Why Fashion Influencers Are "Pivoting" To Anxiety

Yana Sheptovetskaya started posting reviews of beauty products on Instagram in the spring of 2016, using the handle @Gelcream. A former fashion editor, she photographed each item with winning simplicity: a bottle of Fresh face oil or a tube of Glossier highlighter held in her outstretched hand, illuminated as though by a beam of light cutting through a dark room. Gelcream’s photo style was imitated all over the internet, and Sheptovetskaya racked up media coverage along with tens of thousands — now hundreds of thousands — of followers.

After seven months and dozens of reviews, Sheptovetskaya interrupted her usual programming with a picture of a manicured hand holding an orange vial of antidepressants.

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“2016 was my year of realising things. I found out that I am depressed. It started [a] couple years ago when I noticed that my memories are kinda faded and my mood swings a little,” she wrote in the caption. “I am writing this because I feel terrible that I lost so much time, that I thought it is normal to stop experiencing things at their fullest. I wish someone told me that the hormonal pills I take for the past 7 years to treat PCOS [polycystic ovarian syndrome] can cause depression, that it's not me, it's the chemistry. I can't explain how amazing it is to get the harmony back.”

Sheptovetskaya says she doesn’t plan her posts ahead of time, as many Instagrammers do, and recalls deciding to share the post in a fit of anger at the birth control pills that had caused her mood to crater. The response from her followers was tremendous, with DMs rolling in from people who shared her frustration. Today, the post has over 1,500 likes and more than 150 comments — about five times the response elicited by her other posts from that time.

“I realised that when I started talking, people started responding,” Sheptovetskaya says. “Everyone has some sort of a problem, and they’re just keeping it to themselves because it’s so shameful to accept that I don’t feel well or I feel sad.”

With more than 118,000 followers, Sheptovetskaya is one of many high-profile Instagrammers who have begun peppering their grids and Stories with deeply personal posts about mental health. It’s a striking turn on a platform that often feels like a highlight reel of people’s lives — a beautiful, maddening blur of beach vacations, expensive dinners out, impossibly glowing skin, and exciting career news. But occasionally, and increasingly, influencers are puncturing the idealised self-portraits that they’ve painted and letting followers in on their darker moments.

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Swimsuit model Nina Agdal has opened up about her anxiety, writing that it has spiked during fashion week. Olivia Culpo, an influencer and former Miss Universe, wrote at length about her experience with depression, explaining that even during that time she was “still taking photos on social media and pretending everything was great.” Garance Doré, a longtime style blogger, rang in 2019 with a long post about finding her way through a difficult few years, after getting caught up “in this mirage of the fashion girl.” The disconnect between real life and life as portrayed on Instagram is not lost on them.

Tellingly, these posts tend to elicit strong positive reactions from followers. Sheptovetskaya, who continues to write about PCOS and mental health when she feels compelled, says the posts that get the biggest responses tend to be reviews of cheap Amazon finds and narratives about personal challenges. The reason is simple: They’re both incredibly relatable.

“I think what has contributed to influencers’ astronomical success, compared to regular celebrities or a beautiful model wearing great clothes, is the 24-hour access they give us, and the fact that they really play to our human need for connection,” says Meg Gitlin, a therapist who cites social media as a common topic among her clients. “The use of the word ‘followers’ isn’t accidental. We may be following [influencers] on Instagram or social media, but it’s not a far leap to say that we’re following their lead in terms of what’s cool, what’s relevant, and what’s worth our time and attention. When an influencer lets their guard down and expresses some sort of personal struggle that they’re going through, I think that it makes us feel less alone.”

But on Instagram, nothing is ever simple. Encountering such fortifying confessionals is predicated upon using a technology that has significant potential to make a person feel terrible about herself. Instagram can leave you with a stomach full of envy and self-doubt, and influencers’ admissions of personal struggle may or may not offset those effects. More confusingly, even the most well-intentioned personal posts engage the same mechanics and reward systems that make Instagram toxic. The aspirational and anxious, the euphoric and sad, are just a scroll away from one another, asking for the same thing: Like me, please.

