Confessions of a reformed ‘fitspo’ Instagrammer

This piece was originally published on ABC’s The Drum in November 2015. As The Drum will no longer exist after this week, I’ve published it here. Have a squiz maybe.

It’s easy to make fun of people on social media, in particular young women. Selfies are widely mocked because how dare people not hate themselves? Just like pop music, as soon as girls and young women begin enjoying something, we are quick to tear them down for it and whatever that “thing” is — whether a selfie or Taylor Swift song — it suddenly becomes uncool.

Last week 19-year-old Australian model and “Instagram celebrity” Essena O’Neill publicly announced she was quitting Instagram, and confessed to most photos being staged, agonisingly edited and carefully chosen. She added that she was paid by certain brands for many posts and that her focus on her appearance had left her with a negative body image.

Critics arrived quickly and loudly, with some saying the entire event was a publicity stunt. Others presumably borrowed lines from punters of the anti-Kardashian camp and moaned about vacuousness. A video she uploaded, visibly distressed and crying, was widely mocked and armchair psychologists either diagnosed her with clinical illness or declared her to be simply a vain, stupid girl.

For a lot of us, O’Neill’s confession wasn’t entirely surprising, because we are used to being advertised to 90 per cent of the day, and are well aware of Photoshopping and camera filters. Equally unsurprising is the reductionist conclusion many have drawn from this, declaring social media to be unhealthy, unrealistic and generally bad.

I disagree, and have my own confession.

A few years ago, I decided to engage in a healthier way of life, as I was eating mainly fried delicacies and drinking my body weight in Aldi Sauvignon Blanc (NB: this article is not sponsored by cheap German wine). I started buying fresh produce and exercising — “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle!”

Along with my Nike Air runners and shiny new blender, I decided to create the crowning piece of my new life — a fitspo Instagram.

The account contained pictures of my #mealprep Tupperware, snaps of my stomach, and posed photographs of my breakfast oats. The word “wellness” was used far too often, considering it is meaningless. My Instagram name — the account has thankfully been deleted — was “nourishtogrow”. I’m so embarrassed typing this that I want to punch myself in the face (and then upload a photo of the bruise, because #organic).

Over the course of a few months I somehow gained more than 7000 followers. I would post my green smoothies, outlining all the over-priced faux-health products (maca powder saves lives, spirulina brings world peace, kale tells you when your shirt tag is poking out). Occasionally I’d post a photo of my hourglass figure — which genetics gave me, not yoga — and then lean back, feeling smug and self-righteous.

I was contacted by certain companies and provided with free skincare, food samples and detox tea. Once I remembered that I had a liver, the detox tea became redundant. While my online following was nowhere near the size of O’Neill’s, I was very conscious of my Instagram presence and would spend far too long agonising over a photo of me holding a smoothie than is healthy.

I realised my lifestyle had become disordered when I became obsessed with scale weight and was terrified of most foods. I was never overweight to begin with (according to admittedly-flawed BMI standards) but I was suddenly obsessed with losing weight. This lifestyle wasn’t fun anymore. I was hungry all the time. I retreated socially, eating disorder in tow, and my existing depression increased tenfold.

Was this the fault of social media? No.

Before Instagram, there were “pro-anorexia” forums. Policing of women’s bodies is not a new phenomenon, nor is feeling pressure to keep up with the Joneses and compare lifestyles. It’s lazy to blame Instagram for deeper issues affecting both society and individuals.

Mental health issues, body dysmorphia or low self-esteem have always existed and these are the issues needing to be addressed. Schools and youth workers should be encouraged to have frank conversations around mental health and body image; Instagram can actually initiate a dialogue around this. We should be teaching young people to critically analyse data so they don’t believe pseudoscience from a wellness blogger that’s trying to sell their dodgy ebook full of fluffy advertisements and recipes for bloody bliss balls.

Instagram is not responsible for low self-esteem or eating disorders. If social media didn’t exist, my underlying depression and poor body image would have reared its head in another form. I’ve since sought help for my mental health concerns, with group therapy being the most useful. I’ve learnt that comparison is the thief of joy and that it is futile to agonise over someone’s online presence — you never truly know the story behind it.

I still use Instagram, but am removed from the health-conscious community and their elusive “wellness”. Occasionally I will post a selfie, because my appearance no longer sends me into a panic of self-loathing. I now predominantly follow musicians, photographers and animal rescue organisations. I’m thankful that I can look back and laugh at my previous online persona, and am very content being uncool — that makes me feel truly #blessed.