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Are We Facing A Virtual Identity Crisis?

CW: This article discusses topics of mental illness and anxiety which could be distressing to some readers.

A day in the life...

The life of an influencer is a precarious one. Between flirting with cancel culture, creating innovative content, and juggling oversharing and irrelevance, there is very little time for wellbeing practices, or even real life. It’s hardly surprising that nearly half (47%) of influencers feel their job has a negative impact on their mental health.

So why do 86% of Americans want to become influencers?

Glamorous holidays, perfect skin and happy families. Endless travel opportunities, a covetable wardrobe, and plentiful PR packages. Devoted followers, limitless opportunities, and a curated clique. Their goal is to create a utopian view of their life for both companies and followers to invest in via likes, shares, and follows. They are paid to test new products, post on social media and share their life with their followers. Being remunerated for time online seems ideal for the average person who in any case already spends almost two and a half hours there every day.

An influencer’s life is portrayed as nothing short of perfect. What teen wouldn’t want this idealistic career?

Becoming an influencer might sound like a fake job to older generations. However Gen Z and Millennials have grown up in a society where ordinary people become famous overnight because of their viral videos. To them, influencers are the next evolution of celebrities. More personal, personable, and open, they win the trust and adoration of their followers by sharing every inch of their life, whilst staying true to their own brand. They feel like a close friend rather than an untouchable icon.

"Millennials have developed an even deeper trust for influencers with 48% noting heightened trust." - Norenius-Raniere

However arguably the most intoxicating motivation is the power that an influencer holds. According to the Harvard Business Review, 19% of Americans bought something simply because an influencer recommended it. The heady sway of altering the lives of thousands of people with a simple social media post is undeniably a driving factor for young teens aspiring to become influencers.

Behind the scenes

Luckily the industry is becoming more transparent about the sheer amount of hard graft that goes into becoming a successful influencer. Young fans are becoming aware of the hours of drafting, filming, and editing needed to create just 30 seconds of content.

It is hardly surprising that the constant pressure to churn out new content and keep up with confusing algorithms can become overwhelming. Even Kati Morton, a licensed therapist with 1.1 million YouTube followers, suffered burnout.

"I had written my first book, and I was still uploading two videos a week at this time. My therapist was like, 'You need a vacation, like a real vacation.'" - Kati Morton

Even more concerning is the lack of legislation in this industry. We’ve all seen the headlines condemning social media stars who brazenly flout advertising standards. Geordie Shore bombshell Chloe Ferry, TV personalities Lucy Mecklenburgh and supermodel Alexa Chung have all been dragged across the coals by failing to disclose paid adverts posts they misled their followers. This lack of legislation could lead to far more sinister problems: exploitation, creators being paid less than the minimum wage (or not at all), and a subsequently deeper mental health pandemic.

That's so hot!

For fashion influencers there has always been a constant pressure to keep up. Before the rise of fast fashion, this was plausible as trends only emerged twice a year. Now pop culture, social media and street style spawn hundreds of new trends every single week. Keeping up with them is virtually impossible and influencers are spending money they don’t have trying to stay relevant. It’s unsustainable, unethical, and unhealthy.

This attitude inevitably trickles down to the younger generations who idolise them. Many young people have plunged themselves into debt as they overreach their disposable income in an attempt to keep up with the latest fashion trends. Whilst hoping to become an influencer is one reason, a niggling fear of failing to be on-trend and falling behind is just as widespread. They suffer from FONKU (the Fear of Not Keeping Up). Some even suffer panic attacks, brought on by the crippling anxiety that their friends will dump them if they don’t stay on-trend.

It’s hardly surprising that some influencers turn to more morally dubious means to stay at the top of the game. They buy clothes, take pictures in them for the ‘gram and then instantly send them back, expecting a full refund. This phenomenon is dubbed “wardrobing” and costs retailers up to £1.5 billion a year. One in five of us do it, but what if there was a better way?

Enter virtual fashion

Stress-free clothing that allows influencers to stay on top of the latest trends without plunging into debt or eco-anxiety. Virtual clothing only exists in a digital space. A mind-boggling concept at first. However when you think about it, this new genre of fashion is merely an inevitable byproduct of our increasingly digital lives. It gives influencers greater freedom of expression by removing the constraints of the physical world. It is a cheaper, faster, and less mentally taxing way to stay on top of the latest trends. With digital designers now being sought for the UK's first degree in virtual couture, it's clear that virtual fashion is here to stay.

Although this might be the solution for the mental health of social influencers, the constant need for reinvention is an integral aspect of the human psyche. I’ll leave you with a quote from Amber Slooten, founder of Amsterdam-based digital fashion house, The Fabricant.

"How do we want to represent ourselves within the virtual space? If we can be anything, will we still want to be ourselves?" - Amber Slooten


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