Perfect smiles. Beautiful families. Delicious meals. Gorgeous sunsets.
Scroll through Instagram for even a minute, and you’ll see these bright shining images portraying the highlights of our friends’ lives. Everyone looks so happy. Everyone is eating so well. Everyone’s skin is perfect. Everyone is somehow always on vacation.
As much as we rationally know that these moments are carefully curated, it’s hard to shake it off as an outright lie. Part of it must be true, right? They must at least be marginally happier than I am, and they’re certainly having much more fun, aren’t they?
Instagram is built on capturing the singular best moment from any given experience, and using that convey the status of our whole lives. It’s inherently lacking context, which makes it impossible to tell the whole story. In short, Instagram’s a liar.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Instagram. A lot. I like it enough to have two accounts — one for running and one for cat pics, and both are super fun for me. I enjoy taking pictures of the trails I run, I appreciate having a place to geek out about minutiae of planter fasciitis stretches or favorite Nuun flavors, and I think the platform is a legitimately fun way to connect with likeminded people without all the baggage that comes with Facebook. My feed is filled with action shots of runners or views from spectacular hikes. I see people pushing themselves, and I often find inspiration to push myself a bit more too.
But the line between feeling inspired and feeling inferior is razor thin, and everyone’s line is different. Some may find it motivating to see extremely toned sprinters with six-packs and thigh gaps (and based on the volume of people with lucrative careers as fitness influencers, apparently a lot of people do find this motivating), but I don’t. More often than not, those pictures only make me think about my own untoned stomach and ungapped thighs, and I fall into a downward spiral faster than that sprinter claims she’s running.
Nothing productive comes from ~inspirational~ fitness posts (or #fitspo as the kids say). If looking at pictures of pictures of skinny women truly inspired people to be healthier, we wouldn’t have problems with heart disease or obesity. No matter what any fitness influencer tries to tell you, it will never be that easy. I’ve had bouts with disordered eating since I was a teenager, and I can assure you that pictures of skinny women do not help. They only make it worse.
The only thing that has ever helped is learning to ignore the number on the scale, reminding myself that almost every image is airbrushed, and staying focused on what my body can do rather than what it looks like. This mental shift has been a lifelong practice. Some days I do pretty well. Some days I fail miserably. A lot of my progress has come from friends and therapy and the hard work of unpacking decades of internalized unobtainable beauty standards, but one piece of it is really quite straightforward: unfollow anyone who makes you feel like shit.
Instagram is optional. You don’t have to follow anyone who makes you feel ugly or lazy or worthless. You don’t. It’s totally okay to unfollow that fitness influencer on the fancy bike, or that friend from middle school who is hawking diet pills, or that yogi who looks infuriatingly effortless in the poses that you just can’t get your body into. The internet is negative enough without seeking out more ways to feel bad.
You get to decide who has space in your timeline, and you get to decide what’s best for your mental and physical health. I’m not telling anyone to delete all social media because that’s just not how the world works in 2019. Of course you can (and should) step away from your screen as often as possible, but engaging with people online is an enormous part of how we communicate. All I’m encouraging you to do is be kind to yourself and be honest about what makes you happy.
I’ve gotten rid of any celebrity trainers or influencers, so these days my feed is filled with everyday, normal people. Many of them are working toward a goal, whether that’s a Couch to 5k program, going back to school, keeping their screaming toddlers alive, or training for an ultramarathon. It’s also filled with a lot of cats.
Your feed is your own, so set whatever limits and boundaries you need. Above all, remember to spend as much time living the life you want as you’re spending looking at other people’s presentations of theirs. And if even that’s too stressful, there’s always cat pics.