Written by Haseeb Sultan
Being on Instagram makes me insecure, scrolling through it gives me anxiety, and sooner or later I begin to hate myself so much that I have to put my phone away.
Everyone I have talked to about Instagram has, at some point, told me that they feel these exact same things when it comes to having Instagram being an integral part of their lives. Where Facebook used to be a way to catch up on what people were doing, only to end up feeling bad about our own lives, Instagram has that amplified by being a visual platform that makes it easy to find flaws in our selves physically as well as any other aspect of our lives – the feeling of not being rich enough, good looking enough, or any kind of enough really.
That is what Instagram does. It breaks people. It certainly broke me.
When I joined Instagram in 2012, I was already used to being in the public eye through my writing and my blog. But with Instagram, I could put a face to what I was doing. As a fashion blogger, it only made sense to post pictures of my outfits and my life through which I see fashion understood. I was a teenager then, skinny and loved for being versatile enough to wear anything and my body could make it work. I lived in my own bubble and posted whatever I wanted.
As Instagram grew, I noticed a shift of my followers coming more to Instagram and leaving behind my website. I had to shift focus on Instagram posts more because of that. I felt betrayed, and cheated. Because I had already invested a lot of my time and money into my blog and if that is what Instagram wanted to take away from me, I would give it that. In my mind, I would justify it by knowing my following was increasing and I was followed by all the right people.
What I did not expect was that I would end up following all the wrong people.
Back when I was exploring the world of Instagram as “the influenced” I realized I had ended up following all the international accounts of people whose life I – a desi boy – aspired to one day have as my own; Perfect skin, perfect hair, and that Nordic aesthetic that I had come to fall in love with, while simultaneously finding my own live aesthetically unappealing.
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I ask the traffic lights if it'll be alright, they say "I don't know" . . Inspiration: @taylorswift's song "Death by a Thousand Cuts." I have played this song like 500 times since the new album came out. Obsessed. If you're a Taylor Swift fan, share your top three from the album Lover. Mine are DBATC, Cruel Summer, and Cornelia Street. Daylight seems to be today's obsession though.
There were people out there living the world that gave me hope that I could one day have all that. I didn’t realize that with every passing week, and constantly seeing their (at that time unknown to me) perfectly curated lives was starting to turn my hope into an obsession. It took me a good two years to realize that I had become someone who started judging people – and my self – through what their Instagram shows.
When people would come up to me and tell me that they think my Instagram is “cool” I felt rewarded. I would buy all these expensive clothes, and many shoes just so that I could make my Instagram look cool.
What those people didn’t know was that every time I would go to fashion week, my insecurities would take over me so much that I cried on the way back home, one time even running to the restroom at the venue to shed some tears.
Someone said the other day “I put the Insta in Instagram” and it really struck a chord with me because I realized that over the years, I had accustomed myself to thinking every move of my life through the instant gratification that comes through Instagram.
I would actively choose restaurants and public spaces where I could get a good OOTD photo. I would not post pictures of myself as I took public transport. What I ate, wore, saw, read, and took in, it all came dictated with the sense of having the perfect Instagram aesthetic even if I post it or not. My life needed to become Instagram and I very blindly chased that dream. I could not see myself without Instagram. Thinking of myself through the lens of Instagram became my default mode. It’s how I thought, talked, walked and lived.
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While posing for this photo, my metro card fell down. I remembered as I sat on the careem bike that I don't have my metro card on me. How will I go home in time? But besides that, what worried me was that this card has been with me since the first metro ride I took. I took it to meet a friend because I was running late and traffic was bad. He was getting impatient. Patience is painful, if not a virtue. People who can't wait know only of the pain of the wait. But patience's essence lies in the ability to bear the loss of time, and in depth, a loss. To bear the world. To bear the lack of it. As if patience is a weight one must carry, only to be left behind. . Me and the friend whom I went to meet that day are no more friends. Funnily, it ended because of the lack of patience. But I got this metro card out of it. Five years, almost. I carry this card with me. Carrying the loss of time, and the gain of myself. . Another friend went to pick up the card for me. Funny how the world works.
Living off of, and on Instagram is a gratification of its own. But this kind of gratification comes with its own weight, and consequences.
My opinion of myself became solely the opinion of others. I was not a person, and I didn’t see myself as one anymore. I became someone whose worth could only be determined by the number of likes his posts got, and over time, comments. When you hand over self-esteem to the world on a platter, do not be shocked when you find out that at the end of the day, there’s none left for you.
