Madonna was right. Instagram is a tyranny of visual perfection – especially for mums

Instagram sets impossibly high standards for mothers. Stock photo / Getty
Instagram sets impossibly high standards for mothers. Stock photo / Getty

There is an internet meme with a picture of a mum holding a screaming baby, a toddler tugging at her clothes, surrounded by a house in dire need of tidying. She’s holding a phone, and the caption reads: “Can I call you back in five years?”

I know that feeling – the never-ending chores competing with children who appear to have conferred overnight on how to tag-team for mum’s attention, so there is never a moment to take a breath.

Add the lack of decent sleep and the inability to both begin and end a cup of coffee while it remains above room temperature and the average day feels like an exercise in survival. There was a time, while my children were younger, when I considered making it to the end of the day with all family members intact an unqualified success.

When my first child was born in 2011, the ubiquity of social media was yet to come. Watching TV and surfing the internet were my main connections to the outside world. Although I kept abreast of global news, it was one-way traffic, and the months felt long and lonely. As a new mum struggling to reconcile myself to a new lifestyle, having left my office job, and with no new network in place, I felt isolated.

The supportive female community that in many cultures, from Asia to South America, would once have insisted on new mothers staying at home for 40 days did not exist any more. Before I had my baby, I was sceptical of this old-fashioned idea of confining a new mother to her house, but the combination of sleep deprivation, stress and missed meals, which I desperately needed in order to nourish my baby, made me realise that it was not my child that needed the village to raise them, but me.

The curated perfection of the visual medium meant that instead of social media being a tool of solidarity, it became a competition

Fast-forward to my second child. Social media was a real game-changer. There were groups for every aspect of my experience: from figuring out how to fix nappy rash to discussions about doctors, fatigue, the intricacies of booking long-haul travel and, crucially, how to enjoy it with children in tow.

It was the village I had missed.

I could be part of it at 3am when nursing my baby. I could ask for advice while feeding spoonfuls of mush to a teething toddler. I could be having adult conversations, while watching children’s TV programmes with the kids who insisted that I sat with them.

Then something else happened: Instagram. The curated perfection of the visual medium meant that instead of social media being a tool of solidarity, it became a competition. It has become a throwback to the 1950s myth of the perfect mother, with coiffed hair, dolled-up children and a delicious roast always in the oven. The Stepford wives would be proud.

The negative impact on mental health and self-esteem of a relentless flow of idealised depictions of daily life is increasingly being recognised. For teenagers who are still forming their sense of self, it can have serious consequences. As adults, we think it doesn’t affect us, but it does.

New mothers are especially vulnerable. Many will already be suffering anything from baby blues through to full post-partum depression, which some claim is experienced by one in seven new mothers. Social media platforms like Instagram can significantly exacerbate such conditions.

This week Madonna – herself no stranger to a carefully curated image – said: “You get caught up in comparing yourself to others. I think Instagram is made to make you feel bad.”

Given that Madonna has 14 million followers and has posted on Instagram more than 4,000 times, her advice seems a bit rich. But, if Instagram can make her feel bad, when she herself is part of the tyranny of visual perfection it helps to impose on the world, then what damage can it do to the rest of us?

Being part of the conversation is important and can be healthy; being outside it can feel lonely and isolating. But how do you avoid falling into a trap of judging yourself against the heavily edited postings of so-called influencers? It’s easier said than done, but when it comes to mothers and social media, we need a serious conversation about both its benefits and its dangers.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

Published: June 20, 2019 01:57 PM


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