Emily Godbold shares her experience of deactivating her Instagram account for TWSS Issue 15.
As the plane juddered back down onto the runway of Heathrow Terminal 5, I breathed a sigh of relief as the little 4G icon re-appeared in the top right-hand corner of my Iphone screen. This was January, and I’d just returned from a two week holiday in Qatar. We’d spent our final day on the beach, where a picture was taken of me: back to the camera, wading through the calm sea towards an impressive city skyline, that I remember thinking was supremely insta-worthy, or at least would be once enhanced by the warm and peachy hues of the obligatory ‘Valencia’ filter.
It was this picture that I’d posted just before boarding the flight, and as we hit English soil, up pops that tiny orange speech bubble of validation: 112 likes, nice – followed by that familiar feeling of satisfaction. Yet, as I made my way through customs, the realisation hit that maybe, just maybe, 7 hours of waiting for 112 virtual compliments, constantly refreshing my feed at 30,000 feet, on the off-chance that the outer troposphere would supply a blip of data, actually wasn’t all that productive/healthy/okay. So, by the time I walked through the exit doors of the airport, my Instagram account had been deactivated, and thus began my unfiltered life.
Don’t get me wrong, four months on, having ‘looked at life from both sides now’, this piece is as much about celebrating Instagram as it is about questioning it. Instagram is undoubtedly the most aesthetic of all the notable social media platforms, showcasing beautiful people, beautiful places and beautiful things. Scrolling through the search results of home and interior hashtags has for many years been one of my favourite pastimes, and on those gloomier days of English drizzle, I often found inspiration in the travel accounts I followed, with their emerald-green lakes and sparkling sunsets. Some of my favourite artists and illustrators operate mostly via online gallery spaces, and therefore I was only exposed to them because of the Instagram ‘Explore’ page; this is often the case, and the mass following offered up by Instagram has undoubtedly been revolutionary in providing a platform for up-and-coming young artists, photographers, bloggers and musicians from less formal artistic backgrounds. For these reasons and many more, Instagram really is a goldmine of creativity.
In a way then, Instagram can be viewed as one expansive, digital canvas – upon which many different ‘artists’ in their various forms, are free to project their ideas. However, the accessibility of social media makes it easy to forget that the pictures appearing on your feed have, like any other work of art, often been edited significantly before being put on display for the world to see; angles, lighting and cropping allow the poster of the picture to shape exactly what their followers see, and therefore an online presence is always, to some extent, a construct.
And, this ability to have control over our own online presences can be truly liberating! Take the ‘selfie’ for example, which is created under the rare conditions of only our own gaze, can be edited and filtered (or not) in accordance with our own preferences, and which, once posted, tends to result in some self-loving feels. Yet for some reason, whilst this meticulous editing process is something I was always able to recognise in relation to my own posts, for some reason it was subconsciously disregarded in my viewing framework of others’; scrolling through immaculate fitness accounts, logic was temporarily abandoned, and I would forget that a picture of a smoothie bowl didn’t necessarily equate to a diet based solely on chia seeds, kiwi and goji berries, or that abs can definitely be made to look more prominent with good angles and lighting.
We all know deep down that social media is one extended series of ‘best bits’, but it’s still hard not to compare our own lives to the ones we spend so much time invested in via our phone screens. By admiring and idealising versions of people, places and things that are always, to a certain degree, filtered, we inevitably open ourselves up to self-criticism. A picture never tells the full story, even ‘stories’ don’t tell the story, and real life can’t be cropped, manipulated or enhanced.
Prior to deactivating my account, I went down the route of trying to reclaim my feed. The creative authority granted by the app cuts both ways, and it is almost as easy to control what you see, as it is to control what you put out for others to see. Undoubtedly my most pivotal discovery along the way was that of the Body Positivity movement; Instagram is home to so many beautiful people of all genders, carving out a space for bodies that are not given adequate representation in mainstream media, and it really is a wonderful thing to be a part of. By following these accounts, not only was my timeline filled with content that I found genuinely inspiring, but my activism was enriched and Instagram became about something more than simply aesthetics.
For me though, years of immersing myself in an extended visual narrative of other people’s edited lives had resulted in a pervading sense of anxiety and inadequacy, that I only realised fully after stepping back from it. Modifying the content I was exposed to improved my experience of the app, but those feelings only fully disappeared after severing all ties.
Instagram is amazing, but it is also a fallacy. There is a real sense of liberation in tapping that ‘deactivate my account’ button: the illusion shatters, and suddenly you find yourself grounded back in your own reality.
Illustration by Emily Godbold.