Dignity, Loss, and Personal Brand
This post was written in 2017 and republished in 2023.
In 2017, I started having having emotional breakdowns – I mean, full fledged weeping fests – like clockwork about every two weeks.
The culprit? Social media.
When I started this blog, I hadn’t really considered a future that would include monetization or brand collaborations. It’s not that I had ruled these things out. I just hadn’t thought about blogging as a business that required clear branding, consistent marketing, and creative direction.
I was in it because it seemed like a useful way to build connections with other people in my niche, and I have an obsessive need to write every day, so it was the perfect hobby.
Before 2015 or so, I had the luxury of all but ignoring social media outlets like Twitter and Instagram. I had a small but insightful reader base and just enough opportunities for thoughtful back and forth. I didn’t get on Instagram until 2015.
I didn’t even own a smart phone until 2014. And still, my blog moved forward thanks to in-person connections and one very good opportunity to guest post on Rachel Held Evans’ blog.
But things are different now. According to most advice on the subject, it is imperative that bloggers have a presence on social media, and particularly on Instagram, home of the instant gratification, eternally scrolling photo feed.
To be honest, I have struggled. I don’t intuitively get Instagram, I don’t like hashtags, I don’t like typing on a tiny smartphone keyboard. Not to mention that the “shadow ban” that may or may not actually exist is setting me on edge.
While many bloggers and influencers joyfully recount the ways that Instagram has led them to new friendships and authentic connections – and this has been true for me to a small extent – they don’t often discuss the draining demands of creating and maintaining a personal brand.
But that’s the ever present reality of blogging in 2017.
What is a Personal Brand?
At its most basic, personal branding is the process of turning your distinct attributes into a compelling, consistent brand for the purpose of promoting your work.
Writers, academics, influencers, and even regular people are now encouraged to use traditional branding strategies on themselves. These could include photography, color stories, fonts, graphics, and taglines. All are employed in an effort to stand out amid the clatter of other users on social media.
Chances are, you’re currently following dozens of social media users who have reached you primarily because their messaging and visuals are consistent.
I encourage you to scroll through some of the feeds you follow and notice the precise curation and voice. Then, ask yourself if you feel like you really know these aspirational figures in your digital life.
Because chances are, even the most sincere of the bunch read just a little bit like sophisticated Artificial Intelligence robots wearing nice clothes.
This is not an insult to who these people actually are. It’s a testament to the effectiveness of their personal brand. They’re able to attract a large following because they represent themselves as consumable products. They’re just doing what all the industry “experts” told them to do.
And this is why I’ve been having breakdowns every few weeks.
Personal branding by definition is objectification, the commodification of people.
It renders complex, embodied people into oversimplified characters in a virtual reality. When I post on Instagram, I very rarely feel as though people are seeing who I am at my core.
And so the the responses ring hollow despite the commenters’ best intentions (this is by no means a reflection of the people who engage with me). The more I fall down the rabbit hole, the more isolated I become.
I am not alone in this. According to a recent NPR interview:
Being engaged in excessive social comparison decreased one’s happiness. So it’s not that you think that others are happier than you are, but you need to prove yourself to yourself over and over again, and these social comparison engagement makes you less happy.
I’ve been working so hard to get to the ideal follower count by employing all the personal branding tricks in the book. But the self-othering work required to achieve something roughly equivalent to racking up play money in the Game of Life is preposterous. Have I signed up for a race that’s actually a hamster wheel?
I think most of us would agree that objectification is wrong: that it leads to moral ambiguity around people and personhood, resulting in harassment, othering, and abuse. So why aren’t we more worried about objectification when we’re doing it to ourselves?
Today I’m committing to a mantra that grounds me in reality:
I demand to be seen, so I will not erase myself. I demand to be heard, so I will not censor myself. I demand to be recognized as fully human, because I know that if I can’t do that for myself, it becomes harder to recognize humanity in others.
Personal branding may be a requirement of success in an increasingly individualized, online world. But for my own mental health – and to retain a sense of my embodied reality – I recognize the need to take a step back and assert that I am more, that I am a whole person.
I am not a brand, and neither are you. Don’t let social media erase the you that can actually make a difference. Only messy, smelly, real people have the power to change the world.
Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.
Monday 6th of March 2023
I agree wholeheartedly. I'm old enough to remember life before social media. I didn't have a smart phone until the end of college; my social media activity (at the beginning) consisted almost exclusively of chatting my friends (on Facebook) and posting goofy filtered pictures of my real life (on Instagram). Then I got sucked into following influencers and too many other "branded" accounts, and it was just exhausting eventually. I stopped posting my own things because I felt like what I had to say wasn't good enough. I'm not off social media entirely, but I had to cull who I followed. I found that following "aspirational" people, even most ethical fashion influencers, to be too triggering for thoughts of unworthiness and lack. And even following regular people (who I don't know) can be a minefield, as I wonder how they paid for XYZ and what their life is like that they can take ABC trip, etc. I follow very few "real" people now--mostly meme and news accounts. I may quit social media entirely at some point, but that's the balance that works for me at the moment. I can't even imagine trying to create my own personal brand; I'm sure I would end up a wreck.
Sunday 5th of March 2023
This sounds totally exhausting. I am old enough that I mainly follow people I know in real life. But even in the years before Instagram, my husband always told me "you are not the demographic they are looking for" because it seemed like when I liked a place, it would go out of business! So definitely don't look to me for marketing advice.
I wonder if the rise of platforms like Substack means that people are starting to get tired of the artificialness of it.
Monday 6th of March 2023
@Susan, I agree about Substack! I'd really missed engaging with bloggers and with more long-form content, so I am enjoying Substack.
Sunday 5th of March 2023
It was, and I ended up deleting my "influencer" account and quitting all social media partnerships. I actually even wrote a 20 page theology paper on this theme in seminary. I am glad that Substack is making long form blogging a thing again. It's not perfect, but it does create more breathing room to share your life.