Body image, self acceptance, and the price of Instagram
January 9, 2019
I’ve come to realize something about myself this year, and it might sound a little ridiculous, or it might sound just right to you. It’s this: the more time I spend away from social media, the better I feel. The better my prayer life is. The more I appreciate my own body, my children’s bodies, my husband’s body.
It’s not just bodies, either; the fewer pictures I see of other people’s houses – not shiny design pictures, because somehow I know those aren’t the stuff of comparisons, but real pictures of real people’s homes, styled or not – the better I seem feel in my own space.
Here’s the difference for me, I think. I love reading and admiring content that is designed in a way that is obviously design-y. When a piece is written for House, Beautiful or as a featured home tour or a DIY project on a design blog, my brain automatically categorizes that as “professionally cleaned, styled and shot, obviously a curated product, and DON’T FEEL BAD ABOUT THIS. This has nothing to do with your lived reality.” When I spend time pouring over real life images though? Something happens in my head that tends to trip my discontentment wire.
Does that make even a morsel of sense?
All I know is the way I feel after 40 minutes on Instagram is … not great. “But I’m just catching up with my friends!” I can rationalize to myself, “I know this is just a snapshot of their lives, a sliver of their reality, a scroll of mostly silver linings.”
But my brain does something else with all those images. My brain misses the “curated reality, do not apply to real life” memo for whatever reason, and refuses to behave as if THIS IS NOT REAL LIFE, DON’T JUDGE YOURSELF/HER/HIM BY WHAT YOU SEE HERE. And my stubborn brain can get pretty down after ingesting a couple hundred beautiful images of how everyone else is killing it/slaying their dreams/nailing their goals and I’m over here just trying to get another iteration of chili on the table for dinner and spraying dry shampoo on 6-day old hair.
And honestly? I like using dry shampoo. My shower in a can, I call it. I’ve always resented the imposition showers make on my busy life, and having a can of degreasing spray powder is actually just what the doctor ordered. Plus it makes my fine, limp, slippery soft hair infinitely more amenable to styling.
Also, my family loves chili.
So my baseline level of happiness, even in this busy, demanding, frequently exhausting season of early parenthood is basically set at “contentment.” Maybe not breathless joy, but still, a pretty great life.
But I find that when I take my eyes off my own paper, peering over someone’s shoulder into their selfie game, more often than not, that calm contentment is rocked. Maybe I should get a blunt chin-length bob, I muse almost unconsciously, clicking on a stream of dreamy images of a lovely woman with 6-month old twins who looks like a Russian supermodel. And just like that, at a single tap, I find myself immersed in the curated world of someone else’s life. But I don’t just “find myself” there…I put myself there. I go there, willingly, to sneak a peek into a another person’s existence through the lens of their camera phone, looking for, what, exactly? Inspiration? Leisure? A moment’s rest while I sit and scroll?
Never happens. It’s never restful. Or hardly ever, at least.
For every single arresting and transcendent image I encounter on Instagram, there are probably thousands I’ve scrolled through to get to it that have had a net negative effect on my mental and spiritual health.
(I’m being awfully hard on Instagram here, but that’s because it’s the worst offender for me. Maybe Twitter is your Kryptonite. Facebook is good for almost nothing save for livestreaming far-off events and private groups.)
I’m becoming more convicted by the year that social media has a net negative effect on the human person.
But Jenny, you’re a blogger!
I know! Cue the identity crisis! But blogging has always been different for me. Less like consumable, scrollable, forgettable (I hope!) social media, and more like an ongoing conversation. And hey, maybe some people can Instagram that way – I believe it’s entirely possible. But I can’t.
A historically difficult relationship with my body and with food is kind of a recipe for Insta angst. I find myself moving almost unconsciously into comparison mode when presented with beautiful pictures. My mind races, unbidden, to do the math when I see a trim, smiling woman holding a newborn, calculating the baby’s age and delivering the result to me like a verdict: 5 weeks. She looks like that with a 5-week-old baby in her arms, what is wrong with you that you don’t look half that good a year out?!
Even if I never let myself voice that thought, don’t entertain it aloud, I’ve still thought it. I’ve still introduced yet another piece of evidence into the neverending and unwinnable trial of “Why Jenny Will Never Be Good Enough: the Defendant vs. Herself.”
