This piece purposefully uses gender-neutral language. Learn more about how you can incorporate gender-neutral language into your writing here. Happy Pride Month!
Flawless photos of coffee. Mostly white, 20 somethings. Lots of cool murals and dogs with cash money. Blogs in Bermuda and detox tea ads. These are a few of my #favoritethings.
While this might sound like a sad version of that song from the Sound of Music, It’s just the reality of modern Instagram. Or at least, it can be if you're not careful. The reality is that Instagram can be a powerful tool to make people feel empowered about their own bodies. We just have to make the choice to do so, and sometimes it takes a moment of realization.
For me, it took me a while to realize what was happening to my feed. I didn’t actually mind it and even liked it at times. Most of the people I followed were traditionally pretty — reasonably thin and seemingly in shape. I didn’t think a lot about it because that’s what I’d seen my whole life, but they really started sinking into my timeline during a period where I was trying to quickly gain a lot of followers. After starting a blog to follow my health care journey, I joined a couple of Instagram engagement groups and started paying attention to my account like an influencer. But once I got to about 2,000 followers, I stopped paying attention. I didn’t feel the need to grow the account bigger than that — I felt like I’d gotten my message into the world and if someone wanted to learn about bone marrow transplants, they likely would because of the hashtags I’d used. But who I followed during that period stayed for a lot longer. Some of them were accounts with simply unimpressive content, but most of them were mommy bloggers and Influencers. People that I would never typically follow, but quickly became used to seeing on my timeline.
Then, there was my eating disorder, which had been sneaking up on me in various ways for a couple of months. I kept wondering to myself why it was suddenly so vicious again — I thought that I was doing better. I was running and working out, maintaining a healthy weight, and even eating better than I ever had. But after scrolling through my Instagram feed one night after a particularly bad day of restricting calories, something clicked. If all I ever saw online was a particular image of wellness and diet culture, then, of course, I was going to apply that to myself. Not purposefully, we never really do, but it made sense to me that all of these images were rewiring my brain to think a certain way about things. And while it certainly wasn’t Instagram’s fault that I was restricting my calories, it definitely wasn’t helping and was probably making it much worse.
I also realized that I rarely thought about other people’s bodies, even online, in the way that I thought about my own. When I was with a friend or scrolling my feed, I’d never actually asked myself how much a person weighed nor would I ever ask. I mean, yes, I will say that I have thought it before in extreme instances — but most of the time I wasn’t thinking about that at all. I was thinking about me. And most of the people online that I found really attractive we’re actually all that skinny and fit — most of them actually had a lot of curves but were in reasonable shape. They were healthy and they looked good because of it.
That’s when I started to clean out who I follow online. I made rules for myself about who and what I would follow, why I was following them, and how I would interact with the account. I decided that unless I personally knew someone, had spoken to them online, or supported their cause I wasn’t going to follow. If an account was trying to sell me something, especially fitness related, I would ask myself if it contributed to my body image issues. If I felt like it did, then it was no.
Today, my news feed on Instagram is a well-curated space and I do think it’s had a positive impact on my body image issues, especially since I’ve started making an effort to only follow people on Instagram that plus sized bodies. Most of the people on my timeline aren’t a size 0 in an attempt to sensitize myself to how people in the real world actually look. That’s not to say that I won’t follow a smaller sized people on Instagram, they just have to have content that I’m interested in rather than a cute aesthetic. They can’t just be pretty, and if at any time I find myself comparing myself to them in an unhealthy way, it’s an immediate unfollow.
I don’t see this as ‘wrong’ or discriminating against certain body types. For me, it’s about giving bodies that have traditionally been seen as ‘bad’ a leg up and new space to be seen. In the same way that we have to learn to pass the mic to minority communities, it’s important to target different kinds of bodies that aren’t traditionally given the space to speak about their experiences extra exposure. Often if you don’t seek images that portray different bodies in a positive light, you just won’t see them at all. It has nothing to do with them not existing or wanting to be heard; it’s that no one has ever given them the microphone or the resources.
That’s not to say that American culture isn’t changing in some ways. When American Eagle put out their first diverse campaign for #AerieReal in the summer of 2018 it was a big moment for me. I remember seeing the campaign and literally just bursting into tears because I felt like somebody had actually seen me. As someone with a chronic illness, who was literally sitting in the hospital getting a bone marrow transplant, it was beyond meaningful to see myself represented. And this past year, other brands have done the same. Nike recently started putting clothes on plus-sized mannequins and fitness brands like Girlfriend and Outdoor Voices are promoting other kinds of body types. Actress Jameela Jamil has been an especially potent advocate for body positivity and has become someone that I greatly admire for her openness about struggles with eating and the dangers of diet teas. Even Victoria’s Secret, the once queen of the lingerie industry, has taken some well-deserved heat for their opinions on ‘plus-sized’ models.
But sometimes we do still have to push to be inclusive. We have to purposefully include bodies that are multiracial or not the model standard and that’s perfectly okay to do. When we seek out diversity, we’re normalizing it and giving it a chance to thrive until it becomes the new normal. Perhaps someday it can be, but we have to be purposeful about it in the beginning. This is a good start.