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Do We Have to Share our Darkest Moments on Social Media to be Authentic?

“Instagram makes us sad now. Surveys have found it to be the worst social media platform for mental health,” writer Carina Chocano wrote in a recent article for Vanity Fair, which focused on influencers living in Byron Bay. At the beginning of the article, the question the writer posed was this: “From the looks of Instagram, Courtney Adamo and the surfing mamas of Byron Bay are living the dream. Can it be real?”

The term “living the dream” bothers me greatly. Last time I checked, no one with young children is living the dream. Unless that is, their children are well-behaved robots and they’re married to Bradley Cooper. While the article focused on Byron Bay specifically – and in quite an unfair light – it opens up a wider discussion about social media and the role it is playing in our lives and how we interact with each other. It also opens up a discussion about motherhood and the immense judgement we put on one another. 

If you Google Instagram, here’s what comes up: “A simple, fun & creative way to capture, edit & share photos, videos & messages with friends & family.”

In the beginning, Instagram was a place to post pretty images. But then they got too pretty and started to annoy us. How can they look that pretty? The comparison crept in. The self-doubt. The feeling that we weren’t good enough. So we turned to the real and raw accounts because they were more relatable.

Instagram is no longer simple either.

There’s a complex algorithm, which keeps changing and if you want to take it seriously and get more followers – which apparently will make you feel more worthy – you need to be glued to your phone. But if you’re glued to your phone, you’ll feel guilty for being on your phone with your kids. 

Can you keep up? I can’t and it’s exhausting.

But I need to keep up because it’s an essential part of our business – and I’m well aware that there are many benefits to the platform. But are we getting too much of a good thing? All good things in life need to be taken in moderation.

In the beginning, Instagram was fun and it broke down the barriers of entry for people wanting to launch their own business and have an instant audience to market to. It began as a visual tool.

Then they added fun filters. But then came the photo editing apps. I remember wondering why some people’s faces looked so flawless… so smooth and a little, odd. Suddenly, we could iron out our wrinkles and nip in our waistline. You’d meet people in person and they’d look nothing like they did on Instagram. Someone introduced me to Facetune and it all made sense. 

It also brought out the worst in people. The age of the selfie began. Self-obsession took over. The narcissists arrived. It became all about likes. We obsessed over likes – even though half of them are fake. Back in May, Instagram began running tests in Canada that hide “likes” from everyone but the owner of an account. “We are testing this because we want your followers to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get,” a spokesman said. I hope for the sake of my children this goes ahead. 

In our new book GRACE MOTHERS Letters To Our Children, the dynamic and inspiring founder of FLOWERBX Whitney Bromberg Hawkins writes to her three children: “Do not look too much at what other people are doing. It is good to have a quick look but then focus on yourself and what you are doing and where you are going. People project perfect lives on their iPhones – don’t buy it… likes on Instagram have nothing to do with likes or popularity in real life, so never confuse the two.” The message? Comparison is a waste of time.

It’s a sentiment echoed by British designer Wiggy Kit. In a recent article, we asked her how she approaches social media with her children: “I am very direct about it. I walk them through Instagram and explain to them that the majority of what they see is actually clever marketing, I teach them that unless they have a product or business to push then to never put yourself out there as an individual like a ‘product’. I am disturbed by how people are now promoting themselves in a way to impress other people and turn their private lives into a commodity for people to consume and pick over. Instagram has turned some pretty level headed people into attention-seeking monsters and for that, I am deeply concerned my girls don’t get drawn into because ‘everyone is doing it’. It is easy to be duped into thinking that this is normal behaviour.”

It’s the “everyone is doing it” part that interests me. Are we actually enjoying Instagram or are we on it because we feel we have to be. Do we actually want to be? Depending on what industry you work in – and I can only comment on the media and fashion industry – if you want to get ahead, you need to be on Instagram. I need to be on Instagram and it’s a platform I’m constantly navigating. 

The British writer and speaker and co-host of the podcast The High Low Pandora Sykes has been very private about her motherhood journey. In a recent interview with GRACE magazine, she said: “I’m also personally not one for doing a big moan on social media. I don’t care if it’s more ‘real’ – to me, it makes no sense to go rant to a load of people I don’t know, versus picking up the phone to a best friend who knows me. Those people aren’t invested in the real ‘you’. I am not saying they don’t care and don’t support you just by following you – which they do – but it would always be an anathema to me, to ask the Internet, for help. I do not trust the Internet. And I just don’t think people need to see that from me when they log on in the morning. They have their own shit to deal with.”

I hear you, Pandora. 

Creative director Amanda Shadforth of hugely successful platform Oracle Fox has also kept her private life exactly that: private. She recently wrote a piece for VOGUE Australia: “I think now people believe sharing means logging on to your social media and talking about the fact that something very personal and hard has happened to you. There definitely is validity in doing that for some people, and if you’re someone who can express something and help others with a difficulty in their lives, then you should be doing that. But I’m not the right person for that.”

