Whether through Instagram DM or during casual conversations with friends, I am always asked about how being an influencer affects my self-esteem. Does it make me more insecure? Does it empower me? Do I feel like I’m enough, or never enough?
It’s very hard to answer that question because I feel like I’d have to say both “yes” and “no.” Sharing my insecurities candidly and being open about my self-esteem struggles on social media is in a way, very cathartic when I receive endless messages and emails from people who say they can relate. Through that, I think that my transparency can be empowering to know that I’m shedding the light on the body issues that women deal with trying to achieve society’s impossible standard of beauty.
But every so often, social media does manage to rear its ugly head on me and my mental health. And that’s something I wanted to talk about in honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Last year I partnered with NEDA to share my story about my 10-year battle with an eating disorder, but for this year’s post I wanted to discuss how social media has impacted my body image as an influencer.
At the beginning of 2019, I made a vow to myself to start practicing what I preach about adopting a positive body image. That meant no more unrealistic “Photoshopping” of my images, which I gradually started to do more and more of as a result of trying to keep up with the “it-girls” on Instagram. 2018 was a rough time for me and my self-esteem because I was going through some sort of identity crisis.
When I first started my blog, I wanted my online home to be a safe space for me as well as others to openly share their issues with self-worth to encourage their healing. I preached that women do not need overpriced materialistic possessions or a tiny waist to feel powerful, successful, sexy, or beautiful. I shared images of myself with my favorite outfits of the moment and was genuinely proud of the person I was. The minimal editing, styling, and posing in these photos portrayed who I was in real life very accurately. My photos were very honest. They were very real.
As I began focusing on my Instagram presence I started feeling uneasy and very insecure about my online image. Many influencers I looked up to were a size XS, had flawless skin, microbladed brows, lash extensions, hair extensions, met with personal trainers frequently and had no issues flaunting their bikini bodies in the dead of winter. I began to push myself towards the goal of looking just like them. I thought, “if I look as cute as they do, then no doubt I’d get more sponsored work and better-paying opportunities as an influencer, right?”
Ironically, the harder I tried to look like them, the “uglier” I felt, both on the inside and out. There was a certain point during last year where I was so unhappy with myself that I couldn’t even bring to look at myself in a full-length mirror because I was so ashamed. I was wearing so much more makeup, upping the ante on my skincare regimen, crash dieting, wearing more elaborate outfits, but somehow I just didn’t think I was beautiful anymore. I didn’t think I was beautiful because I lost sight of who I was.
I immersed myself in work to avoid human interaction or staring at myself in a mirror. I was so depressed that I didn’t even want to go and hang out with my friends anymore. If I left the house, it was for a quick run to the store in my pajamas, looking completely disheveled because I felt like even if I took the time to look presentable I’d still be “ugly.”
Eventually, I got to a point where I was constantly sleep-deprived, my back was hurting from sitting in front of the computer all day without taking breaks, and my stomach hurt from either hunger or from being way too full. Emotional eating became a regular occurrence and I wound up gaining a significant amount of weight as a result. I eventually relapsed and began forcing myself to throw up again. And I have to admit, having a history of bulimia along with having previous relapses, I felt that I’d taken a step backward in my recovery.
At first, I did not even want to share this so publicly online because I felt it was important to share responsibly and not indirectly point others toward this path, but I think it’s also just as important to be forthcoming about my healing process. The reality of having body dysmorphia or an eating disorder is that you don’t just wake up overnight and you’re suddenly better again. It takes work, patience, and sometimes involves relapses. But with every relapse comes a very valuable learning lesson.
Mine, in this case, was this: recovery, whether from an eating disorder or from unhealthy self-esteem, is not about “being fine forever from this point forward.”
It’s about self-acceptance. Acknowledging both your imperfections and your mistakes, as well as the fact that you’re genuinely working on it.
The truth is, no matter how “okay” you are, you will always have days where you may feel like you’re just not good enough. There will be one day where you scroll through your Instagram feed, see someone you admire, and wish for a split second that you were them. But recovery isn’t being completely devoid of these feelings – in fact, not having those feelings is not realistic at all, and can, in my own experience, make you beat yourself up even more during the times that you do have those thoughts.
