It’s 2.15PM. It’s a Tuesday. Not quite hump day, but I’m feeling drained. I’m in my studio and I want to kill some time. See, I’m a morning and a night person, but not a midday one. My brain always enters a mush like-state around 2 pm, and I find it hard to focus or execute tasks around midday. My studio in the art college overlooks St Anne’s Cathedral, a strange intersectional point in the city where you will see millennials carrying tote bags and MacBooks as often as you will a man with a cider and a sleeping bag.
I’m based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and I love my city. I’ve been working on storyboarding a documentary art film that I’m making, about the male mental health crisis within N.I., a country with a complicated past and an unsure future. For context, N.I. has the highest suicide rates, the highest anti-depressant handout per capita, and the highest recorded levels of mental health issues within the U.K.
So naturally, to relax at 2.15PM I reach for my iphone 7, resting within reaching distance. I want to numb my mind for a bit.
I notice that my Instagram app keeps crashing, and realise that I’m long overdue an update.
The update finishes.
Initially, I don’t see much difference in the app. I wonder what was actually updated
I’m 22 years old. I’m a final year Fashion and Textile Student, a Freelance creative, and somehow beyond me – an accidental influencer.
My Instagram following began to blossom when I moved from my home in the countryside to the big ole city of Belfast (sarcasm FULLY intended, our city center is smaller than some boroughs of London). I ended up doing the classic – ‘finding yourself thing’ – where you know, realise that the patriarchy exists and that women are oppressed and you can revolt directly via your style and clothing. The classic art student story. I shaved my head three years ago and began using my Instagram as a way of chronicling my journey with mental health. I figured that if I was struggling with my appearance, my mental health, my identity, and all the other delightful aspects that come hand in hand apparently with being a female twenty-something in the 21st Century; then some of my followers must be too. I began speaking out about such issues to create a sense of solidarity among my friends and followers (I had around 600 at the time). Fast forward a few years and now I have over 4K followers. I receive an average of 30 Instagram DM’s per day. I wake up most mornings with 10 unanswered messages. My stories are viewed by over 1500 people per day, and sometimes as many as 50 people save my posts. I am aware, that this is not the heights of fame, I’ve never bought followers or aspired to be famous; however, like I said, Belfast, and Northern Ireland for that matter, is a small place, London has over 6 million people more than we do in our entire country. And that’s why it’s strange. I can’t walk through the city center without seeing someone I know, or someone that I don’t know approaching me to tell me that they follow my IG. Not a single night out, coffee date, or worse, real date, goes by without this happening. Every night out, every rave, even the store where I work, people want to take photos with me and continue to shower me with compliments… it’s wild. Imposter syndrome strikes again. It’s hard to understand what or HOW other people see you when you are quite literally so close to yourself and your own person. When you have an openness about your life online, people can instinctively believe that they have a right to access to you, like a commodity. People often message for information or contacts like some sort of creative dispensary. It’s exhausting, and yet, almost entirely self-inflicted.
It’s a grey day in Belfast, which is like most winter days. I’ve been experimenting with a new face paint set and I’m in an all red outfit with matching red symmetrical lines and dots on my face, I’ve posted a photo that a friend took, of me sitting at my studio desk, and I wanted to check the progress. I recently turned off all of my notifications for Instagram besides receiving DM’s. It’s helped to unclutter my never-ending feed of notifications, but it means that I need to open the app to actually view how my posts are doing. The post is doing surprisingly well, with over 100 likes in 20 minutes. And that’s when I notice it. I have business insights on my instagram (hot tea I know), and I notice that on the insights bar there is now a fourth symbol that didn’t use to be there. A small paper aeroplane. The same one that you use to send a post of a puppy in a Halloween costume to your designated doggo loving friend. It has the number two underneath it. I’m horrified. I send peoples posts to my friends, so why wouldn’t I think that my followers would also send mine? I started checking my other posts, the update had only backed up through two weeks, and I check every post. I see that the memes I post did very well, (duh) as well as makeup looks that I had posted. But it was the other posts that concerned me. The ones where I had opened up. The ones that I had shared about my mental breakdown or my past with eating disorders. The ones where my body is visible. I felt the fear creep over me. I frantically checked my stories, which also, to my horror, had been updated with the same symbol. 4 people had sent a video which I had taken of me zooming in on my facepaint whilst smacking some chewing gum. I’m horrified. “People are talking about me?” “What are they saying?” “What if they are making fun of me?” Imposter syndrome loomed over me. This was two weeks ago. As I’m writing this I check my story feed again. 15 people have shared a story of me dancing at the launch party of a new club. I’ve gone for a Jean Paul Gaultier circa 2007 makeup look that I found via pinterest, with painted eyebrows and teardrops. Large overdrawn blue eyes with a matching silk scarf and hoop earrings. I’m wearing a top that’s different to my normal style, it’s a small tight basque with a bikini style halter neck straps. It’s tacky and sparkly and perfect in all of its Y2K glory and I love it, but you can also very clearly see my 36 DD breasts. 15 people had shared it. 15 conversations were happening across the internet via anonymous individuals. 15 conversations about me. It also happens to be the first time that I’ve gone on a night out without having shaved my armpits, which I’ve been proudly growing for 4 weeks. 15 people shared this. Did that mean they liked it? I wonder whether it was boys or girls that shared it? I start to feel sick. What if it was a guy sending it to another guy? Do they think I looked sexy? I cringe. Or worse; someone sending it to someone, to make fun of me. “Who do you think you are? John Galliano? You live in Belfast you’re not a club kid stop trying so hard.” I can hear the imaginary cruel comments.
