11:47 p.m. on a Wednesday night. You’re about to doze off, laid heavily upon your twin-sized bed that leaves little room for turning in your sleep. Despite the heaviness you feel on your eyelids, you begin to feel around in the dark for your phone in search of some pre-bedtime entertainment. You hold your phone in your hands, hovering it a safe 10 inches away from your face, and hold on tight (mustn’t forget the numerous incidents where you dropped it on your face and had to suffer through the swelling sensation on your nose in the darkness).
Why is it that this has become the strange bedtime routine of our generation?
After tiring through all of your social media, fully caught up on how all of those people (whom you care for so deeply) are doing, you decide to continue exploring, ignoring the lingering sting behind your tired eyes.
It is at this point that you wander into the mysterious “Explore Posts” section of Instagram, the section where you are no longer comforted by the faces of your friends and family, but rather subjected to a strange compilation of pictures that Instagram believes you might be interested in seeing. Why Instagram thinks you might like these, you’re not so sure. Maybe these are similar to other pictures you’ve liked recently? Maybe these are some pictures that your friends have been liking? Who cares? You keep on scrolling.
First, you see pictures of friends, and then pictures of friends of friends, until finally you’re left with pictures of people you’ve never met and places you’ve never gone. At this point, it would make sense to stop. Just go to bed — you don’t even know what you’re looking at anymore. If only you could see yourself — lying there alone in the middle of your small dark room, the glow of light from your phone revealing two tired eyes and a double chin. But it’s only 12:32 a.m. You have time.
It is at this point in the night that things get really dismal — because now you’ve come across Instagram’s food accounts. It starts with a picture of mac and cheese that comes up in your “Explore Posts” section. You think to yourself, mm… that looks good, and suddenly you become very aware of the sad empty feeling in your stomach. Then you decide to torture yourself further, clicking on the “food porn” account’s profile and looking through all of their pictures. Pizza, cookies, burgers, ice cream, pasta, donuts, it doesn’t end. You reach down and lay your hand upon your stomach, wondering to yourself, when was the last time I ate? It feels like it’s been centuries even though you know it’s only been a few hours. You know you should either go get a snack or just go to sleep but something is keeping you tied to your bed, shuffling through all of these pictures of melting chocolate and grilled cheeses being pulled apart.
Your heart is full and your stomach feels emptier than it ever has before, and then suddenly you are catapulted out of this swirl of indulgence and joy when you see a picture of a skinny 16-year-old girl in a bikini on the beach, who looks like she’s having the best damn day of her entire life. Sun-kissed and sparkling, her body reminds you of the lean bend of a churro covered in dazzling cinnamon sugar.
The grumble in your stomach pauses, as your eyes dart back and forth between one picture of her perfectly flat stomach and the other picture of chocolate being drizzled over that disgustingly enticing chocolate chip cookie. Who is this girl? Why has she come here to haunt me and my hungry dreams? You begin to spend far too much time searching through her pictures. You don’t understand. Does she go to school? Does she have a job? Or does she simply spend all of her time scantily clad on a beach somewhere?
Soon your jealously for this stranger’s beauty is suddenly eating away at the empty feeling that, minutes ago, you thought was coming from your stomach. You wish you were smiling in the sunshine and wearing cool clothes instead of eating an entire bag of Cheetos alone in your bed. Your self-worth has all but disappeared into thin air and you can’t fall asleep because you’re too busy mentally cursing this girl’s name and the gods who made her so damn flawless in the first place.
Kind of fucked up, right? We’re all jealous of these strangers and their seemingly beautiful lives, and yet we continue to torture ourselves by looking at them and fantasizing about things that we can’t have. It’s why people like the Kardashians have 50+ million followers on Instagram. That’s more than 50 million people watching these strangers taking pictures of their bodies and saying, “Try out our new Waist Trainer! If you want to look like us, use this healthfully unsound device and keep praying that one day your drastically unachievable goals will come true!"
And I’m not trying to preach the often-heard tales of eating disorders and body dysmorphia that we are warned of time and again. While those are severe problems that stem from this crazy world we live in where people like Chrissy Teigen are “foodies,” I think sometimes that only serves to squander the argument. My point here is that this is a made-up world of contrived ideas and people. Nothing is ever as it seems, and yet we care about it so much.
I see people my age struggle for hours to try and create the perfect profile picture, or sit around in a room bouncing around ideas for the right caption for an Instagram. We’re all trying to top one another and convince everyone that we are the ones who are the most effortlessly beautiful and that we are the ones who had the most fun this weekend. Happiness is measured in numbers of “likes” and feelings of jealousy and nobody will ever win in this game of artificial reality.