Comparison culture is taking its toll on our self-esteem

Posted by for Life

Stylist’s new research has found that comparing ourselves to others – from careers to holidays – is seriously denting our self-esteem.

I don’t like spinning. I really don’t like going to exhibitions. I enjoy a breakfast of toast: the beige kind, without avocado or flowers on it. And I love staying in on a Saturday night. I am at a place in my life where I feel pretty content in who I am and what matters to me. 

Except that I’m not. Not really. Because I only need to see a complete stranger on Instagram doing a yoga session on the beach at 6am (when I was around three snoozes down) to get stirrings of failure, life envy and a new daily internal soundtrack of, ‘I’m a lazy slob’. Or hear that my colleague packed her weekend with three different friends’ birthdays when I barely received a WhatsApp to decide I’m obviously mind-numbingly boring and should buy some more friends. I know that the comparison game is a dangerous one, but it’s one I cannot help playing.

 I’m not exactly the first woman who has come up short (in their own mind, at least) when comparing themselves to someone else; whether that person is a sibling, friend or colleague, or the pop star, model or actor you see when you switch on the TV or open a magazine. I’ve watched friends catapult from feeling pretty content with their lot to wracked with self-doubt after peering into the seemingly well-manicured lives of others. I’ve seen the seeds of dissatisfaction that embed when we see someone else’s promotion or engagement posted all over Instagram while we’re sat at our crumb-strewn keyboard.

 And despite the focus typically being on Generation Z, it’s arguably our generation that bears the negative comparison load most heavily. Photoshop was created 32 years ago, meaning Stylist readers are the first generation to have grown up surrounded by images that are not real – pictures of blemish-free, trimmed-down women. Our formative years were dominated by TV shows and films that had yet to hear of diversity, broadcasting one incredibly narrow version of beauty, success, family and cultural ‘norms’. 

Comparison culture illustration by hurrah for gin
Comparison is part innate, part learned.

Today, as we navigate critical points in our careers and relationships, 98% of Stylist readers have social media accounts (52% say they are ‘very active’ on social media) that assault them 24 hours a day with filtered and manipulated photos and heavily edited updates of other people’s lovely lives, families, promotions and new Farrow & Ball paint shades. We wake up and before we’ve even been to the toilet, we scroll, drinking in a snapshot of the perfect life despite the fact that photo is a tiny, manipulated fraction of a life we don’t really know anything about.

It’s our innate human nature to compare ourselves to that woman in the magazine or that Instagram story that’s leading us to feel the grip of comparison more tightly than ever before. Its impact – from straightforward dissatisfaction and envy, to a wilting self-esteem, anxiety and depression – is felt across our generation.

“Research shows that Generation Z has a far healthier relationship with the media than us,” explains Bea Arthur, whose TEDx Talk The Culture Of Comparison has been watched 35,000 times. “They understand how damaging it can be and have been able to put limits and boundaries in place at an age when they’re vulnerable and impressionable. We weren’t and we’re feeling the effects.”

Following the launch of our Love Women campaign last May – a pledge by Stylist to make sure every woman sees themselves reflected in the pages of our magazine and to dispel the myth that any one person or life is perfect – we decided to ask Stylist readers about their self-esteem and confidence. We wanted to find out how the mainstream media and social media we consume daily is influencing how we feel about ourselves, in part to better understand our readers, in part to help us fuel much-needed change. The results really shocked us. Because regardless of how successful we are, only 1 in 10 said they had high self-esteem. And the biggest culprit to a healthy sense of self? Comparing our lives with others.

When we delved further, asking readers what their real comparison trigger points were, it was ‘people who make life look easy’ that stung the most. The women who seemingly have it all together with barely a whiff of overwhelm while we’re all over the place. After that, 44% of our readers can’t help but compare when we see others having amazing experiences; for others it’s career success (40%) or benchmarking where they’re at in their life compared to their peers (38%) that makes them feel inferior.

Of course, I don’t know a single person who would say life is easy. No one has every plate spinning beautifully in unison. But when we look at the media, and social media, it’s often what we see. And the little niggles that are fairly well controlled in our minds suddenly amplify when we’re staring down the barrel of an influencer on holiday in the Maldives whose body looks like it’s cut from entirely different cloth.

“With social media, you can see people just like you,” says Anna* who took part in the survey. “People you grew up with, had the same opportunities as and can demographically relate to are constantly in the forefront. Whether it is a true reality they are portraying or not, it is difficult not to think, ‘Where did I go wrong, why am I not living like this?’”

I want that one

Comparison is human nature and it’s an instinct that starts early. You only need to observe toddlers playing happily with red Lego until they see a peer playing with yellow and all hell breaks loose to know how ingrained it is. We compare lunch boxes at primary school, exam results and drinking stamina at university and on it goes. This compulsive comparison can even be spotted in monkeys.

A classic study by Frans de Waal at Emory University found monkeys were perfectly happy exchanging their stones for cucumber until other monkeys started getting grapes and the cucumber monkeys went ape shit.

Various studies show how this tendency plays out throughout our lives. For example, it’s rarely what we have that impacts our happiness, but what we have compared to others around us. Take a 2010 study by economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, which found that it’s how your income compares to your friends rather than how much you actually earn that affects your overall life satisfaction. The higher your income rank, the happier you feel.

