The Problem With Instagram that No One is Talking About

The pressure to perfectly curate digital feeds is just another impossible standard for women and girls to measure themselves against.

By: Izzy Howell

Mental health is a harrowing topic – one that is complicated further by the inescapable melding of our digital and IRL worlds. How we measure up according to ever-present onlookers is a terrifying and redundant thought. But thinking about how our lives measure up to a never-ending feed of obsessively-curated, square, pastel photos of “perfection” is far more fearsome and anxiety-inducing.

In the palm of our hand lies a two-dimensional version of reality. It’s a version that’s brighter, more beautiful, and ultimately more fantastic than almost anything we experience in our day-to-day lives. Still, it’s far too easy to interpret the feed as fact. Particularly, it’s almost impossible not to subscribe to the idea that the images on Instagram are a mandate for how we must shape our appearances and our experiences.

While unrealistic expectations for the female body existed long before the advent of social media, and while these standards glorified a narrow view of beauty (one that predominantly glorified thinness and whiteness), the level of inadequacy felt by women today in regards to their physical appearance has certainly been magnified. How we look, who we love, and how we carry out our lives is enacted on a public stage, forcing the user to make her life appear the most put together, and her appearance the most desirable.

However, the issue of beauty standards is a complex one, and it would be inaccurate to gloss over the fact that Instagram and other social media outlets have also been a remarkable tool that consumers can utilize to voice their opinions and beg for more inclusivity from the fashion and beauty industries.

Due to the rightfully boisterous voices of indignant consumers, many fashion brands, and, more notably, digitally native beauty brands (such as Beautycon, Fenty, and Glossier), are attempting to authentically include a more diverse group of brand representatives in regards to gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, and religious and cultural backgrounds. In this way, Instagram has become a tool for change – a small step in the right direction. However, the solution to inclusivity has not yet been met.

The images that we feel compelled to compare ourselves to on a daily – if not hourly – basis still persist. And, what has largely emerged alongside unattainable body and beauty standards is a new aesthetic pressure: the collective – and seemingly obsessive – need to perfectly curate and compose the photos that make up our digital feeds.

“[Influencers] feel compelled to be perfect, because [that way], followers engage more with their content. As someone who’s a perfectionist…I cleaned out my IG almost entirely. Only 21 photos remain and I upload and delete strategically to maintain that aesthetic. And I look to well-curated IG influencers to learn how to curate my own page effectively to maximize likes,” says bicoastal songwriter Diana Umana, 26.

Uploading and deleting photos strategically in an effort to curate reveals a deeper desire for aesthetic validation. In scrolling through Instagram, it becomes apparent that almost every feed reflects each user’s ardent desire to appear to be the editor- in-chief of the magazine of her life.

Millions of accounts reflect the same precise and stringent adherence to a pastel theme. Countless books and blogs aim to teach users how to make their feeds more appealing – how to implement filters, alter lighting, and pose perfectly. Users feel intense pressure to augment their digital realities to reflect scenes of sumptuous, artfully strewn fruit over picnic blankets; glistening displays of avocado toast and expensive cups of cappuccino; or casual shots of on-trend outfits exposing digitally enhanced abs. What we don’t see outside of the curated feeds is that the photographed food may have been eaten under hectic circumstances, or that the Gucci handbag being shown off was rented through Village Luxe or some other couture-on-call service.

But these realities can never be communicated through the curated photos. The truth is buried under filters and distorted under overly saturated colors. Due to this, it is essential to understand that need to aggrandize one’s own reality through curated photos is dangerous to our mental health for a multitude of reasons. The first is that the desire to manipulate our feeds into gorgeous, seemingly effortless, perfectly pink compositions is seemingly harmless. While the negative effects of comparing ourselves to unrealistic body images propagated by FaceTune and artificially plumped lips are widely discussed and analyzed scientifically, the habit of curating images to heighten and dramatize our realities is not being spoken about to the same degree. The unspoken norm is the curate. The urge to compose our digital worlds to the point of perfection feels entirely acceptable.

It’s almost as if our feeds have become equated with who we are as individuals, which gives way to the second reason that overly curated feeds pose a danger to our mental health: curating Instagram posts gives us a false sense of control over our lives, and communicates this false sense of control to onlookers. Before Instagram, millions of women measured their sense of self against an impossible weight standard. It was easy for outsiders to look at a woman they considered overweight and assume that she was lazy, unintelligent, or incapable. And, while the body positive movement has taken some small, but very important steps to illuminate a healthier way of living our lives, and promote ulterior ideas about what beauty truly means, meticulously curated Instagram feeds feel like the new impossible weight standard to live up to. Thinness used to be perceived (and, sometimes, is still perceived) as the equivalent of self-control. Now, heavy-handed photocompositions are a new device that communicates our sense of self-control and morality to the world.

“There is definitely a pressure to keep your IG cohesive and aesthetically pleasing to the people who will be viewing it. Whether you have 100 followers or 100,000, you still want to present it in a way that reflects how you want other people to think of you. The pressure to be seen as someone who has their shit together, and has an understanding of what’s trendy is outweighing the desire to be free spirited and fun on social media,” explains Hayley Wilson, a 23 year-old LA-based actress.

The fact that users feel that a feed can express control over our lives elucidates the idea that curated feeds are becoming more and more similar to old body weight paradigms: it appears that women are still believing the idea that aesthetics can communicate the deeper components of our characters, an idea that leads us to the third reason that curated Instagram feeds pose a threat to our mental wellbeing.

The pressures associated with curating our feeds are new pressures stemming from old problems – they are fundamentally a byproduct of sexism, manifesting in a digital form. Just like women have been told for so long to measure their sense of self-worth against their weight, curated feeds appear to be another insidious catalyst for women to use to judge their self-worth. As we advance technologically, we must be on guard in regards to the fact that issues in our society – like sexism and racism – will be transmuted into new, insidious forms.

As culture transforms, the channels for these insidious things transforms too. There is still so much work to do. The solutions are at the intersectional point amidst the solutions to racism and sexism. The judgments we face for both our physical appearances and our IG feeds are tied to the more menacing and ugly facets of our society.

“It has become almost routine to judge women based on their social media presences. Personally, I feel worried that if the pictures on my feed don’t fit a certain theme, or if I don’t get enough likes on said pictures, I am unworthy of any sort of respectable title. Self esteem and drive decrease when females don’t see themselves as ‘good enough,’” says Dallas-based, high school senior Piper Amos, 17.

The fourth issue is the most important in understanding the dangers that overly curating our digital platforms create: the fact that aesthetics cannot be equated with one’s character, or with the vast expansiveness of being alive. Just like our physical appearances can never fully communicate our aspirations, our work ethic, the depth of our emotions, the love we express in our relationships, our memories, and our sense of self, rows of tiny square photos cannot communicate the depth of what it means to occupy space on this planet as a human being.

The solutions to improving the mental health issues caused by social media must be confronted on both a personal and public front. We must demand more authenticity from influencers and brands; we are at a point in history when more people than ever have a platform to voice their opinions. Using our voices to demand genuine exchanges from those we look up to is a very real possibility. Additionally, as often as we can, we must demand compassion from ourselves: we must understand that what we see on Instagram is far from reality – not a standard we should ever choose to measure ourselves or others against. We must encourage conversations with others, and talk about the anxieties caused by the pressures to curate. Only through honest and real conversations can we begin to acknowledge the fact that real change must be made.

And, finally, the most essential component to freeing ourselves from the mental strains of curated images is to realize that our lives mean so much more when we are living them completely married to the moment we are in – not scrolling endlessly through a pink and lilac feed.