Morphing your life for public consumption can eat through your own idea of you. The same thing happened to me. I would never post pictures of myself in the van that I went to school in. Or the way I would always leave my shoes unpolished. Or how I never show off my car because I never had my own car, to begin with, because I never learned how to drive.
The biggest change in my life came when Instagram chose to let go of the chronology of the order of posts and incorporated an algorithm to deal with the influx of people on Instagram. I was agitated as I started to lose engagement. My friend, later on, told me that at that point in my life, all I could do was talk about Instagram. I wish he had told me sooner because I myself found struggling to find my self-worth when this shift happened.
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INSTAGRAM ALGORITHM PREFERS PHOTOS OF FACES SO HERE I AM TRYING TO TEST THIS THEORY AND TALK ABOUT MY SKIN. LOOK AT THAT BLEMISH ON MY NOSE HAHA. ITS GONE. PHEW. BUT RN ITS MY CHEEKS THAT ARE SUFFERING RIGHT BEFORE FASHION WEEK. BUT UGH. UGH. YUP. UGH . For the past couple of months, my life has been super hectic with me taking care of my grandmother and spending nights at the hospital. Due to which I had to minimize my skincare routine to something quick and effective. There's a reason @klairs.global is touted as simple, but enough. After cleansing my face, all I did was use the Vitamin C serum from Klairs and pair it with the Vitamin E mask. It helped control my acne scarring and gave me an amazing glow! If I were to recommend a simple skincare routine for anyone, I would say get these, a good cleanser and the Klairs Sunscreen. Because it's simple, and works amazing. Also LOVE their holographic packaging that I will use to make bookmarks! . . You can buy these from @mimo_by_m. The prices have hiked a lot since I got them but that's the $$$ rate 🙁 also would recommend buying on sale, or their sets which are relatively less expensive. If you live outside of Pakistan then I would recommend buying from @wishtrend. . . #koreanskincare #klairs #klairsfreshlypressedvitamindrops #vitaminc #klairsvitaminemask #review #skincareblogger #skincareformen . Just FYI, my acne came back because well…adulting
I would compare the number of followers I had to those of people around me. I would judge famous accounts for being too clichéd and using the female body as a tool to gain followers. I would cry over the fact that since I am a boy, I don’t get any followers because Instagram is biased in favor of the other gender. I was wrong to think that. Instagram was simply changing, and I was not.
I hadn’t realized the tint of judging myself seeped into the way I saw other Instagrammers, because they could sell themselves better than I ever could.
Around the same time, I was about to graduate from med school. I had started stress eating and I was starting to grow up. A series of events happened that burst my bubble of the Instagram-obsession I was living in. Instagram started to make me panic more often than it usually did. Or maybe, I had held off on feeling the panic for so long, that when it finally came, it came with a bang.
I entered the post-graduate phase of my life which mostly involves being jobless for most of us. But for me, I was working on applying to grad schools. I got eleven rejections and one waitlist. I realized then and there, that having been esteemed to a place of developing my aesthetics based on what people wanted was the reason why I couldn’t get into the writing schools I had applied to.
Having thousands of followers who praise you does not equate to me being good enough to compete with the ones who write without public consumption of their lives. In fact, it just might make them better than me.
That year at fashion week, I felt larger than usual. I had gained about ten kilos from when I had gone to fashion week the last time. I had felt so insecure being backstage around models that I forgot their perfect skins are just makeup and went home to wax my facial hair off, only ending up with having removed my skin instead where I had rashes that lasted about two months. I still have minor scars from that. I was home alone by myself with nothing to do but wallow in my own inadequacies, and being insecure because the image that I had formed of the creative, indie boy on Instagram was starting to fade.
It was then that my obsession with Instagram started to die down. I started to isolate my image of me from what was out there. There existed thousands of versions of me out there in people’s heads – where was I actually? For too long I had relied on outside influences to guide me on how to feel about myself. But this time I was done. It was not because I was getting adult acne now and I was larger, but because I had held myself to unbelievable standards that kept me stuck in a mind frame of where I used to be. I was so enamored by the things I was that I hadn’t focused on what I could be. I stopped taking selfies. I stopped posting selfies.
I once experimented with the PicsArt app that made me look a little bit skinny and I hated myself for it, even though the difference wasn’t that visible.
