For years, I had one goal: to do absolutely everything. I knew this was unrealistic, but I didn’t care—the possibility was there. My ambition was the driving factor behind everything I did. As soon as I said I’d commit to accomplishing something, no matter how big or small, I was determined to do it.
I initially started developing this mentality when I was in the seventh grade, watching twenty-something vloggers seemingly accomplish all their dreams and looking perfect while doing it. Rather than simply idolizing them for being so perfect, I was looking for ways to be them. I began to document and publish my ideas and my goals, in the form of videos and blogs and social media. I saw it as a way to hold myself accountable. If I wasn’t successful by the time I was twenty, it would be because I hadn’t been working hard enough.
I took what I saw from vloggers and YouTubers as templates for life, and I picked and chose accordingly. It changed constantly: for a while I idolized MyLifeAsEva, then Connor Franta, then Alisha Marie, then Avery Ovard—but I viewed them as the lens through which I viewed myself. During this time my issues with body image were at their peak because I didn’t look like the skinny vloggers that I so desperately wanted to be; I’d thought I had a unique taste in music, but these people would always have a more obscure music taste than I did; I liked taking pictures, but these vloggers were better at it. I warped my insecurities into goals and objectives, because then it wasn’t self-destruction but productivity. If I could lose weight or spend more time finding the right music taste or be more photogenic, I would be as happy as these vloggers. That was, after all, the message I received: with the right steps, I could be just like them.
It wasn’t until I got much older, in my later years of high school, that I truly understood how flawed this message was. Once I hit sixteen and wasn’t even remotely internet famous, I decided to give up on my dream. But that wasn’t much of a loss, because it was never really my dream. And throughout high school, I developed a sense of the person I actually wanted to be. I learned that I hate pretty much all exercise, that I could have a music taste as unobscure or obscure as I wanted, and that I loved being behind the camera far more than I ever loved being in front of it. I found my values and created my own path. YouTube had only served as a distraction, and as soon as I gave it up I became far more aware of what I cared about and began to love myself for it.
Although influencer culture has changed since I was in middle school—the standard now being the normal-girl-Emma-Chamberlain types and the platforms ranging from Instagram to TikTok to YouTube—the mentality has stayed the same, if not worsened.
Today TikTok stars like Addison Rae and Charli D’Amelio—who truly are just normal people—are suddenly the center of Gen-Z culture, simply for being pretty and somewhat able to dance. Older viewers can see the flaws and falsities of TikTok glamour and the Hype House—but for an eleven or twelve-year-old, it’s far less likely.
What makes influencer culture so uniquely harmful is how real it looks. When we look at celebrities or models or rappers, we can pretty well assume that their life is incredibly doctored to look perfect on the internet. But social media stars who rose to prominence by documenting their “real” life can offer a far more convincing illusion. It’s also irrefutable that many of the most famous influencers today were born to excessive amounts of privilege. It’s emotionally harmful to tell young people that the life of an influencer is universally attainable. There will be a point when they ultimately realize that those dreams aren’t possible. Without having room for young people to decide for themselves who they want to be, influencers might just be leaving their fans in the dust—utterly lost.
By Justina Brandt