Social media—and Instagram in particular—can seem like a direct window into the lives of the friends and family we love and the celebrities and influencers we admire: their beautiful vacations, artfully arranged breakfasts, adorable children, and precious pets. But what we can forget is that those images have been carefully curated, and often cropped, edited, filtered, and angled just-so to portray a certain version of reality.
In fact, these feeds are more about a “cultivated transparency,” said Stacy London, the host of TLC’s Love, Lust, or Run, at RealSimple’s South by Southwest panel Unfiltered: Do Women Need to Get Real on Instagram? Even when we’re trying to be authentic online, she said, “we’re still manipulating real life to some extent.”
RealSimple.com editor Lori Leibovich led the conversation in Austin, Texas, on Sunday—the other panelists included actress Busy Philipps, currently starring in the 6th and final season of Cougar Town, and Ashley C. Ford, who works at the Harnisch Foundation and as a writer, most recently for BuzzFeed. During the hour-long discussion, the group delved into how Instagram makes women feel, and also what they’re doing to stay “real” on the platform.
Philipps, for instance, shared a story about a male friend who recently took a selfie of the two of them—and then put it through the app Facetune. “He made us look like supermodels,” she said. Yet she chose not to share the photo with her followers because it had been altered. “In the same way I would never show my friends a Photoshopped photo of myself and say ‘Don’t I look great?’ I would never do that on social media.”
London has started an Instagram hashtag campaign, #freshfacefridays, where she posts a photo of herself without makeup, and encourages her followers to do the same. But being authentic can lead to criticism—and even incite trolls. London told a story about a recent #freshfacefriday selfie she snapped in her bathroom, which prompted commenters to angrily post that she appeared too thin. “Social media is an opportunity to go out, support, cheer and champion people,” she said, but often people turn negative instead. “Letting it all hang out is not necessarily a bad thing if we aren’t shaming each other.”
Philipps said that in her daughter’s kindergarten class, there’s a board with questions that kids should ask themselves before posting something online such as “Is it helpful or does it hurt?” “Saying something to someone’s face is a lot harder than saying something over text [and] over social media is probably the easiest way to say something,” she said.
Philipps said she’s glad her six-and-a-half-year-old daughter is learning these lessons since she’s already very aware of social media and understands what Instagram is. “She has photo approval,” joked Philipps, and definitely exercises her right to say no.
While Philipps said she’s glad she didn’t have to deal with social media as a young star (I would have been f*****. I was 19 and crazy.”), she says it now allows her to wrest control of her own image, instead of having the paparazzi or media decide which photos get published and shared when.
Similarly, Ford, who has written about very personal and sometimes dark parts of her past online, says that Instagram can be a place to showcase the brighter moments, and remind people that she’s in a good place in her life. “I had a beautiful parfait today. Things are OK,” she joked. “I think there’s a lot of beauty in who I’ve become… I’m really into process. I think letting people see your process is really important.”
The panelists also talked about how they consume others' feeds, in addition to curating their own. According to a recent RealSimple.com poll, about a third of women report occasionally feeling jealous when scrolling through Instagram. “The only thing that really makes me jealous on Instagram are other people’s travel photos,” Ford said, largely because until recently, traveling has been a mostly unattainable luxury. “For me, flying has never been basic.”
And while Philipps said she follows some aspirational accounts (then unfollows them when they annoy her, then follows them again), she said she largely keeps the jealously in check. Except one thing: “I’m really envious of Jessica Alba’s body.”
Want more of the conversation? Follow @WomenIRL on Instagram and tag your real life moments #womenirl.