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I think style is not about brands or how expensive something is. Its about knowing what you want and then owning it. I wanted to tell you guys that because this outfit (including the shoes) barely cost me PKR 3000. And I wore THIS to fashion week. If you want to make a statement sure, but for those of you who can't make a statement, I want you to know that you can wear whatever you like regardless of what people around you wear. And that's it's ok to be yourself #ootd #psfw18
One thing though, that I never do, is to use those beauty filters on my photos. I am all about embracing myself. And I had reached that point where it was getting hard for me to embrace myself.
For too long I had hated my big thighs and my facial hair and the fat on my belly that refuses to go away ever since I was little. For too long I had relied on external validation to take me ahead in life, to the point of sabotaging my growth with my own mind. I had binge starved myself, and binge ate too and I was being too hard on my own physical and other existences to let me get on with being who I had to be and needed to be.
I think of myself as a writer, and an artist who lives through the art of expression – be it through clothes, my words or the visual art that I make. I only needed to remind myself of that. When I look back at my old Instagram posts, only I know what I was going in my life as my pictures were being taken.
Here I am at this photoshoot right after getting the result of me having failed my FCPS 1 exam.
Here, I’m at a village the week after I got my rejection from my dream MFA program.
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As I lock my eyes with the boys' whose cart our car over takes, I wonder what he feels. Both our fathers are looking ahead and driving whatever is in our hands – our car, their donkey. My dad's steering wheel, and his dad's lathi. I feel connected to him for just that very moment. I have never locked eyes with the passengers of a land cruiser. They don't look anywhere but ahead. Or maybe their car is too high for me to be able to see into the eyes. I try to think about that as the dusky complexion of the boys' skin resonates with mine in the afternoon sun. It doesn't matter what we ride on to fulfill our lives and our hearts – car, donkey cart, motor bike, land cruiser. Understanding then that the dust that disperses under the hooves of the donkey and tyres of our car is what we all will eventually become.
Here, I’m at LSA 2018 where I cried in the bathroom for not being good enough or good looking enough or skinny enough.
And this is me during my time off that I took to focus on my mental health after failing a year in med school.
I have always wondered that maybe it was as having an aesthetic parallel to my existence that got me hooked onto Instagram. As if my posting there – what I felt was missing in my real life – could take the pain away.
What it ended up doing was only to cause more damage than I had anticipated. We look more at ourselves in the cameras we carry than we do in the mirror. Instagram documentation of my life acts like a retrospective existence that is there to knock some sense into me; just like a real mirror is without its filters.
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I have lately been into revisiting my influences from the past. Like TV shows and movies and books. I used to think who are those people who read a book, watch a movie and then go through them again. But I understand why. For me. I am looking for perspective lost. I am looking for what shaped me and why it shaped me. Watching Perks of Being a Wallflower again, and rewatching Gilmore girls made me realize how much of my own self I have shed along the way, and have gained sort of an armour. I guess we look for parts of us we thought we would come back to understanding when we have lived a little. And when we have lived a little, the past seems comfortably new. I don't see myself in some shows I used to obsess over (e.g. Gossip Girl) but more in the dark corners of the screens and paper that our mind was as dark to grasp back then. It's brighter now, as Taylor Swift says. I am trying to find parts of me I fell in love with. I am trying to find parts of me I want to actively shed now, rather than life stripping me of them. I went to the snake house in Ayub Park the other day. They've locked in these beautiful snakes in glass houses. The skin they shed never got removed. They live with it. Sometimes on it. Maybe that's what going back in time is like. New skin. New life. But not in a glass box. The snakes almost seemed sad. It made me sad too. So I left. Finding my own glass boxes to live in, and maybe slither through and just be…
Now, I take breaks from Instagram when I can.
I deactivate my account and just vanish till I feel better about myself. I have unfollowed all the international influencers from whom I could draw no parallel relation to my life, and only get insecure, because I am, after all, a desi brown boy with a good amount of hair on my face and neck and I am trying to embrace that, while accepting my adult acne too.
I have realized that my weight gain, my face structure changing, and my receding hairline – all are a part of who I am and I cannot change that. What I can change is the relationship I have with Instagram. I can try not to project the feelings onto my followers that I once felt.
In the past two years, I have been actively trying to reject what I grew up absorbing about Instagram. My journey has not been easy, and my struggle with Instagram as an influencer will never not be rocky. But as long as I love myself, and educate myself, I will be ok. I just need to love Instagram the same way too; both of us flawed, and too dependent on the projection of perfection.
It is time to let myself go. It is time to let all of that go.
Cover image via Haseeb Sultan