I’m new to this. I don’t know the rules, of which there seem to be many (all unwritten, of course).

Monique explains that, at a more impressionable age, she could have found herself really sucked into Instagram; obsessed with it. As a 28-year-old, she mostly uses it to showcase her illustrations.

For anyone on the visual side of creativity, the app is now pretty much vital. She sees it as, essentially, a super-simple personal website.

A recent study by the Royal Society for Public Health, along with the Young Health Movement, has found that – for young people – social media can be very damaging for your mental health. The worst culprit, with its unending stream of people hotter and happier than you, is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Instagram.

The RSPH conducted a survey on just under 1,500 14 to 24-year-olds, on how social media impacts their mental wellbeing. Instagram was found to exacerbate – for many – feelings of anxiety, depression, poor body image, and FoMo (fear of missing out).

But back to my Instagram-worthy Instagram chat. Although nobody I’m speaking to falls into the RSPH’s "young people" bracket (we’re all in our mid to late twenties) the issues raised by the health education charity’s study are relevant.

"Kayla Itsines single-handedly makes me hate my life," says my friend Katie.

Itsines, an Australian personal trainer and healthy eating guru, has more than seven million followers on Instagram (in spite of her claim that the fitness evangelist makes her hate her life, my friend Katie is one of them).

In her profile picture, Itsines – dumbbell in hand – flexes an almost architecturally formed bicep. Along with pictures of "healthy eating inspo" avocado toast, and the kinds of "inspirational" quotes usually shared by your retired aunt on Facebook, Itsines’s feed is a string of tanned six-pack selfies and her clients’ "before and after" shots.

These amount to the bikini-clad bodies of already healthy-looking women, side-by-side with their more toned selves. Ostensibly, there’s nothing wrong with this. Itsines isn’t promoting self starvation, or even – per se – weight loss. The women’s body weights are often given in the before and after shots, with the pounds actually increasing post-exercise regime due to added muscle mass.

 

A post shared by KAYLA ITSINES (@kayla_itsines) on

On the other hand, the implication that there is an "ideal" body type is bound to breed insecurity. Especially among young women who – with or without Instagram – are very used to being told that any amount of fat is undesirable.

It’s also worth noting that Katie – a junior doctor – seems to think Itsines’s BMI looks frighteningly low. On social media, there seems to be a thin line between inspiration and crippling pressure.

"It’s a show-off medium, isn’t it?" says another friend, Olivia.

Well, of course it is. That’s the thing with our sun-kissed holiday snaps and couples’ selfies. Whether or not we consciously intend them to be, they’re little brags. Not-so-subtle hints to those around us that our lives, at least, aren’t mundane.

And it’s a genuine relief to hear someone say this out loud. Olivia says she doesn’t follow any health or beauty accounts like Itsines’s, but what gets to her – via her Instagram feed – is a feeling that she’s not making the most of her time.

"I see people going off and doing all this really cool cultural stuff; going to art galleries, taking pictures of brutalist buildings. And I’m like – I have no idea what’s going on in London."

Without getting too hung up on how achingly middle-class creative millennial it is to feel like you aren’t taking enough pictures of the Barbican, Instagram-spawned city FoMo is very real.

For my specific demographic, the app is something of a cultural pissing contest. Although this aspect of it probably isn’t going to send anyone into a profound depression, perhaps our constant exposure to other people’s cool weekend snaps is having an accumulative, "What am I doing with my life?" impact.

That was certainly the case for Charlotte (not her real name), who got in touch with me after I did a call-out on Facebook (don’t worry, the irony of using social media to find out if social media is ruining our lives isn’t lost on me) for people to talk about how Instagram affects their mental health.

Charlotte, 31, is a junior doctor. Last year, a bad breakup sent her into a deep depression, for much of which she found herself "in a darkened room, scrolling through Instagram".

"It was making me feel a million times worse," says Charlotte, of the app.

She explains that, at her lowest point, the constant stream of her friends’ weddings and holidays – combined with pictures of her ex "jetting off" with his new girlfriend – was making her feel "completely worthless".

"It felt like my life was fucked," says Charlotte. "At my lowest point, I deleted the app."

Charlotte realised that whatever mood she was in would be amplified by her Instagram feed. If she was feeling low, pictures of her friends having fun only served as a reminder that she wasn’t.

In a lot of ways – its mood exacerbating quality in particular – social media is like a drug. There’s also that brief rush of validation you get from a "like", which both Monique and Charlotte liken to using a slot machine.

This comparison isn’t new. Psychologists have been looking at the addictiveness of social media’s micro-validations for some time. And, for Charlotte, in the midst of her depressive episode, looking at Instagram was a bad trip. It was a rabbit hole into a world where everyone’s life was perfect, except for hers.

But why is Instagram any worse than Twitter or Facebook? For Charlotte, that’s down to the fact Instagram is almost entirely visual without very much context. 

