body image and social media

I don’t remember as much of my early childhood as I’d like to —  though a lot of what I do remember, I owe to photographs. The kind that existed before smartphones, and before digital cameras. The kind that were developed in photo labs and carefully stuck onto the pages of photo albums that now live in year-marked boxes, somewhere in my Dad’s attic. My Mum was a Fleetwood Mac devotee in her twenties, and she’d planned on calling me Rhiannon. As the story goes, when she held me for the first time, I was just ‘too small for such a long name’, and so she changed her mind. There are countless photographs that document my first years, and that’s how I know that by age three, I was a chubby baby, with red rosy cheeks and stubby fingers, and I was happy.

I can’t say for sure that if I had lived a life where social media didn’t exist, I’d be happier, but I can say with confidence that my life would have been easier if I hadn’t become so addicted to it. I’d lost all of my “baby fat” by the time I enrolled in secondary school; it wasn’t a conscious effort, I’d lost it naturally and never thought twice about my weight. It was only during my time at secondary school that I felt the collective pressure on teenage girls to be thin — and this pressure was coming from each other. There were popular girls, all of whom were slim, and there were overweight girls who had things said about them quietly or loudly, depending on who was doing the talking. Everybody had a MySpace profile, and most girls had a BlackBerry, and we used them to take constant photos of ourselves from every possible angle. We had fallen into a trap. We were glued to our devices, and obsessed with our appearances. Most of us hadn’t yet gotten our periods. Until, all of a sudden, we were fourteen year olds, and each social media ‘like’ was a tiny morsel of validation that fed the addiction.

My teenage years were trouble.

I scrutinised each aspect of my appearance so closely that eventually what I saw was alien, just as a word can begin to look false if you’ve been staring at it for too long. I developed an unhealthy relationship with food, finishing half a meal and burying my head beneath my duvet as I attempted to sleep my hunger away. I monitored the space between my thighs — first non-existent, and then existent. I recoiled at any skin I could pinch between my finger and thumb. I considered myself a failure if I couldn’t fit into the smallest size a shop would offer. All the while, I was sharing photos online, photos with filters and flattering lighting. In actuality, I was policing my body, the only one I’ll ever have. The thing that fights against illness, and repairs my bruises and cuts. I was burning down the home I grew up in, and living two lives. Social media had stopped being an enjoyable pastime; instead, it told me what I should look like and who I should be. I preferred who I was on the Internet, but she wasn’t real. Naturally, this led to me not liking who I was in real life. More than that – I wasn’t sure who I was in real life.

By the time I reached twenty-one, I’d lost myself and I was tired. Luckily, I’m a big reader of books and articles, and luckier still, I’d come across some incredibly well written and sobering articles that confronted the facade of social media’s “perfect” lives and bodies. I had read enough of them to have finally accepted it as fact — and that’s why I can say with conviction that with apps like Instagram and Twitter, we have the ability to carefully select and edit our output to the world, and often, that means we’ve refrained from sharing the imperfect parts of our lives with our followers.

That is, until recently.

I’ve noticed a real shift in the message of online voices. I owe a lot of that to my rewarding social media cull (which, by the way, is one of my biggest recommendations to women.) There was no grand build up, just a standard ‘enough is enough’ moment. I had really started coming into my own in my journey of fully accepting myself as a brown woman with a voice. That morning, I’d woken up, boiled the kettle and tapped the Instagram app without really thinking about it. I clicked on my ‘following’ list and somehow I was surprised by what I saw – I scrolled and scrolled. The vast majority were middle to upper class white women, with wardrobes that were constantly growing and suitcases that I doubt were ever completely unpacked, as their next holiday was just around the corner… I don’t consider myself to be a jealous person, but it got to the point where I would sigh when another blonde lady in her early twenties frolicking in the sand would appear on my feed – yet I had made the choice, again and again, to curate a feed full of entirely unattainable and inconceivable lifestyles.

There was a never-ending supply of plastic surgery, designer clothing and avocado on toast, but where were the women of colour? Where were the creators? Where were the women I could relate to? I had to change things. I wanted to be motivated rather than disheartened. I guess it’s that simple. I unfollowed everybody who wasn’t bringing me joy, or inspiring me. I put my phone down almost immediately after my cull. I felt a strange kind of guilt. I had never met hardly the vast majority of the people I had chosen to unfollow, but somehow it still felt shady. It shouldn’t have, of course. We don’t owe strangers anything.

The next morning, I picked up my phone and I felt lighter. Slowly but surely my following count again started rising – this time, though, I was following phenomenal women: hard workers, artists, writers and activists. I had kept the ‘influencers’ that I felt were doing something different, or genuinely roused my interest, and of course, I kept my friends. Post-cull, I thought more about my voice and how I should be using it. I made a promise to myself to be more honest with the online world about the realities of my life, and in turn I was kinder to myself. I no longer felt the crushing weight of trying to be physically and emotionally flawless, because nobody else is — not really.

On this day, I’m twenty-two. My body changes, and so does yours. I don’t measure my waist and I don’t use scales. I still sprout stretch marks and find new freckles. I have a scar on my forearm and a bit of extra weight on my stomach. I am living proof of my experiences, and my height might not have changed since I was eighteen, but I will continue to grow.

Follow Kya on Twitter: @KyaJBuller

Illustration: Cathy Lu