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All I see on Instagram are perfectly curated images. People with immaculate makeup tilt their faces toward the camera, confident and polished, their pictures edited to have just the right saturation and colour balance. I scroll past incredible works of art, stunning interior decoration and dazzling locations. And I have to remind myself that no, these aren’t the whole picture, and yes, they have been carefully selected to convey a narrative that shows the highlights一the brighter sides一of life. In an age when the line between the real and the virtual is ever more blurry, is it any wonder that we are seeing these cracks in the mirror一glimpses of the boredom, hardship and insecurities on the other side? More and more people online are taking notice that the images, the truths, that we are consuming are not real (or, at the very least, just a part of a person’s reality).
There are forums where these tears in the fabric of glamorous social media reality are put on display一the subreddit Instagram Reality being a noteworthy example. On this subreddit with almost one million members, users submit the most egregious examples of Facetuning and Photoshopping they can find: backgrounds bend to accommodate digitally doctored boobs and butts and slimmed limbs, faces blur and melt to hide wrinkles, pores and blemishes. Spending time on this subreddit makes me laugh sometimes, to see how brazenly people will change their images while still expecting no one to notice that anything is amiss. It also makes me a bit sad, though, to see that so many people are unwilling to post unaltered images of themselves online.
There are a few reasons that I can think of that cause people on Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms to alter images of themselves so drastically: first, the criticism of the largely anonymous user base on these platforms causes people who post their image on those platforms to overcompensate by digitally altering images of themselves, ironically inviting more criticism than they would have otherwise. Second, it gives people who doctor their images a sense of power to control exactly how they look, down to every last detail. This drastic image manipulation is a form of digital plastic surgery that can be just as addictive.
So what does this say about society at large, where our online personas are inextricable extensions of ourselves? It’s a slippery slope: it might start with a filter that makes your selfies more vivid and your skin clearer. Next, you could be slimming your face, enlarging your eyes, and altering your body shape. I admit that I’ve witnessed the intoxicating effects of image doctoring first-hand. After hearing about Snow, I downloaded the selfie app and played around with it a bit. At first I treated it seriously and tried to take a good picture of myself to use as an avatar on Instagram, only to be almost too impressed with the results. The person in the picture had a thinner face, a perfect, clear complexion, brighter eyes and flawless makeup一but she wasn’t me. Realizing my mistake, I made a 180-degree turn and, in the style of comedians (and Monster Factory creators) the McElroy brothers, I maxed out all the effects. Then I snapped a picture, and proceeded, crying with laughter, to admire my alien-eyed, pointy-chinned creation.
I recognize, now, that I could just as easily be one of the people whose picture ended up on Instagram Reality. It’s far too easy to get wrapped up in the world of tweaking your images to fit your personal and cultural beauty standards. Every morning, we see the same face, the same body, in the mirror, and consequently, we can pick out more flaws. We can feel as if we are under a microscope when we post images of ourselves on social media, where flat images of living, breathing, three-dimensional people dictate who we are to other users and browsing onlookers.
Now, more than ever, it’s important to define ourselves with qualities unrelated to physical appearance: compassion, intelligence, competence, generosity and creativity. At a time in history when this can be difficult if not impossible, it’s crucial to get in touch with who we are deep down: What do we value? What story are we telling the world? And if that story is incompatible with who we really are, How can we change that story? Influencers like Megan Jayne Crabbe (@bodyposipanda on Instagram) set an example worth emulating. Crabbe posts pictures of her unaltered face and body, embracing her true appearance, imperfections and all. Sure, this invites some criticism, but the glowing comments she receives far overshadow any detractors. Choosing to post unaltered images of yourself is difficult, but for every person who criticizes you, ten more will be there to encourage you. Accepting your imperfections is a long, challenging process, but worth the work to have self-compassion一self-love一for how you truly look and who you truly are.