As Instagram comes under increasing scrutiny for contributing to poor mental health and body image, Alex Casey discovers a growing number of local women who are using the platform to empower and educate.
The average Instagram user under the age of 25 spends 32 minutes a day on the app. That’s a cool 11392 minutes a year, or 189 hours, or eight straight days. And If you are over 25, don’t get too smug with yourself – at 24 minutes a day you’re still spending an annual six day holiday basking on the luxurious beaches of other people’s glamorous, impossible lives. No wonder we’re all completely fucked.
With a dominant aesthetic of baby smooth skin, blindingly white teeth, glossy hair and thin, hairless bodies, paired with the dopamine-inducing reward of heart-shaped likes, it’s hardly a surprise that Instagram has been singled out in a UK survey as the worst social media app for mental health in young people. As one respondent summarised, the app “easily makes girls and women feel as if their bodies aren’t good enough.”
But alongside the diarrhea-causing detox teas and the dysmorphia-inducing Facetune, there’s a growing movement of women advocating for a very different version of How To Be online. In the international mainstream, singer Lizzo is sharing the importance of self-love at any size by kissing a cake version of her naked self, and actor Jameela Jamil’s movement I Weigh is promoting an all new metric for measuring self-worth.
Closer to home, Kiwi women with influence online are similarly embracing the trend towards body positivity and empowerment. It’s a complicated movement, but one that feels a hell more nourishing than a Kardashian-endorsed appetite-suppressant lollipop.
“Some people don’t like the term (‘body positivity’) because they think it’s taken the teeth out of the fat activist movement,” says writer and fat activist Ally Garrett. “Like, in becoming mainstream, it’s become more about making sure everyone feels good instead of fighting for tangible things like healthcare for marginalised bodies.” She cites a recent personal example when, after visiting the doctor for a UTI, the first thing he told her was that she needed to lose weight.
With that all said, Garrett is still a champion of the term, filling her Instagram with pictures of her beaming in her bikini by day and in neon fishnet dresses by night. “I get messages all the time from women who tell me that they wore their first crop top, or are going to the beach in a bikini for the first time, because my photos made them feel more confident.” She considers the selfie, an often-mocked symbol of the millennial generation, as her activism.
“On some levels that might be superficial, but I really think that if you feel more comfortable being seen, you become more comfortable taking up space in the world.”
Ally says that for every nasty public comment from a man, she gets five private messages from women thanking her. Auckland DJ and filmmaker Shaki Wasasala, aka Half Queen, receives a similar ratio for a different reason – her body hair. “People hate it, it’s so funny. If something as simple as body hair makes you upset, you clearly have some deep-rooted issues to deal with. It’s nothing about me or my hairy legs or hairy armpits, it’s just that you’re an idiot.”
Whether she’s proudly baring her armpits, or pairing a feminine white bodice with an au naturale leg, Shaki never made an active choice for body hair to become part of her online identity. “I just happened to have hair on my armpits and then people kind of made it into a thing. But it’s just me and I just happen to have hair. People see that as a political thing, which I guess it is because everything is connected.”
What she’s more deliberate about is celebrating her body, a protest against the “backwards and archaic” Westernised view of nudity. “People are subscribed to this colonised notion that nudity is bad, sex is bad, and bodily fluids are bad. I just want everyone to be naked at all times.” She’s careful to acknowledge her own privilege in that celebration. “I am conscious that my body fits into the conventionally attractive mould, but it’s my way of accepting and celebrating myself.”
Beneath her photos are often lengthy captions dissecting these complexities of privilege, and the intersections between ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and whatever the hell else she feels like discussing with her Instagram community (who are 72% female) that day. “Look, if a photo of my cute face or my body makes someone read a long caption and unpack what they think about bodies and body hair, then I will post my hairy legs and fat ass all day long.”
While the idea of young people getting an education through lengthy Instagram captions is something that probably sounds terrifying to the type of baby boomer who still thinks that Momo is trying to steal their credit card details through their ihug email address, it has become a powerful tool for many. Twenty-three-year-old Josie Oloito’a, aka Josie Edan, credits Instagram entirely for teaching her about the sex and body positivity movements and the many nuances within them.
Josie started getting noticed on Instagram for posting “tasteful nudes”, an act which she says was liberating for her after an adolescence consumed by self-loathing. She jumped on the trending #bodypositivity bandwagon and began to get even more followers. “It was later that I realised that I was actually taking up space in a movement that wasn’t for me. I have thin privilege, I can find clothes that fit, I’m not systematically oppressed for the way that my body looks.”
Since then, Josie has carved out her own space as a young, sex positive Samoan woman, delivering caption-based sermons on everything from surviving breakups to finding the best vibrator (hers is named Sacha). It’s content which has attracted criticism from her wider conservative Pasifika community. “My environment, both socially and culturally, meant I used to keep it all to myself. I felt like a horny alien for such a long time and like I just wasn’t normal.”
Every time she posts, Josie still feels as if she is still fighting the people in her community who don’t accept her. “That’s why my agency over my body on my Instagram is so important, because I do it entirely for me.”
It was after a blog post about masturbation that hundreds of women got in touch with her privately, telling her they always thought they were the only one. She’s continued to share her “novel length” Instagram captions as a way of furthering that conversation. “My captions have nothing to do with my face, but hell yeah I’m going to use my pretty privilege to get my message out there. Come for the selfie and stay to hear what I actually have to say.”
