If you are reading this blog you probably have some sort of online storytelling platform. Whether it’s your own blog, a Twitter, Instagram or Facebook account… if you are sharing words or images online you are part of our digital storytelling generation.
This was a subject of a breakfast event I attended last week, hosted by Editor in Chief of ELLE magazine, Lorraine Candy, and Instagram COO Marne Levine (swoon). I was absolutely honoured to be invited as one of a buzzing group of women who share their stories on everyone’s favourite photo network, Instagram.
I arrived at 8.30 to a busy room of breakfasting Instagrammers. It’s not often I feel out of my comfort zone (erm, probably because I usually go straight from the school run to working from home and back to the school run again) but I did here, and I skulked around the gorgeous groups of impeccably turned out women trying hard not to give off suburban single mum vibes. Yeah, I’m an idiot. This actually turned out to be the friendliest bunch of people I’d been around for ages!
The morning’s panel was to be on the subject of storytelling women: what our role is on Social Media and how we can pave the way for the success of future generations of females. Lorraine Candy began by outlining ELLE’s efforts to get girls coding; having taught myself HTML at 14 this is something I am totally behind. Marne Levine agreed, going on to discuss how important it is to have women in tech and how we can empower girls by introducing them to this arena from a young age (AMEN!). I love this push to get more women in the tech world: it’s always been a penis-heavy space to work in so the more women the better, I say.
The panel then went on to share their own experiences of Instagram, with Jazz O’Hara of The Worldwide Tribe, an incredibly important campaigner for refugees, Rhyannon Styles who is bravely sharing her amazing trans journey with ELLE readers (this woman radiates warmth and beauty), and Ruth Chapman, co-founder of Matches Fashion. Hearing how these women had harnessed the power of online audiences to communicate their messages was really inspirational.
Then it was on the the audience participation segment, and one of the most important questions was asked by Megan, otherwise known as as BodyPosiPanda, who I’d been chatting to earlier that day Her message is clear: to teach young girls through her experiences that their worth doesn’t relate to their weight (she’s a bloody incredible force of nature), and she wanted to know ELLE and Instagram’s view on photoshopping/body image.
Their answers were very PR-able, if not quite right in my view: Lorraine Candy believes young girls are more savvy than we give them credit for and they know when they’re looking at a photoshopped/FaceTuned image. As a mother of a 13 year old she noted this answer was anecdotal – but as a 30 year old I admit to still feeling negative feelings about myself because of others’ seemingly perfect bodies and lives on Instagram. Maybe I feel this way because I didn’t grow up with the comparisons on Instagram that teens experience today? Food for thought, that’s for sure.
Life curation on digital platforms is something I’m very interested in; so often I feel we’re displayed rose-tinted views on popular Instagrammer’s lives, whether it’s via photoshopping, non-disclosure of a sponsored product or trip, or simply not by sharing the whole truth. I understand these aspirational accounts exist because the whole point is that they’re aspirational, they give us something to look up and aspire to. Nobody wants to see photographs of my kitchen table caked in porridge or the piles of laundry I’ve yet to hang: aspirational that is not.
Yet by photoshopping, not disclosing free holidays and portraying a lifestyle that is unreachable to most of us, I feel some popular users are influencing young girls in the way the old photoshopped magazine covers used to. The result is teenagers holding themselves up to a picture of perfection that simply isn’t real or achievable.
This was never more apparent than last week at the gym, when I found myself working out next to a popular health and beauty blogger with nearly 300k followers. I clocked her and went on my phone to check is was actually her – she was at the gym in a full face of make-up and yet still looked nothing like the airbrushed images on her Instagram account. I honestly was so shocked at the difference; she was a beautiful girl but not the perfect Disney Princess she portrayed online. Yet clicking over to her Instagram account you’ll see young girls commenting things like “#lifegoals”, “How are you so beautiful?”, “Why am I not you? You’re amazing!!”
I want to take these girls aside and tell them: you’re not her because she doesn’t exist. This person is a made-up version of perfection.
I used to quietly fume about this, tutting under my breath at those who photoshop in abs and cheekbones that don’t exist. I’d feel dismayed at the jetsetting lifestyle, c/o a PR yet no disclosure or explanation. The effect they have on young people striving for this idealism of beauty is just as harmful as airbrushed images in magazines.
But at this event last week I realised: we’re never going to get anywhere with that attitude.
It’s up to us to change perceptions of beauty, to keep it real, to record life accurately, warts and all. To show how wonderful the world is without FaceTune or PhotoShop. The good things in life are nothing without the bad, the highs wouldn’t feel so high without the lows. “To see the rainbow you must first put up with the rain”, and I can promise you that anything I show you online will be real: sun, rain or rainbow.
The realisation of how powerful our online messages made me realise my own motivations. I have found myself writing quite a lot about Single Parenting, for myself and for The Telegraph, which is obviously something I know a thing or two about. I feel very passionately that as a demographic we aren’t represented well at all; in the media, online… ‘Single Parent’ brings connotations ladened with bad parenting and life failures. I really want to change this. Not just because of how happy my family unit is, but because I know that, had I had more positive Single Parent role models while my ex-husband and I were thinking about splitting up, I would have made that decision much sooner.
I hate to think of the mothers out there who are considering a similar path to me but who feel trapped by the ways they think they’ll be seen by society. It doesn’t have to be that way, and I hope I can go some way to help change that school of thought.
Do you think about your own online story?