Two years ago, De-Grace Omari looked at her Instagram feed and realized something unnerving: All the influencers and models she followed were thin (or slim-thick, the new feminine body ideal) and either white women or light-skinned women of color.
“I started to think, ‘Why don’t my pictures look as good as theirs? Why doesn’t my hair look like that?’” the homewares designer wrote to HuffPost. “I think it affected how I saw myself and how I viewed my desirability as a dark-skinned woman.”
Looking at her feed, Omari struggled to find someone who actually looked like her. “I am not a slim person, I have lumps and bumps, curves and lines, so why follow those that do not represent me in any way, shape or form?” she recalled thinking.
So Omari decided to go on an unfollowing ― and following ― spree. She stopped following influencers that didn’t look like her, both in complexion and body type, and made a conscious effort to follow women who did look similar to her.
“I really needed this because I feel like it somehow re-wired my framework,” she said. “When you continuously look at certain things it will become the norm, so if you change what you look at, your views on those things changes, too.”
Omari came to a savvy conclusion about her social media intake: “I wasn’t going to sacrifice my mental health or punish myself by doing an intense ‘makeover’ to try and look like my ‘faves’ when I could just change what I look at instead.”
“Far too many people think that there is something wrong with their appearance, but in truth, there is something wrong with the cultural paradigm of perfection that we’ve been sold.”
In the age of “fitspiration” and diet-centric content, reevaluating who you follow like Omari did can do wonders for your self-esteem and body image, said Andrea Wachter, a psychotherapist and author of “Getting Over Overeating for Teens.”
“Seeing and following people who look like you helps create feelings of acceptance and connectedness,” she told HuffPost. “It’s human nature to want to fit in and be part of a tribe.”
Wachter said she’s watched as clients as young as 6 years old pick apart their bodies, and clients pushing 80 who’ve never felt at peace with their bodies. It’s not them, she reminds them; increasingly, it’s who and what they’re seeing.
“Far too many people think that there is something wrong with their appearance, but in truth, there is something wrong with the cultural paradigm of perfection that we’ve been sold, especially on social media now,” she said.
Studies have long suggested that frequent use of social media is associated with lower levels of self-esteem. Fitspiration content, in particular ― images that show taunt, fit models and trainers doing exercises (or at least posing if they were exercising) ― can be devastating to our body perception.
In a 2017 study, Amy Slater, an associate professor at the University of West England, Bristol, had 160 female undergraduates view either “#fitspo” images, self-compassion quotes or a mix of both ― all curated from real accounts on Instagram.
Those who viewed only #fitspo scored lower on self-compassion, while those who viewed just the compassionate quotes (e.g. “You’re perfect just the way you are”) scored higher on body appreciation, self-compassion and mood.
Men aren’t immune to these influences, either. A 2019 study found that men who reported looking at male #fitspo content more frequently said they compared their own appearance to others more often and felt compelled to build more muscle mass.
No one is impervious to the impossible body standards we see on Instagram, said Sadi Fox, a psychologist who specializes in body image issues and eating disorders.
“People of all ages, genders and races idolize influencers and celebrities, but the images are particularly impactful on young women,” Fox said.
“If influencers are mainly thin, this then tells the consumer that this is ‘the ideal.’ The young mind may think, ‘they look this way and that’s why they have status.’ This keeps the ‘thin ideal’ mainstream and idolized.”
Without a diversified following list, the endless stream of impossibly small waistlines, “what I eat in a day” videos and celebrities promoting magic-bullet diet pills can start to get to you.
Megan Retherford, a graduate student in Michigan, fell into that trap in high school. At the time, she had come off some medication and grew into an adult body she wasn’t quite expecting.
“I went from a size 0 to a size 10 in a matter of two years as a teenager, and my body has continued to change throughout my adult life,” she told HuffPost.
Years went by where Retherford loathed her body, but eventually she got sick of fixating on her weight and yo-yo diets that went nowhere. She set out to improve her self-image. Diversifying the body types she followed on Instagram played a huge part in that.
