I'm going to admit something that I wish wasn't true: I care about the way I look on social media. I care a lot. I act like I don't because, in my ideal world, I wouldn't, and I have such reverence—envy even—for people who never worry about how they appear online. The truth is, however, that I desperately want to look effortlessly cool and beautiful on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and even freaking Google images, ultimately because I want to seem that way in real life. Sometimes, I almost think I pull it off.
But then—and this happens a few times a month—I inevitably find myself descending into a social media black hole, stalking old photos, not of other people, but of myself. Sometimes these scroll binges are inspired by a simple, random urge to find some old photo from my Instagram feed, but other times they start with the Facebook Memories feature. (You know how we get those notifications reminding us of what we were posting on such-and-such a day three years ago? Seems like a charming way to stroll down memory lane, until all the sudden, it's two hours later, and you find yourself obsessing over the dreadful orange hair color you had in 2013, wondering how anyone let you look like that).
Every time I enter one of these online excavations, it invariably results in me spiraling into self-hatred over how hideous I used to be. (Look how insane my eyebrows looked, I'll think, horrified, or, Why does my face look so bloated there? Is that what I really look like?) What follows is the anxiety that I am still a monster, that everyone sees it but me, and that I have no perception of how I truly appear to other people. I get that this worry is delusional and self-centered, but it's real, and for a few late nights out of every month, it consumes me.
As it turns out, though, I am not alone in my personal freakouts over old Facebook photos. "I think social media gives nearly endless opportunities for each of us to compare ourselves to others and … to [our] younger [selves]," says Peg O'Connor, Ph.D., an author for Pro Talk on Rehabs.com. "Studies are showing that … millennial women manifest more depression and anxiety as they spend more time on social media platforms."
Why? One reason is that the comparisons we make on social media can cause daily feelings of inferiority. "Consistently seeing yourself as less beautiful, popular, accomplished, etc., corrodes self-esteem," O'Connor says.
The context surrounding this is, of course, the fact that our society places so much of a woman's worth on how beautiful, thin, and youthful she looks. Social media can serve to perpetuate these expectations. "The constant comparisons and judgments [on social media] … may become something of a blood sport," O'Connor says.
Social media gives nearly endless opportunities for each of us to compare ourselves to others and … to [our] younger [selves].
What gets me, however, is not the comparison of myself to other people but to my former self, which, thanks to the internet, perpetually haunts me. For me, the source of my self-loathing stems from having to look at my embarrassing image from three, five, and even 10 years ago (yes, Facebook is that old), but for others, it's the opposite. They see an old photo and instantly long for how fit they used to look, or how tan, or how long their hair used to be. There has never been a time in history when so many photos of ourselves have existed, especially not for the world to see. Twenty years ago, our past weights and haircuts (and the memories that went with them) were able to fade from memory organically. But now, there are incessant reminders (like Facebook Memories). This can make it difficult to move on.
But according to mental health experts, our perception of the photos we see of ourselves on social media is often warped. "Here is what the picture is missing: How we were feeling at the time," says Scott Dehorty, LCSW-C, the Executive Director at Maryland House Detox, Delphi Behavioral Health. "Pictures are not reality. … They do not speak to the circumstances, emotions, or thoughts of that moment." (Not to mention the dozens of outtakes, posing, filters, and Facetune that possibly went into those photos.) Whether we think we look much better in the old pictures or so unsightly we want to crawl into a hole, Dehorty reminds us: "These are snapshots of time and not representative of who we are."
Even though I know it's true, sometimes I fail to remember that who I am is not my social media image (or my appearance at all, for that matter). "We cannot measure who or what we are based on pixels on a screen," Dehorty affirms. "We have feelings, thoughts, passions, beliefs, and souls. None of these are reflected in a selfie or a beach pic from 2010."
We cannot measure who or what we are based on pixels on a screen.
However irrational, social media anxiety and depression are realities for many. So what can we do when we find ourselves dwelling on old photos? If your concern is that you looked better in the past than you do now, O'Connor has some advice for how to counteract those harsh thoughts with positive, realistic ones. "Every time a person makes a negative comment about her present self in comparison to a younger self, they also need to note something positive," O'Connor explains. "They might say to themselves, 'Yes, I was in great shape then, but now I have work I love.' This is a mechanical exercise, but that's what it takes to make new habits."
In some cases, however, the healthiest move is simply to go on a social media detox—to delete the Instagram and Facebook apps from your phone for a week, and see how it feels. "If you find yourself feeling down or poorly about who you are after perusing your past online, take a break from it," Dehorty advises. "Believe it or not, we lived without social media for a long time."
Do you ever get depressed looking at old photos of yourself on social media? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.