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We Are Connecting With Fashion All Wrong: Instagram Influencers and Our Sense of Self

CW: This article discusses eating disorders and mental illness which could be distressing to some readers

When we think of fashion models we think of skinny lattes, catwalks, fad diets, front page covers, bulimia, and billboards, or something of the sort. But there is a new runway on the scene, easily accessible and equally as scrutinised. It's called Instagram and it's damaging our mental health. With nearly 1.2 billion users, Instagram has taken the world by storm, with millennials and Gen-Z at the eye of the hurricane. In the last decade, Instagram has transformed from a casual viewing platform, allowing you to share posts and keep up with friends and family, to a full works stage show. Riddled with the recently emerged ‘influencer’ Instagram has become the perfect playground for fashion brands to promote their latest trends, using models that look more like real people rather than a Victoria's Secret angel. But the implications aren't much different.

Despite the largest demographic of users being between the ages of 18-29 years old, there is growing concern regarding the number of teenagers and children interacting with the online platform. Despite guidelines stating a minimum age of 13, in the US alone, 5% of children under 11 use Instagram. Now, this stat wouldn't be a problem if it wasn't for the increasing rates of depression and body dysmorphia in teenagers and children as a result of over-edited and filtered content. These effects are further exacerbated by the presence of fashion brands online.

How fashion engages with Instagram

In recent years, Instagram has acted as a marketing tool for fashion brands, collaborating with popular profiles to sell products, trends, and lifestyles to their followers. The image-focused platform allows brands to curate a polished feed of high fashion content, similar to the outdated magazine. 130 million users click on shopping posts every month with a staggering 90% of millennials stating that they would make a purchase based on an influencer. High street retailers such as Pretty Little Thing and ASOS use influencers whose followers fit the demographic of their target audience in order to sell products. Brands utilise the influencer-follower relationship, driven by an innate desire to be like the people you idolise, to sell you clothes you believe they're wearing on a daily basis. A few stories and swipe up links later from your favourite Instagrammer and you've gone and bought the dress, haven't you? We’re all blissfully mindless when it comes to the influence Instagram has on us, especially in regards to telling us what fashion items we need. Yet what we don't pay so much attention to is the damage it has on our perception of ourselves and reality.

"90% of millennials state they would make a purchase based off an influencer." Fashion Gone Rouge

Life through the insta-lense

During the Covid-19 pandemic and never-ending lockdowns, young people spent more time than ever engrossed in social media, spending as much as nine hours a day on their phones. With content creation going through the roof at that point, and brands issuing more ads than ever to get people spending, we began to be exposed to a distorted reality and still are. As followers, myself included, we have blurred the lines of reality on social media and have become infatuated with not only the products but the lifestyle Instagram models and influencers are posting. Fashion brands know that people don’t engage with advertisements the way they used to, so instead of paying for a billboard, they use influencers who are a lot more personal and relatable to pick our pockets. By showing you what your idols are wearing creates enormous pressure to keep up with new trends. We aren't able to limit the exposure like we used to and that's the problem. Pressure to look, dress and live a certain way is plastered all over Instagram and is being fueled by fashion brands' reckless and constant promotion of clothes.

The UK Royal Society for Public Health surveyed 1,500 teens and young adults on their social media habits. They found that Instagram is associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, fear of missing out, and negative body image. We are being constantly exposed to filtered pictures, luxury lifestyles, new clothing trends that we don't really like but buy anyway because everyone else is, clothing ads, and unrealistic standards of beauty and what it is to be fashionable. Fashion brands have created a criteria, a box that we all need to fit in to look like the models they pick for their campaigns and the influencers they collab with. And it needs to stop.

Trying to live our 'best' life

There is enormous pressure, whether we are aware or not, to buy into the influencer lifestyle and its stemming from fashion. Let's take Molly-Mae for example. Teens would have watched her on Love Island and followed her on Instagram. They would have bought the clothes from her Pretty Little Thing edit because that's what she wears and they want to be like her. She gets millions of likes on a picture but they only get 100 and now they think they aren't as pretty. She posts a story of her new handbag, and they're beating themselves up because they can't afford to spend £2,000 on Louis Vuitton. Their self-esteem drops and self-worth is questioned because they can't live up to the expectations set by social media and not everyone can be Molly-Mae. Now you see my issue with 5% of children being on Instagram.

We may think we’re emotionally intelligent enough to not let these things get under our skin, but we're all more susceptible to comparison than we believe. How many of you got jealous when all the influencers went to Dubai over lockdown? Exactly. We’re a lot more comparing and self-critical than we know and it's due to over-exposure to unrealistic lifestyles and beauty standards displayed on Instagram and promoted by brands.

"Not everyone can be Molly-Mae."

Instagram is not Vogue

Mental health and wellbeing is paramount, and we are sabotaging it by indulging in Instagram profiles. We’re being brainwashed by what we are fed on social media and allowing it to devalue our self-worth because we don't align with the influencers we are bombarded with. It's time we go back to uploading pictures of our dogs, what we had for lunch, our friend's birthday, a vintage find we love. Instagram is not Vogue. Let's take it down a gear and stop being so hard on ourselves and comparing our lives to fashion brand promoters, we cant all be Molly-Mae.


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