Social media platforms afford us the ability to curate a highlight reel that gives others a glimpse into our everyday experiences. Self presentation online can be a mentally draining cycle of producing and consuming content that we know only provides a partial perspective of reality. While many of us can take a social media “detox,” and reassess how this cycle is affecting our worldview, revelatory self-presentation is just part of the job for many social media “influencers” and content creators. The digital economy relies on the commodification of the “authentic” self, requiring that creators construct a personal, embodied self-brand that is simultaneously relatable to audiences and appealing to advertisers. While many are beginning to speak out about the mental and emotional turmoil they experience through consistent self-surveillance, one community of creators has always put their mental health and emotional labor at the center of their content: young women in recovery from eating disorders.
The “recovery” community has emerged from a neoliberal culture of self-branding, centering individual narratives of personal growth and self-love. Their Instagram images and YouTube videos serve to document “evidence” of their recovery, showing them enjoying their lives, and embracing their new relationship with food and with their bodies, while corresponding captions and comments often encourage others within the community through a discourse of self-empowerment. These communities of care have risen out of a culture that frequently promotes self-control and self-discipline, and have reframed the discussion to focus on social support and mental and physical wellness.
However, it is also crucial that we recognize that the continual public disclosure of one’s personal mental health “journey” comes with the unrelenting burden of emotional labor. Historically, women have been handed the role of caretaker, expected to foster relationships and be attentive to others’ needs. On social media, young women who are already struggling with their own mental health and disordered behaviors must simultaneously offer comfort and support to others. Entrepreneurial content creation is already a complex web of passion and production, but becomes increasingly so as it is entwined with mental health, emotional labor, and physical well-being.