Filtering Reality: Instagram and the Megillah

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“I think often about the millions of Instagram accounts where their entire personal brand revolves around snapshots of pretty moments. We scroll through our feeds and are dazzled by white smiles, flowing hair, gorgeous sunsets. We think to ourselves, “Wow. Those lives must be perfect. Look how beautiful everything is.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love beautiful things. I love gorgeous aesthetics, and the inspiration to lead a healthier and more beautiful lifestyle. I love filters and even the app that can allow me to zap the zits away. They don’t make me feel perfect, they just take away the distractions, or set a mood I am trying to convey. We all use them because it helps us be creatively expressive. They can make us feel beautiful.

Yet, there is a limit.

But what happens when the media we consume becomes overwhelming and makes us feel bad about ourselves? When the never-ending stream of bikini bods, seemingly perfect lives, and constant barrage of “other people’s happiness” threatens to encroach on our sense of selves? On our sense of happiness in what we have; physically, materially, spiritually?

The statistics of Instagram related eating disorders is staggering. There have been many studies linking higher rates of eating disorder development or triggering and Instagram usage. People are comparing themselves with what they see on their feeds. The depression, anxiety and suicide rates are ramping up with social media usage.
You know there are times when you close your Insta app, and just feel awful about yourself. Your life doesn’t seem as pretty or perfect as everyone else’s.

For someone who is unhappy about the way they look, a feed full of images that appear like perfection can be toxic. The irony is how much effort and editing goes into creating these images. They are almost never what they seem to be.

Because the truth is, a large portion of “the beauty and perfection” that you see on Instagram is fake. There seems to be an unlimited number of apps these days where you don’t need to be a photoshop whiz to achieve perfection. I tried one of these apps, and there was a button called, “Magic.” When you push it goes so far as to shave down your jaw bones, make your eyes larger, and nose smaller.

I’ve seen apps where you can add tattoos, draw in abs, and alter your body in a myriad of ways.

The way many of these “lifestyle” posts are presented, is not aligned with the reality that it takes to create them. “This is me: naturally beautiful, simply glamorous, effortlessly chic.”
Flawless.

But it’s ridiculous. The amount of time, curating, and money that goes into these pictures you see, you wouldn’t believe. As a photographer I know the power of photoshop and filters. And the importance of set up, poses, lighting, props, and more. The strategizing to get the wind blowing her hair. The location of the sunset in terms of how the light reflects on everything in the image. The angle of the face, the expression in the eyes. There is an art to it. It requires a lot of planning. The right time, the right weather, the right colors. Don’t get me started on the post-shoot work. Art is work.

Whenever someone comes to me for a handful of headshots they always ask me, “why do you take so many pictures if I just need one?” I always respond, “We take 100 photos, to find the one that feels just right.”
My point is, what we see and consume as “effortless” takes tons of work.
I like to think of how this even plays out in Megillat Esther.

Esther is chosen because she is the most beautiful. But the natural way they found her is not “enough” to entice the King. So they give her a myriad of beauty treatments and keep her hostage in a harem for 12 months.
The Megillah uses the word “merukeihen” when describing the oil and spices (beauty treatments) that the women received in the harem. The root word “merkach,” is a word that is used in the Tanach for embalming, which is the preservation of a dead body in spices and oils. It is hard to ignore the comparison of the process of preserving a dead body to the preparing one of these young women whose “power lies in their beauty” as being worthy of final presentation to the King. After 12 months of these “beauty treatments,” Esther’s body, “physically perfect and preserved” reaches a good enough state to be presented to the King.

These are the values of Shushan, the same values that are often at play in the Western world today. We aren’t good enough unless we’ve been scrubbed of our flaws. But I’ll tell you what. You are perfect as you are. With your humanity unfiltered. With your complicated life, with your chipped dishes, and your smeared mascara, and your bags under your eyes. With your messy living rooms, and your dishes piled high in the sink. With the stretch marks, wrinkles, and grey hairs too.

It’s the end of the Megillah that we really to pay attention to in this context.

It’s not the power of her beauty that wins Esther the day.

It was the power of her painful, complicated story.

She shared what was hidden beneath her mask of opaque perfection, and told the King the truth of her life. Who she was, and what she stood for. The source of her affliction, and her fears.

She said what was true. She finally makes herself real.

We are still celebrating thousands of years later.

The influence of the beauty in truth is what we need now, more than ever.”

Shira Lankin Sheps graduated from Hunter College School of Social Work with an MSW in clinical social work. After working in the clinical field, marketing and photojournalism, she decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community. She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience. Shira is the founder, Publisher and CEO of The Layers Project Magazine.