The tentacles of social media use have slithered into each and every aspect of our lives. From how we vote, to how we eat, to how we believe a mother should behave, contemporary values and expectations have been moulded by new media — all in the space of less than a decade. And for 2.77 billion eager users, it’s happened without second’s thought. As the average user logs in for one hour and fifty-eight minutes a day, this isn’t some insignificant blip instead most of us are spending close to a month every year scrolling through pictures and information about other people. As we are entertained, inspired and connected, our perceptions of the world around us have shifted without us really noticing; it’s like we collectively decided to start a new hobby without reading the small print.
My social media journey began like many people’s, through work. Though I’d been on Facebook since the very beginning back in 2006, it wasn’t until I signed up to Instagram that it really impacted the course of my life. At the time, I was a senior fashion editor at Grazia UK and my Editor had instructed me that it was time to bin my Blackberry and get with the digital programme. Over the course of the next few months, I started posting regularly about my life—or at least one side of it. My rapidly increasing followers saw snapshots of my career, from glamorous trips to Tokyo, New York and Sao Paulo and the designer clothes that I was gifted by brands. They saw the swanky dinners at Michelin starred restaurants and the glitzy fashion shows and parties that I covered for my magazine; they got to follow me to black tie balls in Monaco, saw me dancing in an Oscar de la Renta one-off gown and spotted me in pictures with style A-listers like Victoria Beckham and Sarah Jessica Parker. On social media, my life looked like a fashion fantasy and I curated a perfect digital universe built from endless smiling squares.
Soon I’d gained an audience of a few thousand people and brands started to pay me to feature their products on my Instagram account, which gave me the financial freedom to quit my job and set up a digital consultancy business. At this point, social media stopped just being a place to record my work-life. It became the way I paid my mortgage. The problem was that it wasn’t exactly reflecting of my real life. During these years, behind the scenes everything had been dramatically falling apart. Two weeks before my 30th birthday, my husband had left me without any warning and I was suddenly single, heartbroken and desperately Googling divorce lawyers. Financially, my life had never been stable — in stark contrast to what my followers might have gleaned from my pictures, I came from a modest background and had struggled with money for my whole life. Magazines may offer you incredible opportunities, but the salaries are low. My first on staff job came with a £14,500 wage per year which is less than half the London average, so paying rent even for the smallest studio was always a challenge. After all my bills, I had about £80 a week to live on, which wouldn’t have covered one of the fancy dinners I was posting almost daily on my Instagram feed.
The split between the fantasy of my online life and the reality of my actual life often made me feel incredibly depressed. It was almost harder to go through personal failure when everyone else believed that I was such a success and the pressure of keeping up the façade just added to the sense that my life had taken a wrong turn (or actually many wrong turns). My Damascene moment came in 2016, ironically in the most Instagrammable destination in the world: Tulum, Mexico. I was sitting on my sun lounger fielding emails from a demanding consultancy client while listening to one of my girlfriends calling into her factory dealing with stressful production issues. To my right was a mate going through a brutal breakup, while to my left was another friend dealing with traumatic family issues. We were all struggling with either work or personal problems. But guess what we posted to social media? Mocktails, sunsets, expensive hotel rooms. Pictures of us all together in Marysia bikinis looking like everything was amazing and we were living our best life. Scanning through those images, something just burst inside me.
On that trip I decided that I couldn’t carry on doing this job without talking about the less photogenic side of my life too. So, I decided to create a platform for women to talk about things beyond the picture perfect. I was going to share my divorce, my debt and my struggles with body image. And I was going to ask other women I knew in the industry to do the same. The day I launched workworkwork.co I received over 50 emails. The next day another 50 arrived and it continued like that for weeks. Women I knew, women I didn’t know. The sense of relief that someone was popping the social media bubble was palpable. Obviously, it wasn’t easy. I posted pictures of myself online when I was heavier and my vanity had to step aside. I posted pictures of myself in my wedding dress and I had to give up a bit of pride. I told the world that I’d grown up poor and didn’t earn very much money in my job, which somewhat shattered the illusion of glamorous globetrotter that I’d cultivated for years. But it also felt really good to be honest.
As I was working on my site, one theme kept coming up time and time again and that was the psychological impact of spending so much time viewing images of other people’s lives with all the hard, ugly stuff edited out. Over the years of posting pictures of myself in elegant outfits, social media has made me feel overweight, unattractive, poor, unstylish, lonely, left out, unpopular and seriously devoid of a sense of humour. It’s made me want to buy things that I can’t afford, made me feel like I’m lazy in comparison to other people and, at times, made me feel very low. It has ultimately fed my insecurities. And through my website, I realised these feelings weren’t exclusive to me. In fact, they were incredibly, mind-bogglingly prevalent – and affect people of all backgrounds, ages, colours and creeds.
That realisation led me to write my first book, Why Social Media is Ruining Your Life, in an attempt to share everything, I’d learnt from my years of working in fashion and the digital world. Social media is now part of the furniture of all our lives, so there’s no point lamenting it—what we all need now is a strategy to take the best that these platforms have to offer us while being conscious about the impact that lurking, stalking and creeping can have on our mental health. To underline the point, I launched a campaign #whysocialmediaisruiningyourlife on Instagram and started to repost old pictures where I’d looked happy as Larry, but had actually been going through various crises. This time, the captions told the truth. I told stories of being dumped in hotel rooms, of morning sickness and arguments with my boyfriend. The tales weren’t sensational, but the response to my frankness was. Quickly other women started posting similar images and TV stations and newspapers got in touch. This time my inbox was inundated with messages from parents and young girls, with people from all over the world who were touched by the campaign.
When it comes to fashion, social media has been an incredible facilitator for young brands, connecting them instantly with their customers and allowing them to leapfrog through many doors which were once closed to new labels. It has provided a platform outside of traditional media which has meant far more democracy and diversity in the women we see wearing gorgeous clothes. It also offers a 24/7 stream of inspiration, helping us all dream and discover worlds and ways of living that we might never have come into contact with otherwise. But it has also made us believe that everyone has so much more than they really do, channelled us into a culture of comparison and envy and made us believe it is only us who suffer.
I’m still paying my mortgage through my work on social media and I’m still wearing clothing that brands have paid me to wear, or have been gifted. But now my followers know it is my job and a fantasy—not anything to do with how my life is going. For every picture I post, I probably take 100, meaning that all anyone gets to see is 1 per cent of one moment of my day. They don’t see the Monday morning commute, the inevitable breakups, the financial struggles and emotional challenges that are part and parcel of everyone’s life. They don’t see what is in my head or my heart—we all have to remember that a smile and shiny new Gucci handbag can conceal almost anything. Now I know that I have the power to help effect change as well as inspire people to express themselves through fashion, I use my platform to keep reminding my followers that social media is no standard to judge your life by, because it showcases such a tiny part of it. So don’t let those 1 per cent of pictures affect the way you feel about your actual life—the one you’re living beyond the squares and screens.
- Don't miss Katherine Ormerod on Emirates Festival of Literature's International Women’s Day panel on Friday 8 March, from 7.30pm-8.30pm; taking part in an Is The Future Social? discussion on Thursday 7 March, from7.30pm-8.30pm, and talking about her new book Why Social Media Is Ruining Your Life on Saturday 9 March, from 6pm-7pm. Buy tickets here
Photos: Jason Lloyd-Evans, supplied and Instagram @katherine_ormerod