Let’s Talk About It: How Social Media Affects Relationships and Self-Image

Cait & Friends Episode #2: A discussion with my friend, Elizabeth Lee about social media, beauty standards, genuineness, and more

Series Intro: Every week or two, I will be chatting with one of my close friends, podcast-style to get their refreshing take on a relevant topic. Topics will focus on 5 main areas: identity, career, health, relationships, and current news. Occasionally, the friend will be anonymized. Most of my friends are either still in college or fresh grads (~ages 19–25), so this is meant to give insight into important aspects of our lives. The conversations are transcribed, edited for clarity, but unfiltered.

This week’s topic: Identity and Relationships, specifically around social media & beauty

A little on Elizabeth: Eli and I have been friends for 5 years, since early high school. We met on the varsity tennis team. Eli’s a rising junior at NYU, majoring in CS, and is my go-to for everything cafe, social media, and advice. Fun fact: We ran her cute maltese-shih tzu Coco’s dog Instagram account together for 3 years.

On Instagram, TikTok, and Toxicity:

Caitlin: We both use social media pretty often — Instagram, Snapchat, and occasionally Facebook. Not to age us, but there are definitely some newer social media out there, namely Facebook’s ‘Subtle Asian Dating’ and TikTok that are known to be pretty toxic and controversial. Spending too much time on social media never puts me in a good mental state. I can’t imagine being on TikTok and Instagram now as a young teen and seeing all of that.

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Photo by Kon Karampelas on Unsplash

Elizabeth: TikTok does bring in a lot of toxicity, and most of it has to do with how young its users are, like 13 to 19 year olds. These older people on it are sexualizing these young girls, and teens like even top TikTokers Charlie D’Amelio and Addison Rae are experiencing lots of hate comments and body dysmorphia. People also put their best image on social media, and it makes us draw unfair comparisons. As for Subtle Asian Dating, the standard of what people expect in relationships is really toxic these days. To me the point of a relationship is for both people to make each other happy and trust each other. Now people are just playing with people.

Caitlin: The most toxic thing to me about social media is how much value people place on it. What’s interesting to see is social media platforms like Instagram trying to do things to offset it like taking away seeing the number of likes.

They have to do this because we’ve gotten to this point where people start basing not only their own validity and self-worth but also their whole livelihoods (if they’re influencers) on these stats.

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Photo by Ian Dooley on Unsplash

But obviously these platforms and the ads on them are mostly meant to make you feel bad. All these clothing companies, every time they send an email with new items or discounts, it’s like oh you need this. The whole beauty industry too. Brands depend on us valuing social media. Unfortunately, advertising’s built on the idea that you don’t have enough or aren’t enough right now.

But I guess knowing this, the larger question is would you delete all these apps?

Elizabeth: I would definitely be wasting less time if I did. But especially now with quarantine and everyone spending all their time on social media, I feel like I need to keep up. It’s harder to find the self-control to not feed into it.

Caitlin: For me, even LinkedIn can be toxic. I go down rabbits holes checking different people’s profiles. People also post those inspirational stories on LinkedIn that feel unrealistic. It seems to glorify always doing more. Unfortunately, it makes you think if you’re not where you want to be, it’s because you haven’t been working hard enough. But in the end LinkedIn is like any social media — a filtered highlight reel.

On Body Image & Plastic Surgery:

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Photo by Kate Torline on Unsplash

Caitlin: I have become more numb to Instagram, just because I know how much effort, posing, and editing goes into everything I see on there. The fact that everyone, especially celebrities like Kendall and Kylie Jenner still photoshop their waists to be smaller and Hailey Bieber still freaks out about a pimple to me instills that idea that no one, no matter how rich, famous or beautiful they are, will always find imperfections.

As an extension of that, what are your thoughts on plastic surgery, specifically double-eyelid plastic surgeries?

Elizabeth: In Korean culture, double-eyelid plastic surgeries are really common. People get it as a graduation gift. I don’t see a huge problem with plastic surgery as long as you’re only enhancing things and you just want to be more confident.

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Photo by Mina Plastic Surgery

Caitlin: It is surprising that beyond the Asian community people don’t really know how common it is. Do you think there should be this pressure to get double eyelid plastic surgery?

