If there is one thing people know about me, it's that I'm obsessed with Instagram. Combine that with my love of food and I am that person who will art direct your brunch with zero shame.
I started using Instagram regularly a few years ago because I love food photography. I had no followers at that point. Because I had fun taking food photos, I made a concerted effort to cook more and stage my food. Little by little, my following grew. Realizing I had a knack for lighting food, I took my photography out of the kitchen and onto the streets of NYC, stalking food blogs to find which hashtags worked best for regrams. My strategy paid off. A few months ago, I was featured as @infatuation's photographer of the week. My following jumped by 1,000. This was my turning point: I started posting solely for the double tap.
I don't know if it was the validation (I realize I don't have that many followers, but for a normal human like me, it took work to get to 5,000), or the nagging voice in the back of my head saying, You might be able to professionally eat for a living, but after the regram from The Infatuation, I started to get serious about posting at least once a day. My posts focused purely on food, and I would pick my meals and grocery list based on the best-performing posts. Take a scroll through my feed and you'll notice there aren't too many humans. That's because I tended to lose followers when there was a face in the photo. But an ice cream cone on the beach? Instagram gold.
A few weeks ago, Essena O'Neill denounced social media as "not real life" and blew up the Internet for a minute. While I've never been paid to post anything or skipped a meal for a picture, it did make me stop to think about my own social media habits. I've definitely taken friends' ice cream cones hostage so I could snap pictures to post to Instagram at a later date. See that ice cream cone picture above? I Photoshopped the people out of it (see below).
All this talk around social media not being real life made me wonder f my Instagram was fake. More importantly, were people only following me because of my highlight reel life? Would my greatest fear of losing followers at a massive rate come true if I started to post from my "real" life? Most importantly — what would happen if I stopped staging and over-editing everything?
With that, I decided that, for an entire week, I would post at least one picture a day without staging or editing it. Everything would be unfiltered and unsharpened. Every picture I 'grammed would have to be the first shot, raw and in real time. I would have to post pictures of my day-to-day, and not just what I ate. That means my face, potentially other people's faces, scenery, whatever I felt compelled to take a picture of. Did you know that Instagram videos tend to get less likes than pictures? Yes, I'd have to post one of those too. Here's what happened when I did all that for a week.
Day 1: #Muffingate
It was the first day of the experiment and I was avoiding photography under the guise of being busy. When 10 p.m. finally rolled around, I realized I had to do
something, so I took a picture of a half-eaten vegan (and delicious)
muffin my roommate made me. Still unable to shake my art directing habit, I did the classic hold-the-food-over-your-feet shot. I
posted the photo and all I could think of was how I would change the image. I had to seriously resist the urge to comment, "I realize this looks mediocre! Don't judge me!" I'm a little ashamed that I cared this much about a picture.
Day 2: Candy Corn for Breakfast
To my delight, people had liked my muffin picture! Shame slowly replaced my elation as I realized I had copped out and the picture wasn't terrible. I knew the lighting in my room was better. I knew that holding food in my hand with the camera overhead takes a great shot. I knew that bitten food revealing the texture performs better. While I didn't edit it, I had taken three steps to get the shot. That was how nervous I was of posting a picture that wasn't staged. I felt pretty lame about it. For day two, I was determined to be the gross person I sometimes am but would never dare show on Instagram. Like my eating habits.
Generally avoiding any semblance of adulthood in my diet (hi, Mom) I ate candy corn for breakfast.
It was stale.
I took a picture of it.
I posted it.
Much like with #muffingate, I immediately wanted to punch up the picture, whiten the background, increase the sharpness, cool the picture a bit (those office florescent lights are not forgiving), and maybe slap on the Clarendon filter at 30 percent. I also could have arranged it differently so it wasn't such a full-on shot. Anything that made eating solidified sugar for breakfast seem more aspirational than the fact that I was just hungry and eating anything I could find on my desk.
Immediately after posting, I received concerned texts from friends asking me if I was "OK" and why was I posting these kinds of pictures. For all the hubbub, I barely lost any followers. If I wanted to get "raw" with my life, I'd have to get even more serious and break away from my food pictures.
Day 3: My Face, No Filter
I already hated this experiment and I hated how much I cared. At this point, I was avoiding Instagram and, on a more positive note, was 10 times more productive as a result. It is decidedly less fun to check your feed if you're afraid to look at your own account.
I decided to do the dreaded picture of myself, an almost guaranteed follower bomb. Don't get me wrong, I like how I look, it just doesn't get as many likes and follows as a grilled cheese.
While at an art exhibit in Chelsea, I forced my friend to take a picture of me under the condition that she make me post the first take. I felt like a fraud because this was definitely the coolest thing I'd done all day — my life isn't all gallery hopping and drinking champagne — and on top of that, the picture turned out cute.