While some have consciously use their Instagram as a political tool, it happened to radio host Megan Annear by accident. It messed with her head initially, she says, when people told her that she was “inspiring” for posting outfits and bikini photos. “It’s amazing how many people still think it’s brave to do that when you’re over a certain size. But if one photo of me, smiling at size 18, makes someone feel like they can better accept themselves, then of course I’ll keep doing it.”
The meaning of body positivity has changed for Megan over the years – she now prefers body neutrality. “Instead of waking up every day and forcing myself to sit there and yell that I love myself, I’ve more accepted that this is where I’m at. This is not the be all and end all of my life.” Having lived through an eating disorder as a teenager, Megan’s focus is on looking after herself and enjoying her life, something which she denied herself for so long.
“My body absolutely used to stop me putting myself out there. I didn’t have a social life, I didn’t go to the beach, I thought that, because of the way I looked, there were some things that I just wasn’t allowed to do.”
Having a more realistic approach to body positivity is also something that matters to Jess Quinn – model, activist and Dancing With the Stars NZ contestant. “I just think it’s not always possible. I don’t look at my leg and think it’s the prettiest thing ever, but I love who it has made me become.” Losing one of her legs to cancer at the age of nine, she now uses her platform for everything from petitioning to change the retouching industry to advocating for more diversity in advertising.
There were no one-legged women on TV or in magazines when Jess was growing up. “I’d see people at the limb centre when I’d go to get my leg fixed, but I never saw anything else on a mainstream level. I can’t imagine what kind of affect it would have had on me if I had seen a model with one leg as a kid.” Wheelchair user Sophia Malthus has a similar gripe about the dearth of disabled representation in pop culture. “In most shows and movies, if a person is in a wheelchair, they are either dying or they are evil.”
Appearing on accessible fashion website All is for All, but hesitant to call herself a model, Sophia still recognises the importance of her own visibility online. “Not every disabled girl can be in a magazine, but if she sees someone who looks like her in a positive light, then that’s cool.” Sophia fell off a horse at age 19 and broke her neck, and today her Instagram shares the realities of life as a young quadriplegic woman in a wheelchair – all doused in her relentlessly dark sense of humour.
“My family and I were joking around basically as soon as I was able to speak, because that was how we coped with the depressing situation. We were telling jokes to the ICU nurses,” she remembers. “They did not find it funny.” After a short documentary was made about her life, she noticed her Instagram numbers increasing. “That was so cool for me, I really didn’t expect that many people to want to watch a documentary about a disabled girl.”
Connecting with other young wheelchair users across the country and the world, Sophia actively decided to change her own social media diet to create a more nourishing feed. “Before my injury I was following all these models like Alexis Ren, but now I don’t follow any of them,” she says. “I guess my life didn’t relate to them and there was no need to look at that anymore. When you have access to everything and anything, why would you look at things that make you feel bad?”
“I think it can definitely be toxic for your mental health to see too many of those perfect people on your feed,” says wrestler and trans activist Leilani Tomoniko. “Sometimes I think it’s even harder on trans women when society has such a narrow-minded idea of what a woman should look like, so as a trans person you are not only trying to pass as a woman, but also reach those strict standards.” She uses her Instagram to follow trans advocates worldwide, and also as a tool to chronicle her own journey.
“Some days I still get insecure, but I just remind myself about the positive side of things – at least I’ve made it through the journey and I’m not stuck in the wrong body anymore.”
Even a seasoned public figure like Anika Moa, subjected to primetime abuse over her appearance, is aware of the pressures that come from seeing everything through the Instagram lens. “There’s a big gap for mums on Instagram where you always feel like you have to be perfect.” She chooses to treat her Instagram like a living room filled with her friends. “We all just talk about our fat asses and boobs and own it without putting each other down. It’s the bomb.”
“Talking about the real shit just makes you feel better,” she says. “Life is hard enough without always comparing yourself to other people and always putting yourself down.”
Sometimes that is easier said than done, but there are some practical steps you can take to make your Instagram feed a more positive place. “You have to curate your feed like a magazine editor choosing exactly what you want to look at,” says Ally Garrett. “Try to follow people who seem a bit braver than you, because that courage does rub off. And if your Instagram feed is all skinny, white, cisgender people, make an effort to mix that up a little bit.”
Because if you champion body positivity, it has to be for all bodies. “I find it interesting when body positive people still talk about having a ‘fat day’ or use language that doesn’t show respect to a body like mine,” says Ally. Self-examination is crucial, agrees Josie Oloito’a. “Ask yourself why you are looking at the things you do and thinking the way you do. None of our choices are made in a vacuum – unpack and unlearn why these images make you feel a certain way.”
Jess Quinn advises looking around, instead of up, to find your role models. “Often what you are looking for is right there in your contact list,” she says. “So if you don’t want the negative stuff, don’t let it in. Remember you have that power.” Wielding that power to follow people like @bodyposipanda and @megancrabb has led to Megan Annear’s Instagram becoming a positive outlet for her mental health, she says.
“I was actually having a bad day this morning and feeling terrible about myself, so I went on Instagram to make me feel better. I definitely use it as a tool to make me feel better, which is pretty amazing considering it used to be the tool that made me feel the worst.”
Of course, if you can’t reach Instagram enlightenment, there’s always the salient reminder from Shaki Wasasala that a very real world exists outside of your phone. “Remember: it’s just the internet. It doesn’t even really exist. You can always log off. Yes, it feels like it runs the world right now – but there’s also an entire universe out there operating without it.
“If that shit starts subconsciously affecting you, just get the hell away from your phone.”
This content was created in paid partnership with Women’s Health Action. Learn more about our partnerships here.