Elizabeth: I understand it. For a while, I wanted to make my eyes more open, not necessarily to the point of getting double eyelid plastic surgery. I did put eyelid tape on for a long time, because I liked how I looked with it better. It’s different here in America than in Korea, which is why it can be hard to understand. Korea is a naturally superficial country. People are very judgemental based on your appearance and assume things like how rich you are based on it. That can get really toxic.

On Genuineness:

Caitlin: Something we both talk about a lot is how to tell if people are genuine, particularly with relationships. Have times changed and with social media bleeding into reality, do people not really expect genuineness now?

In other words, do people just expect things to be fake now?

Elizabeth: I think it’s harder for people to get themselves to be genuine. A huge problem is people overthinking with social media. People take what they are seeing online and find a way to skew it to apply to their own situations when it’s not really the case. In some ways, it can be positive to see other people’s experiences and stories to help yourself too. But in other ways, it can be toxic to think it must be the same scenario.

Caitlin: I know that there is a growing trend to post more of our failures online, which in theory could make social media a more supportive space. Do you feel it is ironic that people can be more transparent on social media but also very much filter their life on it?

Elizabeth: When people do post their successes, that gets a more negative reaction from the public now than posting about failures or flaws. But why would you want people to only post about the bad things? Social media should find a way to balance giving attention and being happy for people when they do have good things happening in their lives.

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Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Caitlin: That balance is definitely difficult. A huge part of it is how hard it is to read if that support either way is genuine. As a generally private person until recently, I know I have found it difficult to post about both successes and hardships.

Would you post about hardships in your life online?

Elizabeth: I remember when I was in high school, I would rant on Instagram about having a hard time in school. Now, I realize what I felt was temporary, and I’ve been fortunate to not have hardships that have really affected me long-term. But if I feel like I have a big accomplishment that I’m proud of, I will feel self-conscious about posting about it. I don’t want to look like I’m showing off even when it’s something I’m genuinely proud of. Even though people say they are happy for you, sometimes you can just tell they aren’t and are saying it to be nice.

Caitlin: I feel that. Even if people act like they are friends, they can be less happy for others than they let on. One thing I really do not like is all the fake compliments that I sometimes see on Instagram posts and how people base their friendships on things like those comments or tagging each other in memes. You become expected to engage on social media if you are friends.

Elizabeth: I see that, but when friendship reaches that point where you mutually know you have a genuine, real-life friendship, both parties should not have to think about things like that. They should not put value on those things but instead on the conversations in real life.

Caitlin: Going off that, what is a sign that people are being genuine in real life? It is crazy to me how some people read books to be more genuine and likable. I cannot tell in a brief interaction if someone is being genuine. It is only something I can see over time. Sometimes, it is a click but I cannot know for sure. I guess just from personal experience, I tend to be pretty suspicious.

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Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

For you, how do you know?

Elizabeth: I think being genuine is a much more abstract concept of being honest. If you have to read books and follow tips like smile more to make friends, that is not genuine. Like for guys, I’d rather have someone be honest than be fake about what is going on. Though honesty can be different than being genuine, it adds to how genuine someone is.

Caitlin: I agree, I think words do not speak to someone’s genuineness. People can say things over text and not mean it for sure.

Actions over time will speak to someone’s true character.

Similar to why everyone talks about red flags, everyone’s actions will bring up the red flags. Consistency is also important. Not that people shouldn’t change, but people should not be saying they like one thing and the next day flip flopping when talking to someone else.

On What’s Missing from Relationships and Social Media:

Caitlin: We discussed genuineness, but what other qualities do you think are missing in relationships right now, possibly amplified by social media?

Elizabeth: Transparency, communication, and honesty. Being transparent can be very difficult because being too transparent to the point of bluntness can be hurtful.

Caitlin: That reminds me of a story from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. When he was young, he was in a car with his grandparents, and his grandma was a smoker. Jeff Bezos calculated the amount of time she had left theoretically based on estimates and her smoking habits. Then, his grandpa took him out of the car and said, “Jeff one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.” I think that is so true these days. Everyone wants to get rich fast. People’s attention spans are short. They are checking their phones even in front of their friends for what is new or next instead of what is in front of them.

That extra kindness or time to listen more is what should be valued more.

Trust is built through compassion and not from trying to get things quick. I think when people show empathy and kindness to each other through social media, that is when it is at its best. It can make us feel connected and heard.