Saddest part of this all being, honestly, the fact that I don’t know that mom’s story. Maybe her baby is adopted. Maybe she’s thin because she just beat cancer and although the doctors told her she’d never carry a healthy pregnancy to term, here’s her miracle baby. Maybe this is her first baby after a string of devastating miscarriages. Maybe she’s just skinny.
My personal baggage blurs her humanity though, objectifying her through the lens of my discontentment, filtering her appearance through my own wounds.
This is getting awfully self disclosing, even for a blogger, but I feel really convicted to share it with you because I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not alone in these struggles. Amidst a sea of content about New Year’s Resolutions and goals and ways of eating and changes for the better, I want to make a small and sort of ridiculous suggestion that has changed my life during the course of the past few years: look away more.
Maybe you can handle Instagram in smaller chunks and it doesn’t shake you. Maybe you never had an eating disorder and your self-doubt centers on your personality, your intelligence, your sense of competence, your sense of worthiness of God’s love. Maybe there are no doubts and you’re higher up in the mansion of perfection, and I mean this wholeheartedly when I say good for you. (And also, I’d wager you probably don’t spend all that much time on social media to begin with. Please pray for me.)
But if this resonates with you at all, I want to encourage you to sit with it for a bit. Ask God to weigh in on it. Ask Him if there is something you’re doing to feed the vicious cycle of self doubt and self judgement and, frankly, self centeredness.
I haven’t lost all the baby weight yet, not even close. I’m still eating relatively keto because it makes me feel good, but I’ve stopped posting “progress” pictures and following #results hashtags because it’s just too easy for me to get into a bad place with those images. Even with my own images.
I look at photos of third-time postpartum Jenny and hold fifth-time postpartum Jenny up to her in my mind’s eye, critically evaluating where I’m at now, and where I was then. I’m sure it’s no surprise that I wasn’t satisfied with myself back then, either! I didn’t realize how great I looked, how shiny my hair was or how luminous and unlined my skin. Or how little any of that mattered.
Ah, but youth is wasted on the young. Well, I don’t want to waste any more of it! As the past year unfolded I found myself making a surprising peace with the one enemy I never expected to bury the hatchet with: myself.
Not because I reached goal weight.
Not because I found the perfect workout.
Not because I bought beautiful new clothes or tried great new makeup.
Not because I landed the perfect job or grew my platform or won the lottery or slept through the night for a whole month straight.
I just got out of the habit of comparing. I stopped comparing myself to unrealistic images of friends, strangers, celebrities, and even the younger me.
I caught myself critically assessing some photos from a recent family wedding the other day. There were several lovely group shots of me with my four younger sisters, one of whom is a full decade my junior. I mentally shook myself by the shoulders when I realized what I was doing, and I gave myself permission to look like I was the oldest. Because I am the oldest.
It sounds ridiculous! But it’s something I’m having to retrain my brain do to, because for too long I’ve been caught in a negative feedback loop, cycling over and over again, lifting my head only slightly higher than my navel to gaze into the screen of my phone, and then lifting it a few inches higher to look into the mirror.
I got so, so sick of the view, bouncing between my own midsection, a screen, and a mirror. It’s like Narcissus on steroids, and I finally realized it.
I wish I could tell you how, or why. It’s prayer, medication, therapy, quiet time, self discipline, lack of free time, a good partner, good friends, kids who demand a lot of me, maturity, frequent confession, a good Father, grace…it’s all of these things. There is no magic bullet. I still mess up. I still have mornings where I’m less than thrilled with my own reflection. I got on Instagram for the first time in weeks last night, after having gone almost 2 months without it during November and December, and I spent a half hour scrolling, clicking, tapping, feeling more unsettled by the minute.
When I finally dropped my phone into my lap, I forced myself to sit with my feelings of discomfort, contorting almost painfully into a posture of reflection when my dopamine-heavy brain just wanted to rush ahead to the next thing. “This is important,” I told myself silently, “recognize how this made you feel. Feel these feelings.”
Dear readers, they weren’t good feelings. I did not enjoy peace, clarity, and freedom after my half hour of “leisure” on my phone.
Here’s the long-awaited conclusion. If you’ve stuck it out to this point, good on you, mate.
I think that self acceptance comes hand in glove with working to truly see other selves as human beings, not as competition. And I don’t think social media facilitates much of that. If it fosters a little bit, here and there, glory to God.
But if it mostly steals your peace, sucks your time, and keeps you from attending to your own first things? Maybe it’s too expensive.