Since my early Instagram days, I’ve spent my time looking up to those who I perceived as ‘absolutely smashing it’: They were accounts attracting big dream brands, travelling the world, and hosting sold out retreats and workshops; their posting perfectly styled lifestyle images that demonstrated their art and gazed softly into the distance in linen aprons amidst moody light. These people had scored the golden ticket in my eyes by making blogging and social media their full-time job.
I wanted in.
I worked religiously on my photography and styling. Then, before long, I managed to make it into my full-time job. I consciously took ‘myself’ (and all the perceived flaws of my life) out of my work. But my feed still felt very far from the perfection of these accounts that I had coveted and followed. The number of brand collaborations was at… zero. My first solo workshop, although really enjoyable, totally flopped financially after only selling a handful of tickets.
Shortly afterwards, I moved from London to a new town and began sharing more about the reality of my life in my captions. I shared my blues and feelings of the loneliness of being in a new place. I discussed my experiences of spending more time outdoors and the profoundly healing effect being in nature had on me.
My community opened up and responded in a way I could never have guessed. Followers told me they felt less alone, knowing that I also felt alone. They found my sharing of the small things that made me feel better helpful. I felt emboldened to lose my pursuit of perfection and instead show more of what was really happening in my life; yes there was beauty and joy, but there was also heartache and sadness.
The major game changer for me was when Instagram stories were released.
After being initially hesitant (I’m not usually an early adopter!) I shared my first story, and became immediately hooked. I found the instant nature really appealing; I revelled in the lack of curation both in my content and in the usually curated content of others. I instinctively started sharing a very different style of content; the real life, messy house, behind the scenes, chaos of young kids sort of content.
Also, I shared more and more about my mental health. Talking to the camera more and more, showing my non-perfect, not made-up face gave me the platform to authentically discuss these subjects. Sometimes I showed something beautiful and aspirational but more often than not I simply took my followers with me into my not-perfect days. And it resonated. People felt emboldened by my sharing, and felt inspired to do the same.
Often I would experience intense vulnerability hangovers; other successful stylists were not talking about this stuff, would this affect my ability to get work? Are people even interested in hearing this?
But actually, the more I shared, the more it spoke to my followers and the more my engagement grew. Not the glitzy thousands of likes and followers sort of engagement, but the slow, sometimes hidden engagement of comments left with heart and heartfelt dm’s. It hasn’t affected my ability to work with brands. In fact, it’s become a USP; they want me to share a real review or experience. When I released my new workshops last year, day retreats in my home, they sold out overnight, a far cry from the first workshop I led a few years before.
I presumed that my more open sharing would lead to a more relaxed Instagram gallery but it is more complex than that. I found myself feeling protective over the sort of curated, creative images I was producing; I enjoyed the creativity and challenge of making them and all the learning I was gaining in the process. For now, my gallery is a space to stretch my styling, making and photography skills, and where I get a lot of my work. However, on stories, things are much less curated. For now, that balance is serving me well. It means I can show honesty, but also inspiration and beauty, all on one platform.
In closing, my experience suggests a few things.
Firstly, creating a product that resonates with your audience, and inspires them to pay for it, takes time. A long time sometimes. And, sharing more of ourselves; our faces and our stories, in whatever way feels good to you, creates community. This adds a refreshing dose of individuality amongst the sometimes samey content that pops up on Instagram. It establishes your “know, like, trust” factor and means your audience is more willing to take the next step in investing in you.
To sign off; by being a bit more of the real you, amongst the pressures of a social media culture that strives for constant perfection, is a rather radical act in itself.
Words by Hannah Bullivant