In some ways, summer is my least favorite time of the year. Most people love the freedom to do whatever they want, but when I have too much free time I get bored. And when I get bored, I get stalker-y.
For most of this summer (truthfully, for most of the time since I downloaded the app in 2012), I used Instagram as a constant distraction. I idly refreshed my feed every few minutes, looking through the pictures my friends liked to see if anything caught my eye. More recently, I began a mini mission at the back of my head to find quality indie models and follow them, and hopefully get inspired enough to somehow become as beautiful as they were. I also thought that if I found models who looked enough like me, I could feel better about myself because I looked kind of like them.
I must have spent hours a week absorbing pictures of beautiful long-limbed girls with perfect waist-to-hip ratios, flowing ombre hair, and breasts uncannily generous for their weight. How could I ever compare?
I’m not sure how I started this obsession in the first place. Maybe it stemmed from when my ex used to follow dozens of beautiful girls on Instagram like the ones I began to like. When I came out as bisexual, I realized I had nothing to lose by shamelessly following as many gorgeous models as I liked. Maybe this act was some kind of a “f*ck you” to my exes who indirectly made me hate my own body whenever I saw they were checking out other women who I thought were more attractive than I was.
In any case, this obsession began to slowly chip away at my already fragile self-esteem. Spending hours a day looking at models with ‘perfect’ bodies does something to a person’s mind. I carried the weight of feeling imperfect on my shoulders—I spent a lot of time looking at my body in the mirror and criticizing myself for what I perceived as flaws, always comparing myself to the models I could never completely imitate.
In addition to comparing myself to other girls on Instagram, I often compared my life in general to what I saw other people doing through their pictures. This made me feel emptier inside and increased my FOMO—which is the fear of missing out on something or someone more interesting, exciting, or better than what we’re currently doing. This fear leads us to feel like we’re not doing anything productive or special with our lives because we’re comparing it with what we see other people doing on social media sites. I never felt like I was having enough fun at the moment because everyone else seemed to be out living their lives to the fullest, while I was half-watching episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on my couch while scrolling through Instagram on my phone. I’d see one of my friends post a picture of herself lounging on a beach in Rio, a picture of another friend skydiving, or a selfie of a friend posing in front of the Eiffel Tower, and every other imaginable activity that looked more fun than what I was doing at the moment. (By the way, these are all real life examples. I hate my friends and their awesome lives sometimes.)
I sat on the floor of my room one night wondering how I could get myself out of this problem. The solution was easy: get rid of it. I needed to get rid of the toxicity that this stupid app was causing me, and it was literally as easy as pressing a button. I decided right then that I would go a week without it and see how I felt about myself and my life.
The first day was the hardest, but even then it wasn’t too bad. I deleted the app from my phone the night before and signed out on my laptop, which helped me out a lot that day. The impulse to check Instagram came up so many times throughout the day by habit, but instead of feeling mad at myself or desperate to get back on, I found it funny and interesting to see how often the urge resurfaced. Staying away from the app was a small change, but I didn’t feel noticeably displeased with my body at all that day, since I didn’t have the venue to compare myself to anyone. I did notice myself thinking about different models and girls I followed that day, though, and thought it would be a good idea to unfollow all of them if I decided to use the app again.
Around day three, I started bargaining with myself. The mind is a tricky thing, and it tries to reason its way around what you resolve not to do, so it can get back into its comfort zone. I came up with weak reasons to go back on Instagram, like I thought my friend was going to tag me in a picture, and I told myself it would be rude of me not to go on and like it. But really, Instagram etiquette is trivial and I had to be strong against my own mind tricks. This was a small change in my life, but it was actually a big change in my behavior and daily habits, so it was interesting to find out what I’m capable of and how much self-control I could exercise.
By the fourth day, I started to really think about why I was doing this challenge and how bad I felt about my body. I talked through my self-esteem issues with my cousin and a couple of close friends and resolved to do more things with my life that made me happy internally so that I could feel better about how I looked externally too. I decided to do things that empowered me, like writing, exercising for my health more than my looks, and eating better. After this day, it was easier to finish the challenge without the fear of relapsing.
On the last day, I made up a few rules on how I wanted to use Instagram after the challenge so that I wouldn’t get back into my old habits of comparing my body and life to others:
No “stalking.” No looking at who’s following whom, no looking at the Activity page to see what pictures my friends are liking. It’s none of my business and it doesn’t feel good to think about insignificant things like these.
Unfollow all people I don’t know in real life. I just want to use the app to keep up with my family and friends.
Only use the app at far apart intervals, maybe once or twice a week at most. This way I won’t use it as a constant distraction all day and can focus on what’s going on in the present, in real life.
I unfollowed everyone I didn’t know in person (at least 30 people) besides my favorite celebrities, even my super-fave-crush-models (I paused for a second to consider if I really wanted to remove two of them in particular from my life). I felt good. I avoided logging in all day because I was afraid of what it would be like, or if I would reverse all the progress I’d made. But going without something that was such a part of my daily routine taught me that as much as I think I need something in my life, or if I think I have a problem I can’t get rid of, it’s always possible to take small steps to get better. Getting rid of bad habits is a process that takes time, and most especially compassion for yourself. It’s not easy to change something about your life right away, so go easy on yourself if you mess up at first.
Post-challenge, Instagram is a lot less of a problem than it was for me before. I don’t use the app habitually anymore and delete it from my phone sometimes because it’s actually kind of uninteresting for me now. But now, I realize that Instagram wasn’t a problem I needed to work on as much as low self-esteem and jealousy were. Instagram was only a venue for me to compare myself to other people. I could take Instagram out of my life, but I can’t take away the comparisons in real life. Jealousy and insecurities are problems I know I need to work on, and I plan to explore them eventually.
I wrote this post initially as motivation for me to follow through with this mini challenge, but it was difficult for me to publish it because this problem is embarrassing for me. Why would I want all my friends (and strangers who might read my blog) to know how much I let a stupid app affect my life and self-esteem? As embarrassing as it is to admit I have this problem, I know it’s something other people probably struggle with too (to some degree—maybe not as intensely as I experienced it). If you’re going through some kind of emotional stress because of social media, know that you’re not alone. We’re going through uncharted territory by letting social media sites into our lives and their effects on our minds can be troublesome. It’s important to step back from these sites occasionally to make sure we don’t get sucked into them—to put our phones down, and remind ourselves of what we have in real life that makes our lives awesome, without having to share it with everyone online for it to be real.
Here’s a daily log I kept during the experiment, if anyone’s interested in seeing my process.