In the online world there is life, but not as we know it. It’s a platform for fostering a cult of perfection. Have you been brainwashed by it yet?
While 10 years ago we only had to worry about keeping up with the Joneses — seeing their new car in the driveway and thinking we should get a better job — we are now inundated with images of perfection from the world’s biggest show-offs.
You can hardly go online without running into a picture of Oprah in Africa, Rihanna climbing aboard a private jet draped in fur, or Heidi Klum, the German model, firm-bodied in a bikini at 40 as she poses on a Bahamian beach.
There are perfect homes to be seen on Pinterest, perfect bodies on Tumblr and perfect lifestyles on blogs where people post pictures of sparkly-iced cupcakes. But there’s nowhere worse than Instagram, which has 200m monthly users and counting, for sepia-tinted feeds of photographs accompanied by mottos of empowerment.
Look at the picture the singer Taylor Swift posted of herself last week standing casually perfect by the sea. It’s linked to a quote from E E Cummings: “For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), It’s always ourselves we find in the sea.” NO wonder the rest of us aren’t just getting envious but are starting to bring the cult of perfection into our own dowdy lives.
The internet has made liars of us. No longer content with going back to work on a Monday morning and exaggerating how good our weekend was — pretending we spent Saturday night at some fabulous party rather than sitting in bed with a pizza watching House of Cards — the 24/7 feed of social media means there is now more pressure on us to show off.
Facebook feeds are filled with humble brags — I got a promotion! I’m engaged! I’m thin! I’m in Las Vegas! Look at this picture of me and my beautiful other half by the pool! Photo-streams are filled with pictures of children looking adorable and attractive partners.
We carefully capture the perfect moments in our lives while neglecting to mention that we also had a screaming match with our mother, drank ourselves to tears, gained 10lb and lost our job.
Dr Sheri Jacobson, a psychotherapist and clinical director of Harley Therapy, sees the cult of perfection in social media as the natural extension of a perfectionism we have always sought.
“We have a tendency to represent ourselves better because it is raw human instinct to try and make yourself more acceptable,” Jacobson said.
“There are evolutionary reasons why we are drawn to perfection. Historically, the fittest survive, the better-looking live longer. We develop standards to help our survival.”
It’s ironic really. Social media could be a way to share our experiences. Instead people create a mirage of their lives, self-editing, framing, telling partial truths or outright lies.
People give themselves promotions on LinkedIn and use online forums — not to connect with other people, but to let others know they are happy, successful, wealthy, loved and cool (even when they are not).
Perhaps the ultimate form of this is the recent popularity on Instagram of the #AfterSex hashtag. It is used by smug, gorgeous, twentysomething couples to post dreamy post-coital selfies of themselves lying in each other’s arms on crumpled bedsheets, hair artfully styled, make-up not even smudged. Was there ever a more self-indulgent way to tell the world how great your life is?
We are breeding a selfie-generation ever more obsessed with looks. Bombarded with images of physical beauty, teens now feel peer pressure not just from friends but also globally to be photo-ready at all times. No wonder they are buying hair extensions and fake nails.
“Social media affects the mental wellbeing of teenagers,” said Fiona Boulton, headmistress of Guildford High School. There is no “down time” any more from the pressure of being cool, beautiful and funny.
“Facebook and Instagram also create a false image of what girls think they should look like. Nobody posts a normal photo, only one in which they look gorgeous.”
Perhaps this explains why the #Nomakeupselfie hashtag — launched last month in aid of cancer charities — was such a success among young women. For some girls it came as a blessed relief.
THE cult of perfection can affect all of us psychologically. Relaxation is sacrificed to the constant need to update Facebook statuses and private moments are lost to Twitter. We are filled with Insta-envy as we watch friends jet to Miami, hold sublime birthday parties and pose surrounded by super-happy family members. We’re suffocated by each other’s fabulousness.
According to Jacobson, part of the problem is that social media is so widespread and so easy to manipulate. “Online you can graphically alter your image and lifestyle so it lends itself to creating a more perfect platform that’s even further away from who we actually are in all our flaws,” she said.
“In my view and the work I see with clients there is a lot of dissatisfaction that can come out of social media. People can become addicted and depressed by checking Facebook updates.”
Yet Jacobson also thinks the cult of perfection is not all bad: “There’s nothing wrong with having high standards — striving is what keeps us going. It’s not about the media itself but how we navigate it.”
In other words the cult of perfection could be brilliant news. In provoking envy it encourages us to improve. The pressure it puts on us to do things might even encourage us to make perfect lives of our own.
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