One of the few constants in my life has been the constant need and desire to be perfect, or at least to be perceived as perfect. But what is perfect?
I think not only does that change every few years, but ‘perfect’ means something different for everyone. Everyone has different goals and therefore different ideas of what ‘perfect’ means. So, I had my own vision of what perfect was and was desperate to achieve all of it: perfect grades, perfect job, perfect body, perfect clothes — I wanted it all. This blog will explore my personal experience with my mental health and how it’s been influenced by factors such as social media, looking at how this shaped my mentality of what perfect is, and to remind myself and you, the reader, that we will never live up to our own and others’ ‘perfect’ standards — and that is okay.
The impact of social media
The discussion around social media, and its effects on young people’s mental health is far from new. A quick Google search and countless statistics on social media and mental health appear. For example, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) found that social media use is linked with increased rates of anxiety and depression. Another study found that “the earlier teens start using social media, the greater impact the platforms have on mental health”.
I, like most of Generation Z, grew up on social media. Instagram’s logo was still blue when I had it installed, and Snapchat didn’t even have filters, so I grew up alongside the drastic growth of social media and all the features designed to keep us on these platforms for as long as possible, that we see and experience today. Throughout my adolescence I got used to seeing my appearance through a distorted filter, one that would slim my face and make my eyes bigger and brighter, to the point where it was unheard of to post a picture of yourself without a filter.
The result of spending almost half of my life on social media has been very interesting, and I’d argue there have been various outcomes, but I want to focus on one in particular: my constant strive for perfection, and the comfort that I find within it. One of the biggest impacts of social media I have found is the idea that I will never be good enough. I am constantly being told that if I have just ‘one more thing’ I will be perfect, I will become the girl everyone wants to be. I would restrict myself from exploring who I am, and what I like, and would just settle for what was being fed to me every day through incessant algorithms and billboards. The goalpost of perfection is constantly moving and ultimately unattainable.
I am self-aware, as I just mentioned, I know that in the eyes of big corporations trying to market products to me, the majority of social media users, and even in my own eyes, I will never be perfect — which is exactly what they want me to feel, to continue purchasing unnecessary products and services to achieve this unreachable ‘perfection’. I also know that perfection isn’t a trait in humans, nobody is perfect, and therefore I have in fact lost the battle of becoming ‘perfect’ before it’s even begun — and that’s okay. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
See, whilst I acknowledge and recognise that perfection is something that will never be achieved, as well as the negative effect that trying to appear perfect on social media has on my mental health, I can’t help but consistently strive for it. Whilst self-improvement isn’t necessarily a negative thing, I, like so many other young people, flip it on its head until it becomes something toxic and all-consuming.
The ‘that girl’ phenomenon and toxic positivity
For young women and girls, like myself, I think this idea of becoming ‘perfect’ is especially damaging. Social media influencers and companies try and rebrand what is fundamentally a toxic form of positivity. The idea of ‘becoming your best self’ or being ‘that girl’.
The label ‘that girl’ gained traction on TikTok initially, but quickly took over internet culture as a whole. Playlists were created centred around being ‘that girl’, and brands would often use the label to try and sell their products, claiming it was what every ‘that girl’ owned. These girls — who, might I add, do not exist in real life and are merely an illusion online — are typically thin, white, financially stable, have trendy clothes, the latest technology and so on. So already, women and girls who do not fit into these categories are at a disadvantage when trying to present themselves as ‘perfect’ online. Not to mention that the majority of users’ social media feeds aren’t a true representation of a person’s daily life, only showing the ‘best bits’, the highlights. ‘That girl’ has a smoothie for breakfast, protein bowl for lunch, and a salad for dinner — only with the most organic produce! She wakes up at 7am and goes straight to the gym, she journals and is always positive.
None of these things are inherently bad but selling the unrealistic idea that this is how young people should feel and act constantly ropes us back to this idea of toxic positivity. Young people consuming this content can become wired to feel like if they aren’t doing these things then what they are doing just isn’t enough or is somehow fundamentally bad. Most of us don’t have the time or money to buy the freshest, healthiest food, or a gym membership.
The biggest lie of it all is that we do it for ourselves — I feel we don’t. Or at least I don’t. I follow this ‘lifestyle’ to post pictures of my salad on social media, to show TikToks of my ‘daily routine’ — which doesn’t match up with reality. Social media is just a constant competition of who is better, who is most successful and most happy. And I’m not sure if anyone wins.
Breaking out of the cycle
I have repeatedly been caught in this cycle of trying to become ‘perfect’ and be ‘that girl’. I view it as a glamorous, repackaged crash diet. I normally last about a week before I resort to my old habits, that weren’t even that bad in the first place. It’s just that I simply don’t want fruit for breakfast or salmon and broccoli for dinner every day. I’d rather just eat what brings me joy, which sometimes is salmon and broccoli, but other days it’s a nacho night with my flat mates, or a takeaway after a night out. But the validation from strangers online, friends, and even the validation and praise I give myself those first few days I try and ‘eat clean’ or workout every day, the feeling of becoming the girl that you read about in magazines, that people aspire to be, well, it’s a damn good feeling.
And I’m not the only one. Dr Alexandra Hamlet, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute said, “many girls are bombarded with their friends posting the most perfect pictures of themselves, or they’re following celebrities and influencers who do a lot of Photoshopping and have makeup and hair teams”. Furthermore, Dove found that 61% of 10 to 17-year-old girls have low self-esteem.
In order to break out of this damaging cycle, I believe we need to start educating people, especially young people, on this idea of toxic positivity, and create healthy conversations around social media content, and how the same old lies, diets, and in extreme cases, disordered eating habits (juice cleanses, heavy restricting and workout obsession, for example), are constantly evolving and being repackaged as the ideal lifestyle. That those who seem perfect on social media are shaping the narrative around themselves, the exact same way we do, and make sure that their feed reflects their highlight reel, rather than their everyday reality.
It’s completely healthy and natural to not be positive all the time. Social media isn’t going away, so it’s critical that we educate young people early on about the possible effects of social media sooner rather than later.