She goes on to add: “When I first fell pregnant, there were a few people who said in passing: “Hey, what’s going on here? Are you ashamed?” Of course, I wasn’t, and I would become upset and ask how they got that impression. They would reply: “Well, it kind of looks like you’re ashamed of the fact that you’re a mum.” That was really hurtful because they would comment that everyone else puts up photos of their children online. I wanted to say: “Well if everyone does this, would you follow what they’re doing?”.  

When I first started The Grace Tales, I thought a lot about how much of ‘me’ I wanted to include in the site. I trained as a journalist and my entire career has focused on interviewing other people – not interviewing myself. As an introvert, I don’t like being in front of the camera. And for the most part, my days are spent on my computer or wiping the kitchen bench for the 100th time before collapsing into a heap. Yet, to succeed, you have to put yourself out there. I’ve reconciled myself to this – to build a brand, you have to put your face to it. But how much of my life has to go out? Do you really want to know when my husband and I are fighting? Or I’ve lost it at my kids. Or I feel depressed? Or the things I left out because they were far too personal. I could tell you I’ve had an abortion – which I have – would that make me more real? Or would you judge me? Probably a mix of both. 

We don’t have to share all the hard stuff and we shouldn’t be criticised for choosing not to. 

We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

Yet when you choose to make a career out of a commercial Instagram account which documents your life – when you choose to be a public figure – you leave yourself wide open to curiosity and judgement. People are voyeurs. We want to know the full story – we can’t help ourselves. So as an influencer, there needs to be a sense of acceptance that this will come. You need to be ready for the trolls. You need to be ready for the questions and scrutiny. 

The bigger question is: why do we need women to reveal their hardships to feel secure about ourselves? And why can’t talk about the highs of motherhood or put the spotlight on those joyful moments without being criticised? Why does someone like Courtney Adamo – a busy mother of five – get criticised for having a cleaner? We tell mothers they need support, that it takes a village, yet when they get help, we criticise them. “She has a cleaner” or “she has a nanny” or “she has an au pair”- the insinuation is, “it must be easy for her”. Having help is undeniably a great privilege but here’s one thing I know about motherhood: it’s not easy for anyone.

I remember when The Design Files generously did a story on me when I first launched The Grace Tales. I had my photo taken. I made an effort. It was an honour to be featured on a site I’d followed for so many years. I put on a nice outfit and makeup. All normal things to do if someone is coming to take your picture, only I was a new mother. My daughter was seven months old. I shouldn’t be doing those things. I shouldn’t look nice. I should look exhausted. I should be struggling. I was all of those things – which I talked about in my interview –  but was it that offensive to try and make an effort for a photo? The comments rolled in: “She looks like she cares more about how she looks than she does her child.” Ouch. I can’t remember the rest of them and frankly couldn’t care less, but many of them weren’t nice (in fact, Lucy the editor deleted a few of them). I should have just worn my tracksuit – that would have been more relatable, right? That would have kept the trolls at bay. I’m grateful my husband and real friends jumped online and told them all where to go. 

My view is that Instagram and other social media platforms are what you make them. I love Architectural Digest. I will never live in the houses they photograph, but that doesn’t make me feel bad about myself because I have perspective. I simply love the escapism. I love the stories we shoot for The Grace Tales – we capture the extraordinary love between a mother and her child and I’m grateful for how honest and open women are when we interview them. 

Much like magazine stylists, many women who make a career out of Instagram, use their creativity to style moments of their life into a curated feed, which offers their followers a mix of escapism and inspiration. It’s styled. Remember that. And if you don’t like it, unfollow. As Sarah Berry wrote for the SMH: “Instagram is not and never has been real life.”

For the most part, I love the pretty pictures on Instagram. I love the homes I see. I love discovering new fashion brands and getting styling tips. On my personal account, I mostly share the highlights and I love going back through my feed and looking at images of my girls. I go through weeks where I won’t post a thing because as I mentioned before, I prefer to keep my day-to-day life mostly private. But when I look at Instagram, I also know that the women I see on Instagram have bad days, get PMS, fight with their partners, messy houses, self-doubt, body issues. Some of them share this and some of them don’t. Follow the ones that resonate with you. What you see on Instagram is your choice. You curate your own social media experience.

The answer is clear: love it or hate it, we all need to spend less time looking at other people’s lives and focus on our own. Instagram will never compare to the feeling I get when I spend time with my real friends. When I have real interactions – not online interactions. If you’re stressed out or anxious, you should try meditating instead of peering into other people’s lives before you go to bed. It is addictive and we’re still yet to know the long-term effects of social media. But one thing I can’t forget is this: “Surveys have found it to be the worst social media platform for mental health”. Now, more than ever before, we need to make social media work in a positive way for us.