How Instagram Brainwashed My Boyfriend

Two women film themselves dancing.
Photo by Artem Podrez from Pexels

Trigger warning: Discussions of body image and emotional abuse.
Note: I do not blame social media; this is about my experiences and how I have seen people trick themselves into thinking the filtered life is real. I also acknowledge that there was emotional abuse happening in parallel with these unrealistic expectations.

I froze. My boyfriend grabbed my stomach and started playfully moving it around. We had only been together (officially) for a few weeks.

Me: “What are you doing?”

Him: “Nothing, we’re just talking.”

It was that blatant, and simultaneously that ignored. The expectation that I would pick up these signals and fit a standard happened daily.

Him: “Look how skinny we were back then!” (Barely 12 months had passed).

Him: “Your high heels slow you down.”

Him: “Those pigtails look dumb.”

Him: “I hope we don’t have daughters because neither of us will be able to teach them how to do makeup.”

Him: “When you sat down to put on shoes, your dress went up. I don’t think you even know how to be a lady.”

Beyond an expectation

This isn’t new. Unfortunately, people hear these things all the time from their partners. The thing that frustrated me was the root of them ended up being social media.

I noticed back when you could see what people were liking from their Instagram account. Strings of tiny, scantily clad, perfect women would appear next to his @. Eventually, I asked if he thought it’d be ok for me to interact with male accounts the way he constantly did. “No, of course not,” was his reply. I stopped checking, so I don’t know if he stopped liking.

The more we talked about general beauty during the course of our relationship, the more I realized he thought it was all real. He expected me to crawl out of bed looking like an unattainable creature, and he was disappointed when my pigtails were more “I didn’t have time to do my hair” and less “super bowling adorable girl.”

He didn’t seem to process my shape as anything other than changeable. Something I could do better with if I tried harder like the women he scrolled through every day. Since I wasn’t gliding about in 6-inch stilettos without a single line on my face, I wasn’t good enough.

Now, you might be thinking, “This has always been the case. Everyone fantasizes about the ideal.” This is your wake-up call. It’s no longer fantasizing about the ideal — it’s an expectation that this is reality and anything less is just a letdown.

How it got to me

Typically, I try to keep internal comparisons to a minimum. They happen to everyone, but I certainly don’t encourage my brain to go there. So over the course of my relationship, when I started to feel like my unfiltered self wasn’t good enough, I didn’t know what was happening.

My reaction? Not one I’d advise. I stopped taking care of myself. Why even try? When I did try, I’d get a quick, “You look nice” only when prompted. It took me a long time to realize that he was filtering this information to me in carefully measured doses.

He’d see a trend, and suddenly it became his ideal. I’d never match that trend, so everything I did was wrong. These filtered perfections were becoming his norm. When he set down the phone or switched off the television and looked at his reality, it didn’t match. Obviously, that was my problem and not his.

That same boyfriend once told me that he’d gone to bed with a beautiful girl, only to have her take off her makeup and look totally different. He was shocked and never saw her again. Yes, that’s awful behavior. But the genuine shock he felt that makeup can change an appearance, that’s disturbing to me.

Online dating danger zone

The strange thing is, this wasn’t the first time this happened. It was just the first time I connected the dots. Online dating was (and likely is even worse now) a whole lot of this for me. I’d be terrified that the person meeting me would walk away thinking, “I was hoping her photos just didn’t do her justice, but it looks like they were accurate.”

Certain apps are based on looks, yes. But I’m talking about the paid-for, I want a relationship, let’s talk apps. Even those were riddled with insane expectations. I’d meet men who clearly were let down that I didn’t bring an IG model aura even though I’d never presented myself as such.

Eventually, I stopped trying. It was too difficult for me to sit there, scared that I wasn’t measuring up. While it rarely happens, if you meet someone in the wild and they ask you out, they’ll know what they’re getting. Online dating just seems to see quirks and unique qualities as fodder for the eraser tool.

It seeps into your life

This morning, I got wind of a Jenner-sister debate on Photoshopping. Droves of women commenting about how her posted photos made them hate their own bodies. I wanted to write this as a warning because if you think maybe you’ve avoided that direct influence, this is another way that the filter-life can find you.

I don’t know how to stop potential significant others from buying into these images and expecting them to be reality. All that I can do is share my story because when I realized what was going on, I had a lot of work (and therapy) ahead of me to start feeling better. Hopefully, someone who reads this will realize what’s happening to them and get out before too much damage is done.

Visually impaired author and adventurer