Growing Up Online: A Social Media Influencer Gets Real With Her Mom About Navigating Trolls, Digital Representation & The Beauty Of The Block Button
In this three-part series done in partnership with The Dove Self-Esteem Project, we asked three youth leaders to have honest, candid dialogues with their mothers about what it’s like to grow up with social media, how it can damage self-esteem and lead to toxic beauty practices, and what they’ve done to rebuild their confidence. In the first installment, 26-year-old body-positivity advocate Candace Molatore chats with her mother Elisabeth Molatore about the realities of growing up as a Black girl in a white family, how she deals with online hate, and the steps she takes to turn her social media experience into a positive one. Read (and listen to) their moving dialogue, below.
Racism & Lack Of Representation
Candace: I was adopted at about two weeks old from Louisville, Kentucky. I don't know much about my birth family other than my birth mom was younger and had two daughters already. My parents really wanted a baby.
Elisabeth: I think that you and I must've been friends or mother and daughter in an earlier life. My husband and I knew right away we wanted you. They told us the adoption process would take nine months, but it was two.
Candace: As a Black woman growing up in a white family in the deeper country of Oregon, I didn't have a lot of people who looked like me growing up. My parents did the best they could to make sure I felt beautiful. They were my cheerleaders from a very young age, but it's also important to have role models or people you can relate to. I looked to the media for that, but in the early 2000s, there wasn’t a lot of media representation for Black women, or fat Black women. It caused me to look inward for confidence, but at the age of 12 or 13, when you're in middle school, you just want to fit in. It becomes difficult to be your own cheerleader during those formative years.
Elisabeth: And there was racism.
Candace: Absolutely, there was racism. I faced racism from the time I was six. There was a young girl who had told me that she couldn't come over to my house because I was Black.
Elisabeth: I heard you say, “But it's okay, because they're white.” It was just a shock.
Candace: As a family, we definitely worked our way through those emotions brought on by things like racism, especially at a young age. It was definitely not easy, but I had the best people in my corner.
Elisabeth: Candace, you have always been incredibly strong; you were just you all the time. I'm amazed at how confident you've always been, since you were two-and-a-half weeks old. The truth is, when I looked at you, you were so beautiful. I couldn't get over it. You were shining with confidence, and you taught me how to give you self-esteem.
Bridging The Digital Gap
Candace: The internet blew my world wide open. I grew up in Oregon City, in a town where not a lot of people looked like me, and so when I was able to go online — MySpace, Tumblr, and then eventually Instagram — I was exposed to so many different people and personalities. I was 12 and just on the internet all the time, and it felt like a new form of self-expression.
Mom, you might not know this about social media, but there’s also a tendency to show a highlight reel of your life, instead of any difficulties, and it’s fostered a culture of toxicity to a point where people feel like they can't live up to these highlight reels. As someone who lives online, whose job centers around being online, it does affect me. In 2013 or 2014, before I found the body-positive movement, I was definitely influenced by that "Instagram model” look, the girl with the perfect body. I’m not that way now, but it’s still the case for a lot of people. It took a lot of work for me to unlearn a lot of those things that people have put into practice online for so long, so I don’t look at that content, I don’t follow people who push an unrealistic beauty standard.
Elisabeth: It seems that you didn't share or didn't talk about these things. But you found a way to say, “That’s crap. That’s not okay.” And I know it took time — years — because once, when you were really tiny, you said your skin wouldn't wash off. And that was painful.
Candace: I’ve already lived through not being the “beauty standard,” or being told by the media that I wasn’t enough. I’m able to now clock it more, recognize that it doesn’t make me feel good. If I don’t feel good, then why am I following these people? I’ve started questioning those things more.
Elisabeth: I feel that my lack of tech knowledge has kept me from knowing who you are now. I'm two generations, a little bit older than you.
Candace: Technology does add a barrier sometime between generations. When I talk about my job, it can feel a little bit daunting to explain.
Different Generation, Same Beauty Expectations
Candace: Nowadays, it feels like social media is becoming more authentic. There’s pushback against that unrealistic standard of beauty or wealth or whatever it is that makes people feel bad about themselves online. It is still pretty rampant though.
Elisabeth: When I was your age, I didn't have any self-esteem. I saw beautiful women in magazines and I compared myself to them constantly. But I knew I wasn’t going to give any of those feelings to you or place any “skinny values” on you.
Candace: Your upbringing showed you a lot of things you didn't want to pass down to me. You were taught to be modest, to not take up space, to not speak out of turn, or to not wear certain things.
Elisabeth: Shame and guilt, yes, specifically over your body.
Candace: Are you surprised that the unrealistic beauty standards that have basically been developed since you were young are still rampant today?
