Feeding the Beast

Our news feeds have never been more important. But in the age of social media, is it really true that we are what we eat?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
Our news feeds have never been more important. But in the age of social media, is it really true that we are what we eat?
Corbis/Click Photos
Corbis/Click Photos

The year is 2015, and we live in an age of almost unprecedented social transparency. We tweet, we ’gram, we snap, we Facebook from the toilets (admit it, you do)… and we do it all with gleeful readiness to share seemingly every part of our lives. From what we wore today, to what we ate, to our feelings about the latest MRT delay, no subject is off the table. Because that’s what social media is – it’s real life, constructed as entertainment.

And for the most part, that’s great. Why? Because never has the average person had so much influence. In today’s world, you, dear reader, could potentially wield as much influence, have as many followers, or nab as many pageviews as, well, anyone else. (For more on how to cash in on your social media capital, read our story on p90.) Social media has also greatly expanded our individual worldviews, giving us insights on what it’s like to live in Mumbai, for instance, or a first-hand perspective on what it’s like to scale Everest. Sharing, liking, retweeting – they’re all great ways of discovering new things; new hangout spots, new brands, new people, new trends, even new friends.

But every up has its down, as they say. “I pick up outfit ideas from the style bloggers or Instagrammers I follow,” says Juliana, 22, “Or I find new cafes or nice places to eat when I scroll through my feed.” But inevitably, we absorb far more than just style cues and foodie tips from our feeds. “I compare myself to the girls I follow on social media almost all the time,” Juliana adds. “I’d envy their face or body or the luxurious life they like to portray.”

“When I was around 15,” she continues, “I was very active on social media, and I was even a blogger. I’d get on Tumblr, and all the photos of the ‘flawless’ girls in my feed got to me. I wouldn’t say I had an eating disorder because I was never diagnosed, but I started developing a terrible eating habit where I would restrict what I ate so I could lose weight and look like the girls I see on the Internet.”

Compare And Contrast

Juliana is far from alone in this. How many of us have started following a blogger or an actress because of her funny captions and cool # OOTDs, and then months later found ourselves wondering – maybe it’s not new clothes that will make me look that good, maybe I just need legs like hers, or maybe I need a flatter belly, or a sharper nose?

The truth is, comparing ourselves is more than just a habit, it’s almost a natural instinct. In 1954, the social psychologist Leon Festinger proposed a theory of social comparison, which argued that human beings are driven to self-evaluation, to measure our own opinions and abilities. Since we cannot do this without measuring ourselves against external benchmarks, wrote Leon, the only way for us to gain an accurate or stable perspective of ourselves is to compare ourselves, our opinions and our actions, with those of other people.

Social comparison existed long before Leon Festinger put it in a paper; it’s precisely what our elders were trying to warn us against when they told us we shouldn’t feel envy, jealousy and covetousness. But comparison can also be a key motivation for achievement. Consider, for instance, whether our SG50 celebrations would have been half as lavish if, as a newly independent republic, we weren’t collectively engrossed with joining the ranks of the first-world nations around the world.

On an individual level, social comparison is a sword that cuts both ways. When we are better off than others (what is called a downward social comparison), we experience feelings of satisfaction and well-being. But on the flipside, when we compare ourselves with those who are better off than us (upward social comparison), then obviously, dissatisfaction results.

These different dynamics are exactly what makes social media addictive, on the one hand, and dangerous on the other, suggests Dr Tan Hwee Sim, a Specialist in Psychiatry and Consultant at Raffles Counselling Centre. “Activities on social media such as self-disclosure, the feeling of having an instant audience, and the feeling of having their social connectedness affirmed can be associated with sensations of pleasure,” Dr Hwee Sim explains. “Much like how casinos are designed to keep the gamblers going back, people are driven to seek more and more of these pleasures from social media.”

Someone Like You

But at the same time, “Spending lots of time on social media can be dangerous,” admits Sarah Ellen, a young Australian influencer who has over 2.5 million followers across her multiple social media channels. “What starts out as a fun, positive activity can quickly become quite depressing and negative,” says the teen, who recently produced a short film about the dangers of social media titled Room 317. (To catch the video, head to cleo.com.sg.)

“It’s really easy for people to start focusing too much on what other people are saying or supposedly doing and also to get caught up in promoting a lifestyle or persona that might not necessarily be the real story,” continues Sarah Ellen. “Room 317 is a cautionary tale about keeping your social media habits in check. That’s really what [the film] is about – making sure you are in control of social media, and not the other way around.”

But perhaps that’s easier said than done. Leon Festinger also had one other interesting hypothesis about social comparisons that could explain social media’s irresistible appeal. According to him, comparisons have a stronger value and higher attraction when we measure ourselves against people who are closer to us in terms of opinion or ability. Basically, the more similar we are to someone else, the more likely we are to compare.