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Once taboo, mental health has in recent years become a more acceptable and even welcome topic of conversation in public forums. Millennials are seeking out therapy at higher rates than past generations, and the general consensus is that we live in extremely anxious times, with concerns about global warming, mass shootings, political turmoil, financial insecurity, and humanitarian crises contributing to our daily stress.

And, of course, there’s social media, which is well-known for affecting one’s self esteem and sense of stability. Erin Vogel, a postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry at UCSF, ran a 2014 study that examined how aspirational posts affects social media users. Subjects were either shown the profiles of fictional people who posted life highlights and received a lot of likes and comments, or posts that were more mundane. The results wouldn’t surprise anyone who’s spent a dreary Sunday afternoon scrolling through others’ vacation pics from Positano: Those who saw the highlight-heavy profiles reported feeling worse about themselves, while the other group felt less of a change. While it’s tempting to think we should be able to correct for this and carry on using social media, knowledge and feelings don’t always move in concert.

“The thing with social comparison is that it can affect us in ways we don’t even realise and for longer than we realise,” Vogel says.

It’s easy to feel unsympathetic toward influencers, the group of Instagram users who most obviously enact the digital depiction of leisure, luxury, fitness, and travel that make onlookers feel inferior. But being in the business of constructing an idealised digital identity — effectively turning your life into a consumer product — can take a serious toll on a person’s mental health, too.

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Larissa May, a former fashion influencer who now runs #HalftheStory, a nonprofit dedicated to building a conversation around social media and mental health, says that creating content for her blog took over her life. She was constantly buying and returning clothes to photograph herself in; when she went out to eat, she went to the most photogenic restaurant she could find. Every aspect of May’s life had a commercial purpose.

“It has a profound effect on your mental wellbeing. There’s a lot of isolation and loneliness,” May says of the influencer business.

It doesn’t help that being a public figure online comes with a constant bombardment of feedback, both positive and ruthlessly negative.

“It takes a very strong person to be able to weather that sort of environment, and it’s not for everybody,” says Jennifer Powell, a talent agent for digital influencers. “The ones that end up doing very well are able to deal with the negativity... You have to have a really tough shell and a really good sense of self and be convicted in what you’re doing.”

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Powell advises her clients to protect themselves emotionally by setting clear boundaries about what they are and aren’t willing to talk about with their followers. For some influencers, that means avoiding the topic of mental health entirely. But when an influencer does decide to open up, it can benefit them, too.

Gitlin notes that these candid moments can strengthen the trust between an influencer and her audience (“What builds trust more than being vulnerable?”). But relatability is also currency in the influencer economy. It helps Instagrammers attract lucrative brand partnerships, which assume a correlation between influencers’ opinions and their audience’s spending decisions. Taking into account how well emotionally vulnerable posts perform, it’s hard not to wonder whether some Instagrammers do it, even just a little bit, for the faves.

The cynical line of thinking is that influencers post about mental health to boost their engagement numbers and endear themselves to their followers. The worst case scenario is that posts like these, which are almost always paired with attractive photos, could make their followers feel worse about themselves: If this is how they look at their worst, how can I possibly measure up?

The social media professionals I interviewed agreed that, yes, an influencer could post about mental health entirely for their own gain. Some had come across posts that struck them as disingenuous, but said that it’s impossible to know the intention behind anyone’s social output. Overwhelmingly, though, they expressed the belief that talking to a large Instagram audience about mental health is a weighty responsibility. It’s not something to be leveraged for business results.

Nicole Loher, a digital strategist and fitness influencer who is doing unpaid work with #HalftheStory, says that when she uses her platform to talk about physical and mental health, she is careful to note that she isn’t a doctor and that she is speaking only about her personal experience. Influencers should also be prepared to direct their followers toward pre-vetted resources, she adds; as Gitlin points out, Instagram is not a replacement for individualised counselling.

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With #HalftheStory, May’s goal is to get more major influencers involved in talking about the personal struggles that don’t come across on their Instagram grids. Powell, meanwhile, sees an opportunity for influencers to partner with mental health nonprofits and even bring that work into other brand deals, by donating a percentage of sales to a nonprofit.

“I really believe that when you have a large social following you do have a social responsibility to figure out a way to use your platform for good,” says Powell. And sometimes the way to get there is by acknowledging the bad.

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