Elisabeth: Not at all surprised. I was raised on TV and magazines my whole life. What I’m absolutely loving is seeing you and women like you loving their bodies. You and the body-positive movement amazes me. I've learned from it myself. I've learned to accept my age.
Candace: From the time you were my age to now, there’s still a lot of these pressures placed on women that are unrealistic. The tragedy is that it has taken this long for people to even question it, let alone push back, or have new standards brought in.
Social Media As A Positive Platform
Candace: When I was 16 or 17, I started watching YouTubers who were making fashion and styling videos. I was really inspired by the women I was watching on YouTube, and that eventually translated over to Instagram. I didn't start posting my content until 2017 when I found the body-positive movement, and it was this amazing community of mostly Black women at the time who were unapologetically themselves. They looked like me or had experiences that were similar to mine. It opened up this whole new world.
Elisabeth: I have a religious background, and I'm a retired English teacher, so it was a complete surprise to me that you can use social media and show a real part of your life to make money.
Candace: It’s such a new career for so many people. There's no playbook. You don’t go to college to work in social media the same way that you would to become a lawyer, or a teacher. Correct me if I'm wrong, but growing up in your generation, it was very much like you go to college, you get this job, you get a family, you pay your bills. And if you want to do anything artsy or fun, it's a hobby, it's not a career.
Elisabeth: That's right.
Candace: I think with the online landscape being what it is, a lot of people saw opportunity, not even just to make money, but to grow a community, to experience something outside of themselves. I just ended up stumbling into it, but it’s been a really cool journey.
Elisabeth: It’s so you.
Candace: And now you think it's the coolest thing ever, right?
Elisabeth: I think it's wonderful. I only have trouble with the constant changes. I didn’t even know what Instagram was. You were doing it for a couple of years before I even understood there was an online reality. And, I don't know. I wish we'd talked earlier. But mostly, I wish I had known enough earlier to ask you questions. (Editor’s note: For parents who are at a loss on how to talk to their children about the pressures of social media, download the Confidence Kit from The Dove Self-Esteem Project here.)
Blocking Haters & Trolls
Candace: There are absolutely trolls [online]. Trolls are anonymous strangers on the internet who like to mess with you, who call you names. Especially in the body-positive movement, trolls are pretty rampant, because there's a lot of fatphobia online. And there's fatphobia in real life, too. In the beginning, it was harder because I would do something really cool, like a campaign, and 90% of the comments are positive, but then there are the few comments that make you feel like absolute garbage.
Elisabeth: Have you gotten used to it?
Candace: Not completely, but I think I'm in a better mindset now — I understand that those people don't know me personally, they don't know my journey. Learning how to deal with internet hate and understanding that I'm not those things that people say were a big part of my confidence journey. Doing that while unfollowing pages that don’t bring me joy, investing in people who add value or make me want to become a better person have helped. I think you have to make social media platforms work for you, and not against you, to take charge of your online experience.
Elisabeth: Do you have times where you're down? Days when it hurts?
Candace: It’s important to note that my confidence journey doesn’t mean I wake up and I’m obsessed with myself. It’s about waking up and working on myself, and understanding there are days that might be lower. I equate it to learning a skill because you are constantly working on yourself. There are times when you just don't feel as cute or as peppy.
Elisabeth: Except that you don't want to just be waking up and working on yourself every day. It should be waking up and loving this body. And where’s the sun? And should I see my parents? Yes.
Candace: That's the attitude, but no one is positive all the time. It’s not realistic. That’s the hard thing about the body-positive movement. What some people may not understand when they’re starting their confidence journey is that when they have a down day, it’s their fault. It’s about accepting yourself on low days and high days. I will not have 100% positive days, and that's okay. When negative self-talk creeps in, that’s when I’m happy to have found practices, like self-affirmations and surrounding myself in real life with people who don’t bring me down. I hope that social media and everybody's persona online can start to lean in that direction.
Elisabeth: You let yourself be real. I imagine that sharing your less-than-perfect self gives trolls more things that will possibly hurt you. That's what I worry about when it comes to sharing yourself online. I’m terrified somebody will find you and hate you.
Candace: Well, it happens. My body, by society’s standards, isn’t perfect, so that's enough ammunition, right? The point of the body-positive movement is to normalize these bodies and terms, like using “fat” as a descriptor and not as a negative word. That’s what we have to lean into, otherwise no change will happen. The bigger goal is to have these bodies feel welcome in any space; online is just a small snippet of the grander mission. I have things in place to help me feel positive online just as I have things in place to help me feel positive in real life, but the reality is that positivity isn't the goal for every day. It's just self-acceptance.
Elisabeth: I didn't realize trolls were so prominent or so present in social media.
Candace: I am swift with that block button. Love you. Thanks for doing this with me.
Elisabeth: I love you too. Thank you for giving this chance to me to think about you and remember who you were all your years.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.