Instagram made me feel bad about myself—until I hacked its algorithms to improve my body image

Not everything we see on Instagram is good for us.
Not everything we see on Instagram is good for us.
Image: Flickr/bertholf/CC 2.0
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I used to think social media made me feel bad about myself. But a recent dive into my viewing habits made me realize that the problem wasn’t just Instagram—it was also the way I was using it.

I like Instagram because it lets me keep tabs on my friend’s adorable puppy and Alexa Chung’s latest sweater. But recently, I began to notice that I came away from visits to the site feeling self-conscious and struggling to remind myself of my own values. It wasn’t Dalmatian envy that was bringing me down—it was constant images of tightly toned abs and perfectly undone hair.

It was unfair, I moaned with my friends. Instagram was torturing us by shoving professional yoga teachers and swimsuit models into our faces. These images can take a real psychic toll. In June 2016, a review of cross-cultural research found that social media usage was associated with body image problems and disordered eating. Another 2006 study found that exposure to images of thin bodies made even people with high self-esteem “more likely to engage in social comparison … as well as more likely to have those comparison processes induce self-directed negative consequences. “

Instagram is aware of the issue. In fact, on its privacy page, Instagram includes an information tab about eating disorders. The company doesn’t offer any context to explain why it feels compelled to include that information, but the reason is obvious—it’s responding to the continued criticism that certain Instagram communities, united by hashtags like #thinspiration and #ana, encourage disordered eating.

It’s certainly true that Instagram could do more to address the problem. But over time, I realized that I was also responsible for what Instagram decided to show me.

My first clue about my problematic viewing habits was Instagram’s “Explore” tool, which uses predictive algorithms, based in part on the photos you’ve already liked, to lead you to more content. The feature painted an eye-opening picture of how I was spending my time online. As I scrolled down, I was met with countless images of taut tummies and toned thighs—the sort of bodies that tend to come with the caption, “Bikini Ready.” No wonder my feed was bringing me down.

Instagram explains its use of personalized algorithms on its site: “Posts are selected automatically based on things like the people you follow or the posts you like.” So I’d invited a few bikini bods into my Instagram, and they’d brought their friends. Instagram was just showing me what I’d told them I wanted to see.

So I decided to start using the Explore tool to track myself and modify my behavior. I’d change the kind of photos I clicked on and the way I bestowed those little hearts, and try to be more mindful about my social-media diet.

I began by unfollowing people who might have been contributing to my body-image problem. Why was I following so many Victoria’s Secret models, and women whose only job seemed to be working out?

Then I trained myself to stop and think before I instinctively clicked through on the kinds of photos that played into my insecurities. Did I really want to see more pictures of toned women in sports bras and short-shorts stretching on the beach? How deeply did I want to immerse myself in the world of six-packs and acai bowls?

Soon I noticed that these changes were affecting my personal feed as well as the “Explore” feature. Instagram has followed Facebook’s lead in ordering its feed: the posts we see aren’t chronological, but arranged according to priority, based on what its algorithms think we want to see. As I began to interact less with beauty and wellness photos, I saw different kinds of images—artwork, excerpts from poems, photographs of cities I’d been to, and places I wanted to visit.

I also began to actively seek out the kind of accounts I wanted to follow: artists, designers and creative people, all more likely to share photos of their latest creations than their eating cheats.

Slowly, my changes worked their magic. I started seeing photos of work that inspired me and intrigued me. I got reading recommendations from Florence Welch, lead singer of Florence and the Machine, and followed the writing life of one of my favorite young Australian authors. I discovered an artist whose work I loved and got to meet her in person. 

Then I slipped up. I binged on Bachelor in Paradise one weekend, and did a little light stalking of its stars on Instagram. Suddenly my “Explore” tool was once again full of images that sent my body image plummeting. But I quickly recovered, focusing on images and accounts that fed my imagination—not my self-doubt.

In the end, I think Instagram’s algorithms made it a lot easier for me to change my habits. Behavioral experts suggest that inadequate monitoring, or lack of observable behavior, makes it a lot harder for us to self-regulate. My journey to a better body image was made easier by the fact that Instagram was doing the monitoring for me. Slip-ups couldn’t go unnoticed; they were obvious by the way my feed changed.

It turns out that overhauling your social media consumption is a lot like adapting to a healthy diet: The more progress you make, the easier it gets. Instagram has now learned to show me fewer images of personal trainers, and far more photos of my friends’ camping trips. As a result, I’m much less likely to get sucked into the wellness vortex—and my social media experience is a lot more rewarding. Every day that I log onto Instagram and smile at Tatsuya Tanaka’s quirky dioramas, or browse through a young Australian photographer’s visions of the world, I’m reminded that I do have power over what I see.

How to take control of your feed

It’s not me, I swear: The Explore tool mingles personalized images with trending content, so even if you completely ignore images you don’t want to see, they may still show up. There’s also a problem with hashtags. If you “like” an image with a certain hashtag, the algorithms seem to think you want to see more photos grouped by that hashtag. Try to consider your feed holistically, rather than each specific image.

Reset: If certain types of images particularly upset you, click on the Instagram option “I don’t want to see this anymore.”

Take it further: You can visit Google’s “ad preferences” to see how you’ve been profiled, and change what topics are listed as your interests. If you want to see less on dieting and more on travel, Google isn’t going to argue with you.