My Instagram following just happened. However, I seem to have hit a threshold where I am gaining roughly 100 followers a week. Without trying. I mean, yeah – it’s cool – that people consider my feed as worthy enough to risk ruining their precious follower ratios for. But the niggly voice in the back of my head asks – “WHY?”.
I am an incredibly confident individual. I wasn’t always, but I have learnt the meanings of identity and sense of self, having journeyed through multiple eating disorders, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, mental breakdowns and hopelessness. And I know that my identity does NOT lie in or on Instagram. If my account was hacked and deleted tomorrow – I would still be Lucinda G. The realest, baddest, bravest me there has ever been. And that will never change. However, the longer I spend on Instagram these days, the more I feel like that secure identity, in my faith, and myself seems to be under threat.
How does one remain authentic and original and secure, when so many pointers within oneself can lead you to the suggestion that you may actually be a big joke, and people don’t like you and you should stop posting photos of yourself because you’re ugly and fat and who cares?
I snap out of it.
A group of girls pass through the studio with coffee cups, giggling and laughing.
30 minutes has gone by.
30 minutes of my life that I will never retrieve. 30 minutes of worrying about what other people may or may not be saying about me.
Because deep down, we all want to be ‘cool’. We all want to be validated, we want to be ‘that girl’, and we all want to be seen as worthy. But I am very sure that people had self-worth and self-validity long before people could double tap. And I have to remind myself, every day, that my life is not online. It is in the present.
It is a hard line to walk, as 90% of my freelance work comes directly from Instagram – and it is a great tool for young creatives. It’s like having an unofficial website, a casual and visual C.V.
However recently, more than ever, I have had to remind myself that the world will continue to revolve when one of my fit pics flops and that I am not at the center of said world. IG has an uncanny ability of drawing out our innermost critics. No one has ever called me ‘fake’ – and yet its one of my greatest fears. The yearning for authenticity amongst our generation is so strong because we have grown up nearly entirely surrounded by technology designed to make our lives easier, but has just made us more anxious and nervous to be ourselves.
The art of forgetting ones self.
In a world of self-centeredness, choose to be bold. Choose to not care what others think. Put those demons to rest. Okay, 15 people shared my video of my makeup and outfit at the party; how much easier should it be for me to believe that they were sharing it because they liked my look? Rather than hated me and wanted to talk about me behind my back? Why is it, as women, that we are designed with a negative default? To assume that we are not good enough? To point out our short-comings to ourselves before others even have a chance to?
Instagram has the chance to be detrimental towards our mental health, but only if we allow it to be. We are the ones in control. That means who you follow, what visual narrative and message you allow yourself to consume online. Because the message that we consume is what we will internalise and therefore replicate. This is what motivates me to be someone that is bold online. And in spite of my occasional self-doubt and looming imposter syndrome, chooses to tell a narrative of truth and cutting through the comfort of aesthetically pleasing posts and #throwback pic to maybe, just maybe, be a breath of fresh air amongst the perfection of our feeds. That drive, that hunger for reality, will always displace my fear of others. Because my journey and who I am is valid. And so is yours.
(P.S) In the spirit of this, I have just posted a video of myself lip-syncing to Celine Dion in my dressing gown, bandanna and facemask.