It took a while, but eventually Charlotte started on some medication and her depression lifted. At that point, she re-downloaded Instagram.

"You need to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy it," she says.

Retrospectively, she’s realised just how much time she was spending scrolling through her rose-tinted feed. Not only that, but – without the reality-distorting lens of mental illness – she says she’s much more in touch with just how edited and filtered people’s "perfect" Instagram lives really are.

Essentially, the right frame of mind has enabled her to take these pictures with an extra large pinch of artisanal Himalayan salt. As an example, she mentions a fitness instructor friend she follows. During her low period, Charlotte would look at pictures of this friend on exercise retreats and think, "I’m fat." Now though, she finds the very same pictures – if anything – quite inspiring.

In terms of physical self image, Instagram is a mixed bag for Rosa and Harriet, both 28. They have both found inspiration in "body positive" accounts, which often show off the beauty of women – in particular – termed “plus size” by the fashion industry.

As it turns out, a lot of the people behind such accounts – @chooselifewarrior for example – prefer the word "fat" to an unnecessary euphemism.

"Fat body positive activist" @chooselifewarrior’s nearly 74,000-strong following may be just a tenth of the size of Kayla Itsines’s, but it’s still impressive. A picture of the self-described "fat" woman lying on the beach in a bikini has more than 1,500 likes and an attached outpouring of overwhelmingly affirmative comments. "#slay girl!! You are gorgeous" writes one user.

You don’t need to trawl too far into the comments to find a not particularly witty use of the whale emoji. But, if you steer clear of the comments (which is usually essential for surviving the internet) these prominent Instagrammers are clearly providing a lot of people with a much-needed alternative to your bog-standard size zero model.

"Between the cats, musicians, tattoos and alternative models; I choose to follow members of the body positive community," writes Rosa. "Many of these women and men are trying to spread the message of self-care and self-love, something I’ve found difficult."

At the same time, though, Rosa follows fitness and health accounts, most of which are pretty bad at representing a range of body types.

Now we’re back into Kayla Itsines territory in which the "thigh gap" rules supreme. "As someone who has struggled with self image issues, I can’t help but compare myself," writes Rosa, who also feels that once you get into a "scrolling trance", you’re sucked in.

At this point, you’re often forming these visual snippets of someone else’s life into one that’s "better than yours in every way". Then again, Rosa reasons, can she really stay mad at an app that lets her look at kittens whenever she likes?

"I think looking at Instagram has affected my mental health both positively and negatively, but positively overall," writes Harriet. "A person’s Insta feed is essentially their highlights reel, and sometimes it can be easy to forget that fact and start comparing your bloopers to someone else’s best bits. In the past this has definitely created feelings of jealousy/inadequacy in me, but over time I’ve learned to enjoy other people’s pictures while always remembering that they are carefully curated and edited.”

Harriet says that following body positive and mental health accounts (she particularly likes @nakedwithanxiety, which is a stream of pithy tips and quotes for those suffering from – as the name suggests – anxiety), and interacting with other users has actively improved her mental health. Although she also accepts, like Monique, that the app may not have been good for her if she was younger and "more impressionable".

Emma, 28, says that, as with anything that’s unhealthy in large doses, it’s up to the user not to let it "take over your life". "In the same way you can’t blame the chocolate for making you gain weight or the alcohol for your bender, you can’t blame Instagram for your own habits in relation to it," she writes.

But Emma, who has spent most of her twenties working at the likes of Harpers Bazaar and Vogue, sees the app from the perspective of someone familiar with image manipulation. Many of the images on Instagram, like those in fashion magazines, are created to provoke a specific reaction – be that aspiration or downright jealousy.

That art form is something she loves about the app. As she sees it, if someone has the digital savvy to post pictures that show off their best selves, they should understand others are doing exactly the same thing. 

True; no one is Instagramming the time they got horrible diarrhoea on that Seychelles holiday. And true, no one particularly wants to see anyone’s diarrhoea moments either, but it’s hard to imagine Instagram inspiring much FOMO if we were all a little more honest.

In fact, cultivating a flawless version of yourself, as explained by teen model and former Insta celebrity Essena O’Neill, can become a full-time job.

O’Neill made headlines in 2015 when she quit Instagram and began writing and vlogging about just how much time and effort was going into her casual but suspiciously immaculate snaps. The point being: none of this is real.

Another famous Instagrammer, comedian @celestebarber, plays on exactly that.

 

A post shared by Celeste Barber (@celestebarber) on

Barber, who has nearly two million followers, recreates highly staged celebrity Instagram posts in a decidedly unglamorous, realistic and – more to the point – relatable way. So, maybe if we’re all in on the smoke and mirrors of staging and filters, we can start to look at our friends’ weddings and holidays and stay sane.

The day after our discussion on Clapham Common, Katie sends me a message on Instagram. She says she’s just unfollowed Kayla Itsines.

I guess there are some things you don’t need to see at all.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist.

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