Day 4: Subway Realness
Because I live in New York City, people tend to think my life is really glamorous, and I'm sure my photos of beautiful food don't help with that perception. While I get to do a lot of fun things and eat a lot of great food, I work a 9-to-5 job and that requires a lot of being on my computer and schlepping around the subway. Not so glitzy spending a few hours of your life everyday on the MTA. And for those unfamiliar with public transportation in NYC, it's disgusting.
At this point, my follower count was about the same, and other than the odd text from someone asking me if I'd lost my mind, nothing *~major~* had happened. I decided to be real about my day and post my commute which, other than coffee, is the one thing I'm guaranteed to do.
I lost quite a few followers (around 10), but no one really cared that I was posting about Dante's ninth circle. Other than my friend's mom who commented that someone should "talk to me" because my pictures were getting really bad, no one was bothered. I was starting to get pretty bored with my real life.
Day 5: Posting Real Life Is Hard Work
At this point, all my close family and loved ones thought I had gone off the deep end, but I carried on posting pictures of my raw, unedited, and quite frankly, boring life.
On the weekends, I typically go out on food excursions to cook or eat other people's food, but on this day, I felt generally uninspired to document anything in my life if I couldn't edit it.
Midday, I stumbled upon the genius snack invention of a pre-rolled mozzarella stick that had the salami already inside of it. Filter or not, this was gold. Before this week, I would have bought the cheese-and-meat stick and staged it next to some Brooklyn graffiti, but now, I had the freedom to save $5.99 and 40 minutes of my day.
Before this experiment, I don't think I ever stopped to think about how much time I was spending on my phone. Not just editing, but staging pictures. For every picture I've taken, I can spend up to 20 minutes editing it, but will sometimes take another 10 to 30 minutes to stage it. I had never added up that time until this moment. It was liberating to not worry so much about where my next piece of content was going to come from.
All that said, it still hurt my heart that I couldn't sharpen the salami photo. Five days into my experiment, I still cared deeply about my picture quality, and, more importantly, what people were thinking when they saw my pictures.
Day 6: Brunch Is Meaningless
I went to my local brunch haunt, but there was something less exciting about receiving my food. I was slightly concerned by the fact that my culinary experience is heightened through the Clarendon filter, but I persevered and snapped a picture. When I was uploading it to Instagram, I realized I'd used the wrong orientation (I like portrait over landscape), but to stay true to the project, I just threw it up. Because I couldn't help myself, I edited the picture later in the evening to show how I would have liked to present my eggs.
Definitely was a waste of time. Definitely still coping with my filter addiction.
Day 7: Ending on a High Note
Two things happened on my final day: I saw a bunch of rats, pigeons, and squirrels playing under a bridge in Brooklyn; and, for the first time in my life, I posted an undoctored selfie.
Remembering that I promised myself at the beginning of this project to post a video, I found that I was already filming some footage for my Snapchat. If it was good enough for Snapchat, I told myself, why not Instagram? The video in question is 15 seconds of rats, pigeons, and squirrels all eating together — they were like poster children for world peace. If New York's rodent community could get along, couldn't we all? I lost the most followers from this post and got the least likes.
The last picture on my hit list was a selfie. This was more difficult to post than vermin because there's something about taking a picture of your face where you immediately want to edit the perceived imperfections. It also felt intentionally narcissistic and though I admit to being vain, it's not something I wanted to shout from the Instagram rooftops. I also realized I had accidentally dressed up like the
detective emoji and immediately wanted to change.
With a navel-gazing selfie ending my experiment, I was glad I never had to actually show my day-to-day again. Instagram is way more fun when it's pretend.
If this week taught me one thing, it's that my interest in food photography had become more than a hobby — in many ways, it had turned into a problem. Constantly looking for how my life can be turned into "aspirational" content was a total time suck. It was stressful, and other than my family and close friends wondering why I was posting garbage pictures of my normal life, no one really cared. The person who cared the most in all of this, sadly, was me.
I thought I was sharing the highlight reel of my life, but Instagram, for me at least, had become an escape from the tedium that's inevitably a part of adult life. Making the subway chic? Impossible. Editing last night's dinner excursion while I'm next to some guy shaving his beard on the M train makes the day go by a little faster.
After posting seven dumpy pictures, I thought my following would have dropped by 1,000 people, but that didn't happen. Maybe if I continued to post horrible pictures, I would see a slide eventually,
but for this week, I ended up with 10 fewer followers than I started out with at the beginning of the week. I normally gain 90 followers each week, so by my calculation, the total follower loss was about 100.
Other than discovering that I care too much about how many likes I get, and that I should put less pressure on myself because it's stupid and has been proven to make you feel bad, I didn't have a breakthrough moment. No Essena O'Neill epiphany. If anything, I realized I really like taking food pictures; it just shouldn't interfere with the things I'm doing or the people I spend time with. They're more interesting than a double tap anyway.
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Charlotte Palermino is the co-founder of Nice Paper and is a freelance beauty and food writer based in Brooklyn. Obsessed with carbs and a sharp cat-eye, she was formerly the editorial development lead at Snap Inc., and prior to that an associate director at Hearst Digital Media where she ate a lot pizza.
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