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The grass is always greener

In this article Alice Bennett looks at how the knowledge of what someone else had for breakfast can be a dangerous thing.
A goat chewing on grass
© University of York (author: Alice Bennett)

Now we know what we all ate for breakfast, but is it good for us?

Athletes, models, actors and celebrities sharing images of themselves and their lifestyles can lead us to make unhelpful comparisons with our own lives. If your job entails high performance sport or maintaining a particular figure type, you are likely to be able to devote more time to diet and exercise than someone holding down a completely different full-time career. On some level we know this, but we still compare. The muesli bar you ate on the way to work does not ‘instagram’ as well as a perfectly presented fruit compote and granola. Feelings of inadequacy can set in as early as breakfast time.

The bias of the photo-journalistic narratives needs to be recognised. People self-edit. That friend might look fabulous on the sunny beach, but is unlikely to have posted an image of herself being sick on the aeroplane on the flight there. We’re seeing the highlights reel: we only see what they choose to share.

This can get competitive. People might use social media as a new vehicle for the “humblebrag”: picture a photo of them dashing out of their nice house on a busy morning, walking their lovely dog en route to dropping their cute kids at nursery; a working mum holding down that successful career whilst raising her children and still finding time to run a marathon for charity every Wednesday – #multitasking!. So much of social media is about flaunting a particular lifestyle or achievement to a social circle.

It isn’t necessarily intentional. If you post about your own good fortune, it’s worth bearing in mind that how you do this might have the potential to unconsciously cause anxiety or upset in others. For example, expectant mothers might post numerous blooming photos of themselves feeling #blessed, but overemphasis might worry those of their peers who experience ill-health through pregnancy, or cause great distress for others who have experienced miscarriage. It isn’t that we shouldn’t post a picture of ourselves looking happy and well whilst pregnant, but constant repetition of such images can cause others pain. Whilst there is nothing wrong with sharing good news, it is worth remembering that you may need to be considerate in how you share it.

For those experiencing chronic illness, emotional distress or mental health problems, the parade of apparently happy, healthy, successful people across social media can have a negative impact on self-worth. This negativity can encourage some people to lie about their own situation through social media, creating a virtual idealised lifestyle through false updates and “fake” pictures on their accounts: holiday destinations to which they have never been; partners they have never met, interiors from other people’s homes…

In response to this, the mental health organisation Sanctus created “Lifefaker”. Advertised with the tagline “Life isn’t perfect. Your profile should be”, Lifefaker offers a series of photo packages designed to help you create the perfect profile. But the purchase options link to a Sanctus website about the dissatisfaction, depression and dishonesty that arises from comparing ourselves with others on social media. The temptation of the packages offered by Lifefaker (perhaps along with the press coverage surrounding it) reportedly saw 100,000 people visit the site over a three-day period, causing the server to crash. Sanctus reports 62% of people feel inadequate when comparing their lives to others online. It’s a figure without a source, but the phenomenon of social media fakery is nonetheless genuine enough to be a recognisable trope. The irony, of course, is that were someone to use images such as those from Lifefaker, they would be perpetuating the very images of lifestyle ‘perfection’ that fueled their anxiety in the first place, further distorting the online perspective of ‘reality’.

This is particularly important to bear in mind in the current climate. With many in lockdown and confined to our homes, feelings of frustration, comparison and inadequacy can be intensified: comparison to how others manage their lives can be unhelpful at the best of times – now it can be an additional source of stress and guilt. There have been messages urging the development of new skills or improving productivity under lockdown – “Shakespeare wrote King Lear whilst the theatres were closed for the plague!” Some may feel guilt that they are finding enforced family time and homeschooling stressful, whilst others post how wonderful they’re finding the additional time with their children. As with any online posting, these people are sharing moments – you are not seeing the full picture. Many are happy to admit finding the lockdown difficult: almost everybody, however well they’re coping, will have moments when they struggle. This is a very strange time, for which few, if any, of us were prepared. Whatever your experience of the lockdown, it is valid.

As ever, remember that the posts you see are carefully curated and presented – no-one wants to show themselves at an unflattering angle. Life through a lens is not the full picture. Be kind – to others and yourself – when posting online.

© University of York (author: Alice Bennett)
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