Here’s Why Instagram Isn’t Truly “Authentic”
As someone who’s trying to build up a social media presence— my dream is to be a stay-at-home cat mom/blogger — I’ve watched my share of webinars, read my share of “engagement” blog posts, and listened to my share of influencer podcasts.
Aside from trying to sell me on their course, e-book, or get me to follow them on social media, there’s one message which is overwhelming in its ubiquity: in order to be successful, you must be authentic.
What does that mean?
To hear the social media experts talk about it, it means talking about the ups, the downs, and the struggles of your life. Don’t just post the highlight real — tell us about your problems, too.
This is a message I can totally get on board with. I really believe that chasing your dreams is hard when you look around and you’re surrounded only by people who are incredibly successful — or, crucially, who appear to be very successful. But I don’t think this message is being taken in good faith.
I think what people are posting is a carefully curated, somewhat staged version of their reality, and calling it authentic for the followers.
My relationship with social media is constantly evolving.
When I first started browsing Instagram and reading blog posts, I was immediately drawn to the hyper-successful.
I was attracted by their effortless, easy-breezy-beautiful realities. Their gorgeous travel snaps, their beautiful, delicious hand-cooked meals, their bronzed, slim bodies.
Everything these people touched turned to gold. All the things they tried, they succeeded in. And because I so desperately wanted to believe that was possible, that I too could reach that pinnacle of fame and fortune without exerting myself, I went deep into the rabbit hole of trying to emulate their success.
So I tried to copy their habits, their tones, their lives. I tried to be effortlessly beautiful. When I couldn’t keep it up, I took it as a personal failure.
There was a myth, in social media, that if you opened up and let people know that you were trying hard, they’d no longer look up to you. I bought into that fully. As a consequence, I didn’t understand that these people were like ducks: calm and serene on the surface, but frantically paddling where I couldn’t see. I believed that to try hard was to fail.
Eventually, the parade of perfect lives left a bitter taste in my mouth. I started seeking out different, more diverse voices that spoke openly about their triumphs and their failures. People spoke about their methods, what worked, what didn’t, what they sought out to be happy. And for a while, it got better.
Fake it till you make it?
The pressure I was feeling to post a picture-perfect lifestyle decreased, a lot. I started feeling more comfortable sharing the more flawed areas. Where I struggled. What I wanted to achieve, and how long I’d been working towards it.
I stopped editing my images so much, and I started posting more about my real experiences, in life and on social media. My candid truth. I expressed my reality as best as I could.
But you know what I noticed? It was all still staged. I would try to post an actual candid, unstaged picture, but I couldn’t bring myself to reveal any flaws.
So I said to myself that I’d just pretend to be authentic until I felt comfortable enough being genuinely authentic.
Everything I post is “authentic,” and that’s the problem.
Even though all my pictures and captions were real, there was an unacknowledged space between those experiences where most of my life was, that I didn’t talk about.
If I put up a #nomakeupselfie, you can guarantee it had good lighting, I was angling my face as best as I could, and I’d freshly moisturized. If I put up a candid snap of me having fun on a tree swing, you can bet I’d made my partner take 10 or 15 and picked the best one. I was always on the lookout for an aesthetically-pleasing plate of food, and chose independent coffee shops over chains so I could smugly tag them in my posts.
I was actually doing all those things, but there was a question of whether I would have, had I not been on Instagram. Was I not curating the experiences of my life, still?
You know why I did that? Because as much as people profess to like authenticity, I don’t think it’s true. Looking at all the most successful Instagram accounts, you’ll notice, even if they’re the most real they can be, they’re all very attractive, mostly thin, obviously wealthy and privileged people.
We might like it on occasion if they give us the illusion of “letting us in” by confessing that they get a zit sometimes, but we prefer that the majority of their highlight reel remains, well, highlights. And we prefer to only show the highlights of our own lives, too.
Learning true authenticity is hard.
I don’t like exposing myself. None of us do. It opens us up to criticism, negative comments, rejection. On a visual medium like Instagram, it’s doubly hard because we’re so driven by what we see. Our brains like pretty, symmetrical, well-lit things.
But honestly, it was harder to be fake-authentic than it was to be totally fake. When I was posting pictures where I tried to be true to myself, but still stick to my Instagram aesthetic, I felt like I was balancing on the narrowest of tightropes: be visually pleasing, but still real. Be relatable to your followers, but aspirational, too.
It makes me uncomfortable when others expose their flaws. I don’t like seeing successful people admit that they struggle, deep down, because on some level I want them to be my superhero role models who never falter.
I said my relationship with social media is constantly evolving, and I expect it always will. It’s hard to pin down how it affects my mental health. It’s a learning curve that changes as I grow older with social media.
I don’t know if Instagram will ever be full of people sharing an honest, completely open story of their lives. I think most folks will always curate it, to some degree, because they’ve been told over and over again that what their followers want is a very carefully selected version of honesty. Be real, but only if your reality is beautiful.
What I’ve learned is that even if I don’t like to see this kind of realness, it’s good for me. I may prefer the flawless, effortless perfection, but it’s better for my mental health to be exposed to a range of sources, voices, and journeys. It’s time for me to seek them out.