For instance, we might be less likely to compare ourselves to Natalie Portman because, well, she’s a famous actress. She has access to stylists, the best designers, make-up artists and trainers – people whose jobs are basically to make her look good. Instead, we’re more likely to compare ourselves to a friend who posts a selfie on a good hair day, because she’s just like us.

“In our world now, there seems to be a need to be validated on social media. And that can be quite stressful!” concurs Oon Shu An, the actor and media personality. “On top of that, when a seemingly ‘everyday person’ posts a photo, it’s like: ‘This person – who is in every sense of the word a normal person – is getting so many likes on the photos of their food. Then how come when I post pictures of my food, no one’s liking my photos? What’s wrong with me?’”

“But there’s a lot of things that are happening to make people like photos of that person’s food… and I think that’s something a lot of people don’t understand,” she continues. “That’s the thing that people need to start talking about. People need to understand what’s happening. It’s almost like we need a kind of class [to learn how to manage] social media. We need social media literacy.”

“I compare myself to the girls I follow on social media almost all the time.” Juliana

Corbis/Click Photos.
Corbis/Click Photos.

Censor, Edit, Filter

And while it seems like social media invites the average person to share more and more of themselves – everything and anything, from the spectacular to the mundane – there does seem to be a conspicuous gap in our social media feeds. “There’s a huge pressure to be perfect all the time – a huge pressure to be positive all the time,” acknowledges Shu An. “I don’t know if people are interested in the dirty little details.”

“When you’re so active on social media and you’re big out there, I think there’s an expectation to be positive,” agrees Joanna, a recovered anorexic and bulimic who credits social media with helping her find a fitness community that ultimately helped her beat her eating disorder. But though social media gave her joy at the beginning of her fitness journey, she admits that it can also be a beast that needs to continually be fed, rather than a sustaining source of inspiration.

“It’s a very blurred line,” she continues. “Sometimes, you wonder if you’re posting because you want to inspire people, or because you feel the pressure to show some progression. It’s kind of like another persona you’re putting up, because when social media is a big part of your life, sometimes even when you’re just not ‘feeling it’ you still have to play the part.”

The unfortunate thing? This internal pressure to censor, edit and filter out all of our bad days, our imperfections and our crappy moods, while utterly normal, simply creates a vicious cycle of social comparison that only comes back to haunt us in the end. Because what we produce on our feeds ends up influencing our friends, who in turn feel pressured to share only the “Instagramworthy” moments, while hitting “X” on everything else.

The net result? What seems like an abundance of positivity and creative inspo on a good day can quickly spiral into an impossible social benchmark that just leaves you feeling empty and inadequate on a bad one. As Dr Hwee Sim notes, “Because people are more inclined to post positive aspects of their lives online, it may cause users who are viewing these positive posts to feel more negative about their own life and affect their self-esteem.”

“There’s a huge pressure to be perfect all the time – a huge pressure to be positive all the time. I don’t know if people are interested in the dirty little details.” Oon Shu An.

Corbis/Click Photos.
Corbis/Click Photos.

Control + R

At the end of the day, controlling your social media isn’t just a question of protecting your privacy or your content, it’s also about making sure we know how to manage the little voices inside our heads. For Juliana, “I make it a point to always tell myself that not everything I see could be true... Makeup does wonders and so does Photoshop.”

Sarah Ellen, on the other hand, says, “I try to spend as much time ‘offline’ as I do ‘online’. When it comes to authenticity, my approach is simple: I make sure there’s not much of a difference between ‘offline’ Sarah and ‘online’ Sarah.” As for Joanna, “I think it’s a process of learning how to let go,” she says. “I used to follow a lot of #fitspo (fitness inspiration), but I stopped because I found myself looking at their images so frequently, and you just can’t achieve that look.”

If keeping up with the Joneses (or the Kardashians) on social media has got you feeling wrung out, try working on your awareness, says Dr Hwee Sim: “We’re all prone to jealousy to some extent, so having some insight into this and accepting it is an important step toward knowing how to handle it and how to not let it negatively affect our emotions and life.”

And if that doesn’t do the trick, there’s always the tried-and-true method; “I read this post where it said that you shouldn’t want to look like someone, you should be your own inspiration,” says Joanna. “Social media helped me in the sense that I found community support, but #fitspo made me want to look like something, which ultimately made me unhappy. That’s why I hit the unfollow button.”

“Because people are more inclined to post positive aspects of their life online, it may cause users viewing these positive posts to feel more negative about their own life and affect their self-esteem.” Dr Tan Hwee Sim.