Scared and willing to share: meet the female illustrators taking on Instagram's cult of perfection

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Moya Crockett
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Six years ago, Jessie Cave went through a bad break-up. “Actually,” she says today, “it was more of a complete rejection.” Heartbroken, miserable and 23 years old, she turned to drawing: scrappy felt-tip doodles of boys and girls, accompanied by jaded millennial references to thwarted romance, social media-induced anxiety, and wavering self-esteem. It was, she tells, “my way of trying to turn unrequited love into something positive”. 

Cave already had a sizeable social media following, a hangover from her teenage years playing Lavender Brown in the Harry Potter movies. But when she started posting her lovelorn drawings on Twitter – and then Instagram – people with zero interest in the wizarding world gradually started to pay attention. Anxious twenty-something women in particular saw themselves reflected in the scatty neurotics who star in Cave’s bleakly hilarious “doodles”.

With 52,000 followers on Instagram and a book of her drawings, Love Sick, published last summer, Cave is at the vanguard of a new wave of young female illustrators carving out space for themselves online.

At first glance, these women aren’t connected by much. They work in different styles, live in distant cities; many of them have never even spoken to one another.

But what they have in common is a desire to use their illustrations to show women’s thoughts, feelings, experiences and friendships as they really are – and to use social media to share their work.

“I'm aware of this ‘movement’ because it's my favourite part of the internet – dropping the pretence of an idealised life to show who you really are,” New York-based illustrator Siobhan Gallagher, who posts her work on Instagram under the handle @siogallagher, tells “We’re imperfect, scared, anxious and depressed – but we’re willing to share and relate to others.” 

Unlike Cave, Gallagher works mainly in black and white, dealing in neat lines and careful shading. Like Cave, however, she also draws much of her inspiration from the fears, hopes and frustrations of young women. Gallagher’s girls struggle with imposter syndrome, lie awake at night, and compare their lives to those of TV characters. They’re cartoons, yes – but they feel eminently more ‘real’ than the countless wellness bloggers and fitness models whose fantasy lives usually clog up our Instagram feeds.

“Some social media accounts are so curated and polished to make it seem like people are living perfect lives with perfectly posed experiences and bodies, and that's just not interesting,” says Gallagher. “I'd rather share my interior life through drawing, because those thoughts are more real and relatable.”

It’s precisely because they challenge the ‘perfection’ we usually see on social media – where there’s always someone happier, cooler and more beautiful than you – that these kinds of illustrations are so appealing. Speaking about the women who fill up her delicate, brightly-coloured drawings, Arkansas illustrator Sally Nixon says: “They don’t have perfect bodies or perfect habits, and that makes them relatable.”

Rather than be ‘aspirational’, she explains, her goal with each drawing “is to elevate the seemingly mundane to something special.” In Nixon’s world, apparently insignificant moments in women’s ordinary lives – un-posed, unfiltered – are still worthy of being lovingly recorded. It's an ethos she shares with London artist Laura Callaghan, whose neon-bright drawings show grumpy women sprawled across sofas, putting on make-up, and slumped at their desks. 

Given that mental health experts now recognise the potentially damaging effects of social media – from exacerbating social anxiety and depression to damaging women’s body image – there’s something simultaneously kind and subversive in the way these artists use Instagram to share their work.

California-based British illustrator Gemma Correll (250,000 Instagram followers and counting) actively aims to reduce stigma surrounding mental health issues through her drawings. Her goofy, candy-coloured cartoons belie a serious message: look after yourself. You’re not alone.

“I honestly think that humour can be a saviour at times of distress or if you just live with a constant level of anxiety and depression like I do,” Correll told Mashable in January 2016. “I think it’s a lot more prevalent than people realise. I know that I would have felt a little better as an anxiety-ridden teenager if I knew that I wasn’t completely alone in my fears.”

If you do happen to be feeling alone, you would only need to glance at these artists’ Instagram feeds to realise your mistake. Because almost every comment, under every post, follows the same format: women tagging their friends and writing, “This is so you/me/us!”

“Thank god so many women and artists are using their online presence to be real and to say, ‘This is me! Are you this way too?’” says Siobhan Gallagher. “It’s okay – ‘cause we’re all in this together.”