I recently stumbled upon this Elle article from a couple of years ago entitled “‘Why Don’t I Look Like Her?’: How Instagram Is Ruining Our Self Esteem.”
No joke, the first thing I did was google “self-esteem.” It’s been my habit to look up even the simplest words and phrases, because I often feel mentally clouded by their incessant overuse and colloquial repurposing.
In sociology and psychology, self-esteem reflects a person’s overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her own worth. It is a judgment of oneself as well as an attitude toward the self.
-Wikipedia (et al)
There are many who have criticized social media — and particularly Instagram — for perpetuating unreal standards of beauty. They argue that social media is actually more harmful than traditional advertising, because while most of us readily accept that fashion and beauty ads are heavily manipulated, Instagram operates under a guise of “real life.” Since the basic mode of production is snap-and-upload, it can be easy to forget that there are 10,000 apps out there that have made airbrushing and photo manipulation accessible to the average user (Kardashians very much included).
In addition, social photo-sharing might compel some of us to zero in on specific aspects of our appearance — things we dislike, make us feel insecure, and wish we could change. Rather than considering ourselves holistically in images, our eyes are drawn to thighs, under-eye circles, irregular noses, and stomach rolls. Of course, we’d have these insecurities anyway, but the enduring and likes-validated nature of social can intensify self-doubt — and even self-hatred.
So the question stands: is social media ruining our self-esteem? In my opinion, it might be, and it might not be. Some of us are more susceptible to the judgments of other people, while others possess greater autonomy over their self-evaluation. For the majority of us, it is a constant interplay: external forces will always influence the internal process, and serve as fodder for the ideas we formulate about ourselves.
If you make the blanket statement that social media is destructive to an individual’s self-esteem, you’re making a bold assumption about that person. For instance, if a girl edits her selfies to minimize her flaws, what are the consequences on her relationship with herself? Perhaps the tension between “what she really looks like” and “what she wishes she looked like” is exacerbated in a negative way that perpetuates self-hatred. There is usually a psychological price to pay for self-enhancement: conscious deception creates a costly cognitive load, because the deceiver must grapple with two conflicting representations of reality in their mind. Plus, the deceiver is likely to face negative socio-emotional repercussions, as people are usually quick to “detect” their deception.
Or…it’s possible there is little to no tension, and she is okay with the fact that her photos don’t represent her with 100% accuracy. Maybe she even derives a sense of creative satisfaction in the process: the photo isn’t meant to represent the real her, but an idealized version that she enjoys creating. Picasso liked to self-idealize, and we worship him for it.
Personally, I love editing photos to recreate reality. I love, in particular, how the right filter at the right intensity can breathe emotion into a still shot, and evoke a feeling in a way that my photographic skills alone are not capable of doing. But my editing approach is simple: I prioritize the image, as a whole, over myself or the subjects in the shot. I don’t alter the shape of my body or the size of my eyes or the wrinkles on my forehead. I sometimes edit out a few of my freckles or residue from vigorous enchilada eating — but I’m okay with that, and I’m okay with people knowing that.
For some, the ability to consume photos of “perfect people” so immediately and plentifully might aggravate their insecurities and do further harm. For me, however, seeing photos of impossibly beautiful girls on Instagram has about the same effect on my self-esteem as seeing impossibly beautiful girls in real life: it’s another reminder of the person I wish I could be, both inside and out. Longer-legged, bigger boobed, better haired; kinder, less anxious, more chemically balanced.
There are ways to manipulate your appearance in real life, just as there are ways to do so in photos. It might be cosmetic surgery, colored contact lenses, a hair color change, or a different cut of jeans. I acknowledge that there are differences between digital and IRL manipulation, but in the end, I find them to be similar beasts on the same spectrum: they are both concerned with one’s opinion of appearance and self. And so, for me, Instagram doesn’t do any greater damage to my self-esteem; it’s simply an extension of being a girl in today’s world.
So to those who claim that Instagram is harmful to self-esteem: kindly back the fuck off. If you insist on making polarized statements about the harms (or benefits) afforded by social media, you risk sweeping entire groups of people into a single mindset. Separating things into black-and-white categories has never benefitted society. If we are to build a more meaningful discussion around the modern female experience and self-esteem, I hope that we can venture bravely into the gray.