Majority of people are aware of their appearance, and know whether they are having a good hair day or whether they are appropriately dressed for certain settings. As much as this is an everyday consideration, this can become harmful if we are overly conscious of our appearance. Online platforms allow us the opportunity to tweak aspects of our appearance and decide on the way we present ourselves. Ask yourself this question, have you been tempted to delete a picture or a post on social media if it didn’t get enough likes? Did this make you question how you initially felt about this post? Our online identity becomes less about who we are and more about who we think others want us to be when our self-esteem is on the line.
Identity: Virtual Reality versus Actual Reality
As technology develops we are being introduced to more and more interactive platforms where we can connect with others from all across the world, simply from our homes. During the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa, we have all been adhering to social distancing and lock down restrictions, which limit face to face contact with others except for essential activities. This left a lot of individuals craving that social interaction, but having to replicate this on the online world. This can be convenient to stay in touch with those in different countries, to make new friends or to become part of communities with shared interests. As much as this helps foster some form of socializing because we can’t physically meet majority of the individuals we interact with online, we create avatars or profiles who represent us virtually. These profiles are usually created to shape others ideas about who we genuinely are, intentionally and unintentionally. For some, altering their appearance is not out of malice, it’s because they genuinely feel people won’t accept them for who they are.
It’s a lot safer behind a camera, because there is a sense of control. You can decide which picture is on your social media profile, and in turn you can decide how people see you. Even though this may not be the real you, it could be the person that you want to be, the person you admire or the person you think others will accept you as. As much as this may seem harmless initially, it can have devastating effects on some, who seem to become trapped in this desired reality thus neglecting their true reality. When you can change the shape of your nose or the size of your stomach which a click of a button, this sense of control is exercised once again. The problem lies with the disconnect with the true self and the ideal self. The ideal self is made up of how we would like to be and can act as a defense mechanism, protecting the true self. The ideal self is directly influenced by modern day beauty standards as mass media is telling us how we should look in order to be accepted, how we should behave in order to be liked and most importantly it highlights aspects of ourselves that do not meet these standards. It’s almost like having a bright spotlight expose the areas of yourself you are the most sensitive about.
When you are trying to figure out who you are, social media can be a dangerous space to find yourself in. We may believe we are just passively scrolling through content, however, our subconscious is taking it all in and over time, these images become the standards we so harshly judge ourselves on. What may start as harmlessly enhancing an image, can result in a larger disconnect between who you are and the person you have created online. What makes it easier, is being reinforced with likes and comments this engagement reinforces the belief that people approve of this person we have created online, and if people have dealt with rejection in their day to day life, this can be a safe haven.
Social Media’s Unrealistic Beauty standards
Beauty standards can be understood as the ideals that are present in a particular culture, these ideals are dependent on a variety of factors, however beauty standards are constantly changing and you can get caught up in quite a whirlwind trying to stay up to date with the latest trends and styles. In modern times, most individuals are exposed to mass media which results in ideal body shapes, hair styles and personality traits being romanticized all day. These beauty standards are presented as a solid mold, where you either fit into it or need to make changes in order to fit into it.
Striving to maintain these standards of beauty can result in an overwhelming amount of pressure to change and deny aspects of your true self. For example, when the trend of flat ironed hair was all the rage, those with naturally curly hair would spend hours changing their hair so that it was up to standard, some even going to the extent of having their hair chemically straightened. This is a simple example but the feelings are the same as dreaming about plastic surgery to look like someone else, wearing contact lenses to change your eye colour, trying the latest diet to drop as many kilograms as possible in the shortest amount of time or wearing a waist trainer to get that hourglass body shape. It’s a race to finish line with the hope of happiness and confidence as the first prize. Sadly, often reaching this finish line, is not a finish line at all, it’s the start of the next race.
Redefining Beauty Standards
Being able to identify social medias beauty standards as unrealistic is only the start of the process. We need to become more aware of the content that we are exposing ourselves to. If you log onto your Instagram profile and are bombarded by images that make you feel unhappy and dissatisfied with your own life, you have to take a step back and see these posts for what they are. Try follow more pages that inspire you and are linked with your interests, think about the content that these pages are producing – does this content help you grow closer to accepting yourself? If something is clearly making you unhappy, it’s important to take ownership of that and manage the content you interact with as far as possible. Alongside managing the pages that you interact with, it’s crucial that you are mindful of what you choose to post on social media, perhaps it time to also review the content that you choose to share on your social media and how that aligns with your authentic self.
The way forward
This is a tricky subject as we are exposed to these beauty standards and ideals on a daily basis so avoiding them isn’t really an option unless you board yourself up in your home with no interaction with the outside world at all, both in person and virtually – doesn’t sound great does it? It comes down to how you allow these images and standards to influence the way that you see yourself. It’s important to develop a sense of awareness of your true self, what this means for you and how you see the person you are. There is nothing wrong with working on yourself and dedicating time for self-improvement however, if you are forcing yourself to fit into a mold, you may end up losing more than you intended to lose.
Written by: Kirsten Harrison Programme Coordinator (Johannesburg Campus)