Melina Birchem has uploaded 777 images to her Instagram account over the past two years: sushi, Starbucks, her new tattoo, rosary beads, cowboy boots. Sometimes the juxtaposition is jarring. A glowing monstrance, a chilled margarita. A snapshot from waitressing, a prayer journal documenting her consecration to the Blessed Mother.
As a freshman at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, Melina has tried to moderate her use of social media, deleting the Facebook and Twitter apps from her iPhone and abandoning Snapchat altogether. Instagram has been harder to rein in, admits the psychology major, an amateur photographer and self-described “beauty seeker” who is among more than 400 million users drawn to the 5-year-old photo-sharing social network.
“I have one of those love-hate relationships with Instagram,” Melina said.
It captures her adventures, connects her with friends and kindles her faith. But sometimes it sends Melina down a destructive path, like when it leads her to bikini photos that erode her self-esteem.
Even following friends can induce pangs of envy. “I’m constantly seeing rings and relationships popping up on my Instagram. It can make me feel very single.”
It’s easy to get stuck in the honeycomb of Instagram feeds, where six degrees of separation becomes two taps – from someone you know to someone who knows someone you know, then a total stranger with an expensive wardrobe and a nice tan. The filters create a fun-house mirror of comparison, rendering you short and squatty. They’re the ones out making great memories – picking apples, lounging poolside, kissing beneath a Ferris wheel. You’re the one in sweatpants stalking them from the couch.
Instagram has created a culture of unabashed voyeurism. To comment on a picture with the popular hashtag “goals” is to openly covet. It’s often a one-word comment, an evolution from the “I like this” of a facile Facebook thumbs-up to “I want to be this.” Yet the word “goals” connotes a rigorous academic pursuit, making it perfectly acceptable, even witty.
“That hashtag is a pet peeve of mine!” Melina said. “It’s is a code for comparison and envy. It’s like, ‘Why are you striving to be someone else when God meant you to be you? You are precious in his eyes!’”
Melina is trying to reclaim the hashtag by occasionally tagging her posts with “Catholicgoals,” a tongue-in-cheek reminder of what really matters – sacraments, prayer, friendship. She resists the temptation to curate her Instagram feed in order to project a perfect life, realizing that wouldn’t be healthy for her or friends who would view it. “You’re never going to have good conversations with people if you’re not willing to be vulnerable.”
Melina believes we’ve become too passive about toxic influences. “We’re scared of certain consequences that may or may not happen if we make a first decision to cut off that which kills us,” she said. “I want to challenge us to become bolder in seeing what is hurting us physically, emotionally, spiritually and then doing something about it.”
That may mean unfollowing a feed that’s bringing you down or giving up Instagram for a week. For Melina, such measures are part of a deliberate effort to stay rooted in her identity as a daughter of Christ. When she’s bombarded by Cosmo covers at the grocery-store check-out, she turns away and recites Song of Solomon: “You are beautiful, my love, there is no flaw in you.”
Sure, she’d like to lose weight, but when Melina looks in the mirror, she focuses on her chocolate brown eyes and her bright, all-consuming smile. “There’s a joy in my smile that reminds me of a woman in love,” she said. “I love the way God made me and the way his joy in me is infectious.”
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and the editor of SisterStory.org.