“Over the course of many years, I have been able to change my mindset almost entirely and I have a very healthy relationship with food and my body now largely due to who I see living fulfilling lives as fat women on social media,” she said.
It’s not just influencers and celebrities with Facetuned figures that Retherford sees on her feed now. It’s women her size, but also smaller and larger women. It’s people of color and people of varying abilities and gender expressions. Her feed is a veritable rainbow of body types and colors, not just an endless stream of thin white ladies.
“I think that seeing people who look like me and thinking they were beautiful helped me to believe that my body can be beautiful, too,” she said. (Some of her favorite body-positive accounts? Megan Jayne Crabbe of @bodyposipanda and Natalie Drue Hage of @nataliemeansnice.)
Retherford doesn’t allow herself to follow people who aren’t working toward a similar goal of body positivity. And anytime an influencer tries to sell detox tea, “away they go,” she said.
“I think all people can benefit from throwing out the idea of ‘thinspiration’ and just start following people who make them feel like they can also become their best selves,” she said.
Of course, diversifying your feed doesn’t mean that you swear off accounts belonging to thin influencers. It just means doing a deep dive into who you’re following and, every now and then, asking yourself how those accounts make you feel in the collective. If the answer is “not good,” why not fix that?
Six months after her unfollowing spree, Omari started to refollow the influencers who had previously dominated her feed. Still, she does so in moderation.
“I think it’s important to be conscious while using Instagram especially with the rise of social media and influencers,” she said.
“You have to ask yourself, why do I follow this person?” she said. “What interests me about them? Is it their lifestyle? Is it simply their beauty? How do I feel when I see this person and look at their posts? Do I feel inspired? Do I feel like I’ve found someone I can relate to? Do I simply enjoy their aesthetics? Or do I simply want to be [like] them?”
It’s your Instagram account. Conducting a mini audit of who you follow is a way to make your feed work for you.
In Omari’s case, following other curvy, dark-skinned women has led her to feel genuinely inspired by what she sees on Instagram.
“Diversifying my feed has helped me with little things like how I can style my hair, how I can do my makeup,” Omari said.
And her feed mostly mirrors her, which is a good goal if body confidence is what you’re after. (Yes, many curvy influencers are still hawking the same Fabletics yoga pants, but at least you can look at said yoga pants and say, “Oh, those would look so great on me” and mean it.)
“I can tell you, seeing something on someone that looks like me makes everything easier and [my feed] so much more enjoyable,” Omari said. “It gives you a sense of acceptance. You feel ‘seen.’”
Here’s a short list of influencers to follow to help mix up your feed:
1. Karina Marriott/@styleidealist
2. Kristina Zias/@kristinazias
3. Lottie L’Amour/@lottielamour
Lottie L’Amour is a plus-size blogger from the U.K. On her Instagram and blog, the vivacious influencer posts about LGBTQ+ rights, diet culture, and of course, fashion. Follow Lottie.
4. Scarlett Hao/@scarletthalo_
Fashion PR and social media specialist Scarlett Hao doesn’t shy away from big, bold prints and colors. Come for the fashion, stay for the pics of Scarlett’s adorable Frenchie, Halo. Follow Scarlett.
5. Kelsey Breisinger/@kelclight
Pittsburgh-based influencer Kelsey Breisinger is a “body love advocate” who shares her street style and plenty of inspirational posts on body acceptance. Follow Kelsey.
6. Ericka Hart/@ihartericka
Ericka Hart is a queer femme activist who came to our attention after she went topless to Afropunk in 2016, exposing her double mastectomy scars. On her Instagram account, she shares her thoughts on anti-racism, body acceptance and OOTD pics. Follow Ericka.
7. Arielle Calderon/@ariellesays
Previously at BuzzFeed, Arielle publicly shared her weight loss journey in a super relatable article that went viral. If you’re working on fitness this year, it’s well worth a read. On her Instagram she posts OOTD and travel pics that often feature cameos from her uber-fluffy goldendoodle, Lulu Bear. Follow Arielle.