On Balance on Social Media and Being Relatable:

Caitlin: Switching to another way social media affects us, I was recently listening to the podcast Asian Boss Girl on their episode about Mental Health. They were talking about this pressure especially in quarantine to keep up with the news and trends. For me, that includes fashion, beauty, and current news.

But there’s a thin line between staying informed and becoming overwhelmed.

All this easy access to information online affects me in two ways. On one hand, I’ll be like oh if I don’t get these snakeskin boots right now, I’ll be out of trend. But also on a much more serious note, I’ll be like oh I’m glad I read this, otherwise I wouldn’t have known about what’s going on in the world.

Elizabeth: I’ve also experienced that. Especially when I was in New York, I would see everyone wearing the newest trends out and about, and everyone would be trying the newest restaurants and raving about it.

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Photo by Style Tomes on Unsplash

I would feel that pressure to go there and wear all these new clothes. You see it every day. It’s hard to not feel like those things are essential.

Caitlin: Feeling that pressure definitely negatively influences people’s mental states. I was reading recently about Kendall Jenner opening up about her anxiety during quarantine but then facing backlash for her privilege. In my opinion, the timing and wording could have been a little tone-deaf. The same thing happened with the celebrities singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

What do you think about people trying too much to be relatable on social media?

Elizabeth: I think they do it with a good intention. Because these celebrities are on a different lifestyle level, it is hard for them to understand how to please us. But I don’t like how celebrities or companies wait until there is a certain situation or issue, like the body positivity movement, before they start getting on the “trend.”

On Inclusivity on Social Media:

Caitlin: With the rise of new brands like Fenty and Aerie, it seems the beauty and fashion industry is getting more inclusive.

Do you really believe that the inclusivity is here to stay or is temporary?

Elizabeth: Companies have tried to be more inclusive, but after making huge announcements for a while, they tend to die down about it. There was a huge issue about Tarte only having 8 colors for foundation and not being racially inclusive and people were going off on it. Tarte did an apology but still did not add any colors. Brandy Melville also is a brand that uses only skinny white girls as their models and even after a lot of backlash, still only has one-size clothing that clearly only fits a certain body type.

Caitlin: I also think how people edit their pictures also propagates this lack of inclusivity. One thing that bothers me for example is on Snapchat where a ton of their filters are freckles, make your skin lighter and smoother, and make your eyes bigger. People are already struggling with these insecurities. For example, my relatives have made fun of my freckles but now it is something people “want” and even dot purposefully on themselves to look cute.

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Photo from Twitter about Fox Eye Trend

Elizabeth: Another one I’ve heard about it the ‘Fox eye’ trend, where people deliberately pull at their eyes with their fingers and do their makeup a certain way to make it look more slanted.

A lot of Asians are not happy about it, because our almond eyes are already seen in media is not as pretty as typical big round eyes. Even celebrities like Kendall Jenner kept taking selfies intentionally pulling at their eyes but people still do not see what is wrong with it.

On What’s Next:

Elizabeth: I am curious to see how things will change with social media. For the longest time, I would use Snapchat a lot but now I don’t. I wonder if there will be new things and what the new apps will be.

Caitlin: I think one thing that will not change is that everything will still be vying for our attention just because our attention is so valuable. I predict holograms will pop out in our rooms trying to get us to buy things. The line between online and real life will blur. I do think it could get harder to tell what is real and what is not. So what you do know is real will get more valuable.

On Thriving with/despite Social Media:

Elizabeth: A big thing that has helped my mentality is only caring about the people who I care about. The people who genuinely value me in their life, those are the only people’s opinions who I should put value on because I know they have the best intentions for me. That brings a more positive attitude to me when I think about myself. Rather than thinking about the other side, I understand I should shift my focus away from that.

Caitlin: To take it one step further, what’s helped me is acknowledging that social media is this external thing. I can control what is in front of me. If I don’t want to look at my phone, I don’t have to. No one is making me do that. I also control what and who I surround myself with. If I do want to buy or post something, I will but I don’t define my value or worth around that. And also no one’s opinion is more right about me than my own.

“Be healthy and take care of yourself, but be happy with the beautiful things that make you, you.” — Beyoncé

Next: Religion and Spirituality

Poetry book “Under Clouds and City Lights” publishing April 2021

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