I used to love Instagram because it gave me a sneak peek into the lives of the rich and the famous. I liked peering into lives that were so different from mine, feeling like I was right there with these celebrities as they boarded a private jet or walked the red carpet. I used to follow everyone you “should” follow: the Kardashians, Bella and Gigi Hadid, Blake Lively — Hollywood’s elite. These people live lavish lives, full of Ferraris and perfect hair extensions.
But while I enjoyed this access, I realized that looking at these pictures also made me feel bad about myself. On a random Tuesday morning, as I ate toast over my laptop in bed and tried not to get crumbs stuck in my keyboard, I’d see Kylie Jenner on a yacht in the Mediterranean. I felt weighed down.
It wasn’t just their comparatively wild lives that made me feel bad about my own, but also what I came to realize is the central problem of Instagram: We tend to compare ourselves to the images of people we elect to follow. I realized that I was immediately, physically comparing myself to every person I looked at. Bikini shots and thigh brows flooded my newsfeed, as did the comments that trailed below them: “You are so skinny!”; “I want your body”; “I wish I looked like you!”
For years, I compared myself to every woman I passed on the street: Were they thinner than me? Were they prettier than me? Were they better than me in any other way? And I’m hardly the only one who has. Women are taught that we must compare ourselves — our intelligence, beauty, and thinness — to everyone we meet. This phenomenon does not only affect women. Men compare themselves to others, too, though usually in different ways: They’re taught to be the strongest, the toughest, and the least emotional person in the room. Various social interactions, whether online or in person, teach all of us we must try to constantly measure up to others.
I remember comparing my body to every single woman I passed on campus during my freshman year of college. Late at night, I would stalk people in my class on social media. Their lives looked better than mine both in person and online (meaning, I perceived them as thinner and prettier), so I believed that they were happier than me. While I was depressed and lonely, struggling with bulimia and making friends, it seemed as though their transition to college didn’t faze them at all.
Studies have shown that users frequently feel jealousy, anxiety, and depression when they compare themselves to others on social media sites like Facebook. The social comparison that would otherwise be made in a split-second interaction can potentially be frozen and extended for hours on end. What is actually just a glimpse into someone else’s supposed reality haunts us late at night.
I believe that this phenomenon is evident on Instagram, too. But while we compare ourselves to our “friends” on Facebook, we intentionally follow many people we admire from a distance on Instagram. Even the word used for this relationship — “follow” — illustrates the hierarchy of this relationship. Viewers are positioned in a place of reverence to a de facto “leader,” rather than in a relationship of understanding, camaraderie, or equality.
We are not just taught that we should relate to ourselves and others through comparison, but also that the whole point of comparing ourselves to others is to try to become them. We can’t just admire somebody else’s body, hair, smile, or possessions and still be ourselves — we have to want the things they are and try to achieve them. But this leaves us all feeling empty and broken: We’re never good enough because we can never really be the people to whom we compare ourselves — our so-called “leaders” — who we arbitrarily decide are better than us.
So, a couple years ago, I taught myself to look in the mirror and refuse to judge. I worked hard on remaining neutral, and this neutrality has helped me discover the things I like about myself that have nothing to do with my appearance. Instead of tearing myself apart in front of the mirror, I was forced to relate to myself in a new and different way. Whenever any type of judgment creeped into my thoughts, I consciously had to stop them. It took a lot time and energy to actively stop negative thoughts in their tracks, but I no longer felt self-conscious when I laughed so hard that I snorted in a room full of strangers. I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind even if other people in the room didn’t agree with me. In fact, I stopped thinking about my body almost completely. Removing the constant haze of self-consciousness offered a certain amount of freedom in my body: I wasn’t afraid to take up space anymore.
It took years to undo the damage of constant comparison. Given all this effort, I had to ask myself: Why was I continuing to go on Instagram, where everyone was comparing themselves to things that are unattainable and unnecessary, and not even things we necessarily want?
Rather than give up Instagram altogether, I decided to reinvent my feed. I realized that instead of using the platform in a way that fed into a toxic culture of comparison, I could use it to help my ongoing mission to achieve self-acceptance. I unfollowed people who supported “thinspirational” messages or made me feel bad about myself for any reason. Instead, I began to seek out accounts that expanded and changed my worldview. I started to follow women who reflect the world I actually live in — a world full of people who do not abide by the Eurocentric beauty standard idealizing thinness and whiteness that the media continues to shove down our throats, a world full of women and men of all different sizes and ethnicities.
My feed now demonstrates this beautiful diversity. I follow people to whom I can’t compare myself because we are so different — I follow women like Nadia Aboulhson, Ashley Graham, Chantelle Winnie, Jillian Mercado, and Denise Bidot. And I follow Tess Munster and Naomi Shimada, who have had a considerable impact on how I view myself.
Tess Munster is an American body positive plus-size model who created #effyourbeautystandards, which has inspired men and women around the globe to embrace their natural beauty. In addition to encouraging this attitude among others, she’s also encouraging the mainstream modeling agency to change — and she recently became the largest plus-size model to be signed to a mainstream modeling agency.
I was introduced to Naomi Shimada through her interview on “StyleLikeU: What’s Underneath Project,” which asks women to discuss their relationship with their body and their style as they undress, revealing the person underneath. She is a writer, model, and activist who constantly questions beauty standards in the fashion industry and tackles hard questions head-on while wearing neon colors and a smile on her face.
These women don’t passively display their lives, waiting for sponsors or approval of fans, but actively choose to let their work and lifestyles reflect their attitude: They share themselves being shamelessly, unapologetically, and confidently themselves. This is evident just from their photos — in which they laugh with reckless abandon and aren’t afraid to post shots in which their thighs touch — as well as in the meaningful events and instances they are often depicting, where they are actively using their voices to create change. That makes them even more beautiful and admirable to me.
What’s more, their refusal to compare themselves to anyone — their complete self-acceptance — has inspired me to continue to fully accept myself and, in turn, accept other people as they are. Not only do they celebrate their physical beauty by posting images of themselves, but their use of image-based platforms to ultimately spread their words and actions (most notably in Munster’s and Shimada’s cases) represent that they’re shaking up the passive mold women have been trapped in for years.
Ultimately, these women have taught me that I don’t have to knock myself down to make room for others. Another woman’s beauty does not negate mine. These women have taught me how to fearlessly be myself and to realize that nothing is more beautiful than wholeheartedly accepting and liking yourself — and boldly showing the world that you do.
Want to be an MTV Founders contributor? Send your full name, age, and pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.