“Comparison is part innate, part learned,” says the UK’s first comparison coach, Lucy Sheridan, who has just written a book called The Comparison Cure. “We rank children at school and praise individuals with gold stars, all of which makes us feel in competition with others rather than with ourselves at a very early age.”

Comparison culture by hurrah for gin
Comparison affects everyone but experts agree that women are more susceptible.

Negative comparison certainly started young for Sheridan. “I remember being younger than five and having a view on what ranking was, whether that was what club you were in at playschool or whether your mum worked full-time. As soon as our brains develop and we work out what it means to be social creatures, it forms. It can be a gentle intrusion, but for me, and for many of the people I treat daily, we can remember a moment in our childhoods when we weren’t good enough.”

Comparison affects everyone, from young to old, but experts agree that women are more susceptible because of a societal tendency to pit us against each other: Meghan v Kate; curvy v thin; mothers v non-mothers; single v married.

“We find it very difficult to allow women to be themselves without benchmarking them against others to see who comes out on top,” says Sheridan. “Part of the issue is there is often only one woman. There’s the one female lead, the one female director, the one female boardroom member. When there is scarcity, ugly competition absolutely thrives.”

While the level of comparison we’ve reached today feels decidedly unhealthy, at its core comparison can be a positive influence, acting as a motivator and a social barometer. The most famous work on comparison was done in 1954 by Leon Festinger who coined the term ‘social comparison’. He believed people get a sense of validity and cognitive clarity by comparing themselves to others. However, 66 years later, the playing field has changed dramatically. While our grandmothers peered into next door’s garden, we can peer into the wardrobes, bathrooms, diets and CVs of people all over the world. That barrage of benchmarking information is overwhelming.

“Last week I reached breaking point with Instagram,” says Fiona*. “I was suffering with depression and anxiety and the constant barrage of images of people’s perfect lives felt like salt in the wounds of my already shaky self-esteem. Everyone’s perfect houses, jobs, outings. I was starting to feel the ugly stirrings of jealousy – even towards people I love in ‘real life’.”

Yet the definition of ‘real life’ gets especially murky when we’re talking about both social and mainstream media. Statistics show that for every selfie we see, around 10 attempts at that selfie have been made. So much of what we see on our screens is a half-truth, a virtual perfect world that disguises what’s going on in 4D. Despite many of us understanding this in theory, our self-esteem is still battered because our brain is hard-wired to prioritise what it sees. “Your happiness becomes a moving target based on the half-truth you’re being sold on social media,” agrees Arthur. “You finally get what you expected would make you happy, and then you see the highlight reel of someone else’s life and you suddenly crave that too.”

Comparison may be innate but there are definitely those more at risk. “Often it’s people who have very set views about timing: I have to be at this point in my career by this age, I should be in a relationship by this age,” says Sheridan. “These arbitrary timelines we put in place can make comparison thrive. People who have acute comparison syndrome also tend to say ‘should’ a lot, they put huge pressure on themselves to do what they believe is expected of them.”

What lies beneath

How do we break free from comparison culture when the world around us fuels it so? “Take the time to look at what’s really going on. If you’re jealous that someone else is having a lovely holiday take 20 minutes to sit with that feeling and work out what is actually being triggered. Is it because you need holiday? If so make plans to make that happen for you,” says Sheridan.

All experts agree that we need to implement healthier behaviour around social media. “It’ll likely only become bigger and we’ll be pretty uninformed without it,” says Sheridan. “Rather than having these frequent detoxes we should look at how to equip ourselves with ways of managing and understanding our reaction to it. We have a radical responsibility to manage what’s on our feed, we should unfollow and mute the things that make us feel bad and flood our feeds with things that challenge us intellectually.”

A woman on social media
Don't be too hard on yourself when you do find yourself giving in to the impulse to compare.

Arthur agrees: “Nowadays people are monetising your attention – whether on social or TV – so make sure they’re working hard for your money and making you feel good, inspired and motivated at the end of it.”

The media and businesses have a huge responsibility to show a life that reflects the society around us, and we can use our power as viewers and consumers to support the ones who do. As individuals we should try and show as true a version of reality as we can on our social media profiles, in among the perfect brunches and holidays. Because the sooner we see more of what we know – lives that are imperfect, messy, often hard bloody work – reflected by the world around us, the sooner we’ll see that the only person’s story that really deserves the bulk of our attention is our own.

The comparison curse in stats

As part of our Love Women campaign – our pledge to celebrate all women – we wanted to investigate how both traditional and social media impact Stylist readers. The results showed that both have a profound effect on our self-esteem, leading to a damaging comparison culture when we don’t feel we live up to the images we see on our screens and in magazines. Here are some of the most shocking results:

14% of women have high levels of self-esteem

83% of women say social media negatively affects their self-esteem

40% of women compare themselves with other people’s successful careers

39% of women compare themselves with women they think look pristine without effort

58% of women say that social media has changed how others view them and how they view others

Exclusive illustrations: Hurrah for Gin 

Images: Getty

*Names have been changed

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Alix Walker

Alix Walker is editor-at-large at Stylist magazine. She works across print, digital and video and could give Mary Berry a run for her money with her baking skills.

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