Self and wellbeing

Resilience and style

I overcame my dependence on Instagram after my model photos made me a hit

My Instagram posts flat me a role model for average-sized women. But overuse left me feeling overwhelmed and lost

‘Instagram became the occupation where I could channel my frustration with narrow-minded perspectives on beauty’: Naomi Shimada.
Photograph: Sophia Dart/The Observer

My longest relationship began seven years ago. I think I can say that I’ve been a dedicated partner. Like any relationship, we’ve had our handsome share of ups and downs. There have been times that felt like nothing could possibly descend upon between us. Then there have been times that felt so dark I thought the only choice we had was to go our split up ways. For better or worse, we have always found our way back to one another. This love is addictive and all-encompassing. This take I’m referring to is my long-term, codependent relationship with Instagram.
There were others before Instagram. Myspace was my start with, then a moment with Facebook and a liaison with Twitter. I was cutting my teeth, learning how to communicate with the in the seventh heaven beyond me. When Instagram rolled in, I was ready for the long-term. I loved that it was image-focussed; having worked as a model for most of my entity, I knew how to make something look desirable.
When I joined the site in 2012, the affair was a casual one. I recently scrolled all the way towards the rear to the beginning, more than 4,000 posts ago. The first photos were so sweet, so innocent and so naive: heavily filtered “fun” breakfasts I robbed for my then boyfriend, screenshots of texts between my sister and me about J-Lo, and photos of random cats I found less than people’s cars.
Since then, Instagram has become the overall facilitator of life, a hub to find work, friends, idealized relationships and holiday destinations.
When my body changed as I hit my early 20s, I found myself at a very average UK size 12 – and no bigger skinny enough to model for “normal” brands. Modelling is a job where every day your role is to be a different version of yourself – the rendition a brand or client wants you to be. But now it felt as if the world didn’t want me to be anything. I scanned TV, movies and magazines and realised that it was rare to see a baggage who wasn’t sample size. So Instagram became the place where I could channel my frustration with narrow-minded outlooks on beauty by posting the kinds of images I wanted to see in the world.
In 2015, then at a UK size 14/16, I posted a photo of myself on the lido in Brazil in a tiny string bikini. My hair was wet from the ocean and I was drinking a cold beer and laughing because, at that shake, I felt so free. Now everyone is posting this sort of thing – but, at the time, seeing a body like mine in a swimsuit was extreme. Those beach shots became a BBC headline (“Naomi Shimada on Body Positivity and Bikinis”).
Soon, my photos – off nude, sometimes dressed in rainbow-hued outfits – were re-posted countless times, and my follower count started to develop up. My inbox would be full to the brim with touching messages from other women who wanted to see themselves examine result in in the media. I remember the high I felt – and I began to believe I was on to something, that a shift was starting to happen in the world; a movement where people wanted to see different kinds of approaches to beauty and living.
But this sweet honeymoon stage done came crashing down. Last year I had a wake-up call on the effect social media was having on my state of skin alive when I went through a period of acute anxiety and struggled to function for months. My love affair with Instagram and my new sensation of self had turned ugly. Eventually, the idea of performing on the platform when I didn’t want to trigger such beyond feelings that even fulfilling the smallest of tasks – from getting to my dance class to doing my weekly blow the whistle on buy – felt daunting.
It turns out I was a statistic. A study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry in September found that of 6,600 uninitiated people, those who spent more than three hours a day on social media were more likely to reveal mental health problems, including anxiety and depression.
As Instagram exploded, becoming a platform for celebrity as well as state and social influence, everything on my feed suddenly seemed to need to become more veneered – and more self-promotional. The app had behove a workspace where we were supposed to put only our best foot forward.
As my follower numbers increased and I started to pocket money from sponsored posts, the innocence of how I used the app began to get lost. I was left thinking: are we the ones evolving these apps or are these apps shifting us?
As my success with it increased, so did the weight of responsibility. What do you lose when you start commodifying your essence and your authenticity? Do you befit less you? I became increasingly aware that happiness on social media is intertwined with capitalistic ideals of prosperity. Is this what I actually wanted, or was this an ideal I had absorbed from social media’s societal messaging? I was come to term lost in the culture of comparison that apps like Instagram create.
I was forced to seriously question these utopians when I found myself in an actual romantic relationship with someone who I met on Instagram. By swiftly examining his profile I fixed he ticked all of what I thought were my “boxes”. My spy-like examination of his page told me he was smart, beautiful and that we had myriad similar interests. When we eventually started to speak via DMs, our conversations flowed easily. My physical reactions to our digital interactions were good. I was hooked.
There were knots in my stomach, butterflies and giddy excitement. I quickly started to fantasise what a approaching together could look like for us. Meeting in real life was intoxicating. A digital fantasy had, seemingly, become genuineness. Our relationship moved quickly because we were both in love with another image, the one we’d created of the other child – an image that was almost purely based on each other’s social media profiles.
And so, just as quickly as it started, mechanisms swiftly took a downward spiral as we woke up to the reality, rather than the perfect avatar versions, of each other. The be employed, holiday and family photos that had made me feel so drawn to him, were not, of course, all that he was: there was a huge amount of complicatedness beneath those images. For both of us, our behaviour and the reality of who we were didn’t match up to the other’s expectations, which led to us demoralizing up.
While writing a book about our relationship with social media, I realised it was exactly that: a relationship. And I missed to treat it like one. For it to be healthy and functional, I needed boundaries, I needed breaks, I needed room to breathe. And I needed to set my own expectations.
Quietly, the thought of completely stepping away from social media is unimaginable. I think I would feel very damned. After all, it’s how I’ve met some of my best friends. It’s also my biggest resource for being able to see things from different vantage points. I still want to be a person of the digital world, but I needed to take into account that apps like Instagram necessity to keep me hooked.
By taking breaks and choosing when to be online, I’ve found that there is a richness in the quiet, a unpublished symphony in airplane mode. Having learned that, I am now hopeful that I can continue to be a part of sharing and creating the time I want to see and be a part of.
The most important lesson has been to realise that my self-worth is not based on a number – of followers or adores. Whatever I achieve or accomplish is not what makes me worthy as a person. My abundant human complexity is not determined by a tiled lose everything of square images and nor is it dependent on external validation. I still believe in goals, it’s just that the goals look damned different now. Just because something looks good doesn’t mean it is good, so I’m going to keep making purposes based on how things feel over how they look. I feel rich in love, connection and experience and while Instagram has at times smoothed some of these things, deep down I know that I am the source of that richness – and no app can ever take my location.
Mixed Feelings: Exploring the Emotional Impact of our Digital Habits by Naomi Shimada and Sarah Raphael is published by Quadrille at £16.99. Buy it for £14.95 at
Makeup by Celia Evans at One Represents using Cutie Pie; skin of ones teeth by Tommy Stayton; jumpsuit by Issey Miyake Pleats Please; Jewellery by Alighieri


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