By Victoria Bromley, Eleanor Bowskill, Hannah McWhinnie and Zarah Yesufu
Living in a digital age where we broadcast ourselves through social media, Oenone Forbat has built her career by cultivating an #Instagramable lifestyle. Bad Influence is a reflection on her career to date, candidly discussing the challenges of being criticised through a phone screen and the empowerment of creating a sense of community with her loyal fanbase. From falling into the world of fitness influencing to rebranding herself through a myriad of different hobbies and artistic licences, Forbat is witty, charming and honest in her self-study of being a content creator.
As a sporty adolescent with a growing online following, Forbat belonged to a population at higher risk of developing an eating disorder, as she faced sport-specific body image pressures in addition to existing cultural ideals. Social media is often criticised for promoting a culture of comparison, increasing the risk of users developing eating disorders and poor mental health. However, there has been “a huge shift away from diet culture, which Forbat has seen reflected in her social media feed. In her words, we are seeing “a wider representation of bodies online” which has resulted in a “joyful abdication” from “ceaseless” insecurities for her age group and demographic.
Forbat confessed that she does not use TikTok; its absence from her phone is an attempt to avoid getting “sucked” into an endless “scroll-hole.” But it seems that the generation before her own is “fixated” on that “heroin-chic physique” and fashions of the late 90s and early 2000s, leading her to wonder if diet culture has not disappeared, but has become more “insidious” instead. People are less likely to “admit to being on a diet” but this can be harmful too.
Stereotypically in a world where image equals success, there is additional pressure for influencers to convey compartmentalised versions of themselves. Forbat admits to having “tried on lots of different versions” of herself “to please everyone all the time – which is an impossible feat.” She adds that as she has grown older, she found “the freedom to not portray [her]self in any particular way, online,” and that whilst writing the book, she experienced a “glorious unshackling,” realising that “it was really ok if people didn’t like [her] or wanted to understand [her].”
The question of who is responsible for keeping online spaces safe is a prominent dilemma within the book. Forbat believes we all have a “joint responsibility” to mediate the content we consume online, yet it’s also about “education.” With younger social media users being “digital natives,” parents may be unaware of what their children access online. Forbat suggests online safety should “be a part of the curriculum,” and that platforms should allow “parents to create boundaries for their children.” Even though online platforms have age limits, “it is very easy for underage children to create social media accounts.” As adults, we have “a bit more responsibility to recognise what content may trigger us,” although ultimately, Forbat suggests platforms need “to create simplified ways for us to control what content is being fed to us.”
Social media influencers are akin to a new kind of celebrity, and with this label, some may feel that influencers lack the talent to warrant being placed on a pedestal. Forbat believes that the influencer-follower dynamic is a “complicated” one, as it often “builds on a sense of kinship” as long as the audience can still relate to them without friction. She pointed out that most influencers are female, and women tend to “dominate” online spaces. This edge has allowed women to “carve out a whole new economy” which has proven to be lucrative.
Through social media, and writing Bad Influence, Forbat must censor what she shares and keep private the intimate moments of her life, so that they can remain special and untarnished from online commentary. In the early drafts of the book, Forbat “wrote liberally and without caution” to get everything onto the page. Through the writing process, she was “very conscious” about making sure she wasn’t “overly generous with super personal details,” but also carefully considered what she “was happy” and comfortable “with sharing.” Having had “a following for years,” she felt more “equipped” to write a memoir, trusting herself when asking “Does anyone need to know this?” With age, she has become more “selective” with what she shares, and rightly so.
Forbat provides an in-depth example of sharing selective content through her discussion of online activism. By questioning whether her followers needed her to post materials such as social justice infographics to show her genuine awareness for a cause, or because it was simply something that everyone else has shared, Forbat explores how platforms capitalise upon and manipulate sincere passion for social problems into a way to build social brands. For an influencer to remain genuine, what matters most is that “the person sharing them is overall someone that their followers trust and believe in,” and that “if the trust is there” then “people will take their support for a cause in good faith.”
Forbat’s following is like a sisterhood: “I know it sounds quite trite, but I do feel like I’ve built a community.” Through the different iterations of her online persona, from fitness influencer to podcaster, book club leader, comedian and published author, she has established an audience of women who are “so fascinating, engaging and kind.” Despite all the issues with social media, it is refreshing to hear stories from online communities like Forbat’s, about which she said: “I learn a lot from my audience and really appreciate how generous they are in the way that they communicate and share with me.”