I have a disdain for pictures taken of myself; it wasn’t always like this. In high school, photos preceded life itself. At music festivals, homecoming, a Saturday afternoon in the park, the goal of the day was to capture it digitally, and over my teenage years, I constructed myself on Instagram. Pretty pink dresses and pancake lunches. Road trips up to west Texas and bikini-clad lake afternoons. The sinking sun hitting my cheekbones at the right angle, and the colors of a photo precisely manipulated. I projected a version of myself into the digital world that was exactly who I wanted to be: permanently blissful, accomplished, and beautiful.
Others before me have lamented the schism between what we put on social media and experience in real life. However, Instagram did not merely exist outside of myself. From the time I installed the app at thirteen, it slowly encroached out of the digital ether and into my worldview. Looking back, I feel the peculiar embarrassment of having been a teenage girl with teenage girl concerns, but the lives and concerns of teenage girls are often dismissed as trivial things, and if I could tell myself at thirteen what I know now, I would.
This is what I would say or rather ask: can you live life and seek to frame it at the same time?
Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage proposes that the moment a child recognizes herself in the mirror, she is presented with a problem. In the mirror, she sees a whole person, and this wholeness delights her, but she feels fractured internally, utterly unlike her image in the mirror. She will grapple with this irreconcilable realization for the rest of her life, vainly aspiring for the unified self, the “ideal-I,” that supposedly is her.
It is helpful for me to view my experience growing up with Instagram through a Lacanian lens. In effect, I constructed my own mirror. This agency provided me with the illusion of unity—after all, I was the person in the photos—but ultimately enkindled my feeling of fraudulence in light of real life’s messiness. Building up the “aesthetic” of one’s page, that is one’s likeness in the mirror, was a common conversation to have with other girls. We acknowledged our power over how we presented ourselves to the world, and how through this ability, we could curate an identity. There was one ambition that pervaded our efforts; we approached it with bashfulness sodden with shame. It incited the green stickiness of envy when looking at other people’s pages and an unspoken desire when creating one’s own: beauty.
The female desire for beauty is both shameful and accepted. From the time they are waddling toddlers, girls are complimented on their looks, and, from then on, they know their physical beauty is something valued and perhaps even needed. However, girls’ ensuing interest in beauty—activities such as makeup, shopping, taking selfies— are belittled; for valuing what others have told them to value, they are called vain. To quote a Gen Z anthem, this is the paradox of beauty: “you don’t know you’re beautiful, and that’s what makes you beautiful.”
I am working to unravel my shame for desiring beauty, for it was something forced onto me, and this unraveling involves understanding how Instagram impacted my view of the matter. Consider this banal observation: the pictures worth posting—that is worth asserting as part of one’s identity—are the photos in which one looks best. Instagram legitimizes beauty as an object of value. People passively accept the prizing of beauty, and this idolization feeds unrealistic beauty expectations. Once limited to models in magazines, now anyone can edit their body and face using Facetune. The resulting person in the photo is an ideal-I so far from oneself that the digital mirror scarcely resembles the mirror in real life.
Furthermore, the pervasive cultures of “body positivity” and “glowing-up” on Instagram, while well-intentioned, both ultimately perpetuates toxic ideas of beauty. For these trends, despite attempting to widen the definition of physical beauty, still views physical appearance as something inherently valuable. But why should I prize beauty? Why must I be beautiful to feel okay? And on the flip side: what is it about being ugly that people fear? If I am ugly, is my life not just as worthy of being lived as that of someone beautiful?
To these questions I propose an unconventional sentiment: we need a shift from body positivity to body neutrality. In order to create a truly healthy culture around physical appearance, we need to stop caring so much about it.
In the meantime, Instagram will continue to legitimize the clout beauty possesses in our culture. Beauty’s hold on girls is far from harmless; Dr. Renee Engelen, in her book Beauty Sick, asserts that the time and energy spent on beauty is time stolen from other pursuits. My friends and I spent countless hours taking, choosing, and editing photos—on what other projects could I have spent that energy? This time and energy is not just that spent on makeup or editing Instagram photos. One of the primary symptoms of beauty sickness is the sense of being watched that girls often feel. This nagging feeling arises from the understanding others judge one on their looks, and it refocuses one out of their lived experience and onto their own body. Beauty steals from life in every instance a girl looks at herself and adjusts her hair in a Zoom call, regrets her decision to not wear concealer when others say she looks under the weather, or tenses her fists as she sees a man walking toward her at night. The awareness of one’s body, which emerges from the gaze of others, is exhausting. It is exhausting to be taken out of oneself. It is exhausting to feel seen.
On Instagram, I continually sought opportunities to affirm my sense of who I was, which included searching for validation of my beauty. But one cannot look at oneself and live through oneself at the same time. Just as self-consciousness focuses one on oneself, having in the back of one’s mind the desire to frame life through pictures prevents full immersion into the reality at hand. Life reduces down to its identity-affirming utility. However, this affirmation is fleeting. As there is always the prospect of more posts, the project of constructing oneself is never finished. Thus, a cycle that feeds Instagram addiction is born. The app provides an identity-satiating sense of wholeness, and posting photos sustains this unity. However, one’s life is never as beautiful as the ideal self that one constructs, and this unbridgeable gap further feeds the cycle. Moreover, viewing the pages of others reinforces the idea that one’s ideal self is attainable. This is a lie. Not only are pictures edited, but the self that one presents is cherry-picked, a two-dimensional representation that always fails to capture the depth and grit of life. It is a self of shadows, flickering on the wall of a cave.
I cannot change the beauty-sick culture I grew up in. But I can recognize how a beauty-centric culture, facilitated through social media, negatively impacted my adolescence and values. I can extend my past self kindness and my current self grace for habits of self-consciousness and vanity. I can begin to live differently.
I deleted Instagram last spring. I decided to delete my account while in Taiwan, throwing rocks into the Pacific on a black sand beach. Cliffs surrounded the cove like a collar. A couple sat damp and half-naked, gazing at one another. The wind chapped my lips and rouged my cheeks, yet all I could think of was that I needed the perfect picture. My urge to capture the moment paled in comparison to the sheer natural beauty around me, and I realized experiencing that beauty with every fiber of my being shot straight at how I wanted to live. I didn’t want any part of my mind cluttered with thoughts of framing the moment. I deleted my Instagram account that night.
Real beauty cannot be captured in a photograph. Beauty is necessarily lived, experiences characterized by their power to make one feel part of life, not taken out of it. It is in my little brother’s laugh and in the sound of flat stones striking falling ocean waves. It is in song. I am reminded of a bridge in one of my favorites: “And when I grow up, I’m gonna look up / From my phone and see my life.” Life is out here; I am now leaving to live it.