Recovery is about acknowledging those feelings, and then accepting that although you are not that person, you are still wonderful the way you are.
It’s learning to say, “Yes, I don’t look like that person, because I am not that person. I am me and I can’t change that. But why would I want to be them when I can be me? I’m pretty cool.”
It’s learning to say, “I must learn to love the person I am, because I’m going to be this person for the rest of my life, so why not make this an enjoyable life?”
It’s learning to say, “Yes, she is beautiful. But so am I.”
As cheesy and as straightforward as that is, we may already know this, but it’s the idea of fully accepting it that becomes the difference.
When I became more aware of my self-inflicted emotional wounds, I started to audit my social media feeds and unfollow accounts that were not serving as a positive influence on me. Being inundated with photos of cute girls scantily-clad in bikinis in the Maldives promoting silly weight loss teas (that really just make you poop uncontrollably, by the way) doesn’t really serve me, and I don’t think it really serves anyone, to be honest. Beyond the pretty photo consisting of carefully orchestrated angles and meticulous editing, there is really nothing of value.
So I hit unfollow on a lot of accounts, and honestly, I felt so much more comfortable in my own skin. Just like that, there was no more pressure to be someone I wasn’t.
The more I tried to shove myself into a mold that was specifically for someone else, the less I was able to see the beauty that made me exactly who I am. The truth is that I am not an XS, ultra-petite, “flawless” it-girl on Instagram (and I don’t even think that they are flawless in real life for that matter, either), and I will never be. But I remembered that when I was in remission I was genuinely happy with what I saw in the mirror – a curvy, short Asian girl with a slightly lazy eye and some crooked teeth. I dressed the way I wanted to dress, not just because I saw an outfit on Instagram. I wore my hair the way I wanted to, not just because a certain hair cut or color was trending online.
I’ve learned that even such a thing as dressing for others (as I did on Instagram) can make a person unhappy with themselves. Sure, you may not have a controlling partner who wants you to do your hair a certain way or dress a certain way, but what we see on social media has the potential to be equally as destructive to our self-identity and image. In the world of today we spend an average of more than 11 hours a day on social media – imagine how much we may be unintentionally feeding ourselves with unrealistic images of how we are supposed to look like! How many times per day do we look at our phones and feel like our body isn’t thin/thick/strong/dainty enough, or the job title that we have isn’t fancy enough, or the car that we have isn’t new enough, or that our partner isn’t romantic enough?
Although social media does have its moments of bringing the world together, I strongly believe that who I chose to follow and what I chose to watch or read on social media was the largest contributing factor of my relapse. But after some reflection I was lucky enough to identify the cause and work on a sustainable solution for myself: less screen time, more fulfilling and healthy habits (ie. frequent breaks, *enjoyable* exercise, getting enough sleep), editing my photos a LOT less (touching up some blemishes vs. giving myself Photoshop plastic surgery), and generally, just being kind to myself.
After a period of grief and reflection I finally found the energy and newfound motivation to take baby steps toward rebuilding my self-esteem. And by baby steps, I mean baby steps. I forced myself to get out of bed, open up the curtains to let some sunlight in, make my bed, brush my hair, brush my teeth, and change out of my pajamas! Even the littlest of things made such a difference to my mood. Eventually I started adding onto my wellness “to-do” list such as make myself a hot cup of tea, stretch, do a quick 10-minute workout to get my blood flowing, and fix myself a healthy breakfast while indulging in one episode of a TV show.
Before I realized it, I created a morning ritual that was solely based on making myself feel happy and setting a positive mood for the day. Last year I didn’t have a morning ritual – I’d literally roll out of bed and plop in front of my computer to work.
It seems like the simplest thing, but trust me, the little things do count, and they will set you back on the right path of feeling better about yourself. Having a healthier body image starts with a healthier self-esteem and protecting your mental health, and you can’t accomplish that unless you treat yourself with love and the idea that you are worthy of being taken care of.
Put yourself first. Don’t worry about what’s going on in social media. Instagram is just a highlight reel of the best moments in people’s lives; it is not an accurate depiction of their day-to-day living. Focus on building yourself and your life the way you want it to be, one day at a time. You will get there. Trust in the process.