When I open Instagram, I see photos of other girls who look like me – and it makes me smile. Before carefully curating my feed, it wasn’t such as positive experience.
Instagram is the app many of us hate to love. I personally can’t upload a picture without looking over it several times, thinking “how does my body look in this?”, “will this get me many likes?”, “what will people think of my face in this?”.
And as perfection has become the standard, body issues amongst young women have also become the norm. Negative body image, eating disorders and low self-esteem have all been linked to social media use.
Overall I’m pretty confident in the way I look, but over the years Instagram has made me question my beauty. I would often ‘compare and despair’ with influencers because I didn’t look like them. Most of the influencers I followed all looked and dressed the same – long hair, preppy fast fashion, with teeny tiny bags.
It made me rethink the way I looked and dressed. I started to dress like the people I followed, but I didn’t feel happy doing so. In fact, I felt more anxious when I was planning outfits because I felt pressure to look a certain way.
So, I decided to unfollow and mute several influencers as a way of finding my own personal style. And this eventually led to me cutting my hair.
Going for the chop was pretty revolutionary. I started to let go of how I should look and started to experiment more with different styles.
Today, I follow a lot of other girls with short hair, and it’s allowed me to see myself rather than trying to see influencers in me. Others have gone one step further, curating their Instagram feeds so they almost exclusively follow people who share their dress size.
Michaela Lawson, a 27-year-old who is the founder of the Prosperity Project, discovered a noticeable difference within herself when she started following influencers the same size as her.
Growing up, Lawson’s friends were really explicit about their weight issues but she didn’t think that applied to her. It wasn’t until she got older that she realised how her environment affected her relationship with her weight.
“I went to school with very typical skinny white girls who all had thigh gaps. I always felt at that age that I wasn’t good enough but it wasn’t an explicit thought,” she says.
“When I was 17 I remember I had this boyfriend and one day his mum called me ‘thick’ and I took it really badly. My boyfriend and mum saw being thick as a good thing, but I saw it as an insult because of the beauty standards I grew up with.”
As she became more active on Instagram she became more conscious about the way she looked. “I was following all these people and seeing what I didn’t know at the time were filtered and overly edited pictures. I was looking at their pictures and comparing myself,” she says.
“Does my face look like this? Are my legs long enough? I definitely think it had a significant impact on the way that I viewed things and every picture I posted went through major scrutiny before I uploaded them.”
Her relationship with the online space made her think she couldn’t wear specific clothing items. “They were so many things I felt like I couldn’t wear like, cropped t-shirts, mom jeans, a-line skirts,” she says. “I just didn’t think these things suited me.”
After speaking to a few friends, she discovered that they’d been curating their Instagram feeds and decided to give it a try. “I kind of went through a phase of just unfollowing influencers so that most of the people on my feed were my friends. But it’s actually TikTok that changed everything for me,” she says. “I was seeing more women my size dressing really well and I really wanted to kind of imitate that.”
This was similar for 32-year-old producer Afsa* from Uganda, who says she used to follow a lot of white women on social media because they were the biggest influencers.
“When I was looking for outfit ideas on Pinterest the images that would always pop up were white women. So basically for the longest time I tried to shop like them and expected to look to look like them, but that wasn’t happening so I started to hate my body and clothes,” she says.
“My self-esteem tanked. I didn’t realise that the reason the clothes fit differently was because as I was a Black girl who wasn’t a size 0, so naturally clothes fit and look differently on me.”
Faith, a 21-year-old recruitment consultant from Birmingham, also realised following certain influencers was making her insecure.
“I was following seemingly perfect girls with a perfect life. They had loads of money, clothes, friends,” she says. “It made me insecure because I was nothing like them, because everything they were posting was so aesthetically pleasing and beautiful I started to view them as the standard for beauty, so the model look with the slender frame, [and a] tiny petite ski slope nose.”
Faith made the decision to stop using heat on her hair so she started following influencers who had the same hair texture as her – and everything changed for the better.
“I needed some inspiration for natural hairstyles and I started discovering so many influencers of colour who share my full lips and wide nose,” she says. “Their content shifted my own beauty standards.”
Since curating her feed, Lawson has noticed a huge difference with the way she sees herself. Previously, she used to find it difficult to buy jeans that fit. She thought that specific brands didn’t cater for people like her.
“But I realised that’s actually not true and it was actually just the things I was seeing online that made me feel that,” she says. “I thought I looked bad in mom jeans because they didn’t look the same way they did on other girls online.”
When she started following people who were a similar size to her, she stepped out of her comfort zone and bought clothes she wouldn’t normally buy.
“I went to H&M and found these really nice leather trousers. Never in a million years would I have thought I’d have leather trousers in my wardrobe,” Lawson says.
She’s also found that curating her own feed has enhanced her personal style and boosted her confidence. “I don’t feel restricted with what I want to wear as previously I’d tell myself I can only wear certain items when I lose weight, but I don’t feel that pressure any more,” she says.
Lawson advises anyone to unfollow people who make them feel uncomfortable within themselves, saying: “We should all try to follow less influencers and more people who look like us.”
*Some interviewees chose not to share their surnames