Between poses and angles, the images we see on social media are a filtered version of reality, but some are exposing them for what they really are. Vogue spoke to Danae Mercer about how important it is to change the narrative about our bodies and normalize the so called “imperfections”.
Cellulite, stretch marks, bloating, saggy boobs, bra bulge and no thigh gap on sight. We could go on and on about the “wrongs” that we have wanted to change about ourselves and our physical appearances, but we would much rather follow Danae Mercer’s example and look at them for what they really are: true, real and normal parts of our bodies. On her social media platforms, the journalist, content creator and self-love activists shares messages of acceptance and daily reminders of body positivity and self-love, has honest conversations about eating disorders and diet culture, helps demystify the idea that health and happiness are synonymous with a certain number on the scale, and lifts the curtain that so often separates reality from social media, with photos and videos that show how angles, poses and lighting are used to create the so called “perfect” image. In other words, looking at Danae Merce’s Instagram page is stepping into a world where a no filter reality is a reality of hope, normalization and optimism. A reality where our bodies are beautiful, just the way they are. A reality where our “marks” don’t determine our value. The verdict? As Danae puts it, “you were born to be real, not to be perfect”.
How did your journey begin? How did you decide to start showing this raw side of yourself and, consequently, of women?
I started just over a year ago now, and before I started I was doing a lot of traditional kind of fitspo content and luxury travel on my social media. I started to feel disconnected because I knew all the work that happened behind the scenes. These pictures would look perfect and effortless, but in reality, there is so much that went into making that. And I started to feel very disconnected from it, it wasn't me. Around the same time, I saw this artist named Sara Shakeel, and she had done a whole series on glitter stretch marks, and I saw one of her works and in an instant, it changed the way I viewed my own body. And I started to think maybe there is something in this, maybe I could possibly help myself and help other women just change how we see this shell that we are wrapped in.
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You were born to be REAL, not to be PERFECT. It took me years to figure this out. Perfect, part of me believed, was always the goal. So I said yes when I wanted to say no. Set our tasks that checked boxes but drained my energy. Smiled when I felt anything but. Dieted. Slimmed down. Went for ‘perfect’. But the thing is, I am NOT perfect. WE are not perfect. And wearing that kind of MASK? Constantly acting in a role you never asked for? It’s exhausting. Draining. And also distancing, because TRUE HUMAN CONNECTION happens when we feel seen and heard and acknowledged and understood. So today, even in the tiniest of ways, step back from PERFECT. Whether that’s being honest with your feelings. Or being gentle with your body. Or laying down one task that does not serve you. You were not BORN TO BE PERFECT. You are complicated, nuanced, raw and vibrant and emotional and intense, a bundle of brains and hormones and body parts rolled into one human creature. You are REAL. You are HUMAN. YOU are YOU - and that is far more magnificent indeed. #feminist #aufeminin #normalizenormalbodies #iweigh #mentalhealth #selflovequotes #stretchmarks #strengthmarks
How is your relationship with body image, body positivity and self-love? Why is it important to you, personally, and why is it important to share that message?
I've had an eating disorder and I've spent so many years just hating so much about my body, or feeling uncomfortable on my skin, like going to the beach and covering up or looking in the mirror and picking myself apart. And I think that only in my 30s did I start accepting what I am and even celebrating, and the celebrating happened when I changed the media I was consuming, when I started to expose myself to more diverse bodies, to more diverse voices, and I realized that all the things that we are taught, as women, all these things that are flaws or wrong about us, they aren't. They aren't, they are so normal. Like cellulite, right? Over 80% of women have cellulite. Over 80%. Who the heck decided that cellulite is a bad thing? That's why I guess it's so important for me to create what I do. It's very personal and it helps me feel stronger and braver.
You recently shared a video on YouTube where you talked about your personal experience with eating disorders. Do you feel like they are still a taboo in our society and something that makes people feel ashamed of themselves?
Oh, massively. I have a Facebook group and a lot of the women that are in that group will share with each other stuff that they wouldn't share publicly and certainly not on their Instagram. And a lot of it is about disordered eating or body image. I think eating disorders, and mental health in general, is still a huge taboo. We don't talk about a lot of the problems that happen up here. We are fine saying that we break a limb, we are fine saying that we go to the doctor, but take it to the brain and it becomes a bit like, "Oh, no", like that's secret. But the danger of that is shame and secrecy for a lot of these illnesses, it breeds them, it makes it worse. Whereas when you take it out, when you shine it in the light, it's like a wound that's been infected, right? You put it on the sunlight and suddenly you realize that this isn't shameful, I'm not alone, I am supported, I am loved, there is help, all these great things that for so long this fooled you otherwise. So yes, I definitely think it's still taboo. I would love to see it become more normalized.
What can be done to open up the conversation and normalize it?
I think exactly what you are doing now. Asking about it, opening up a platform for people to talk, if they are ready to talk. You know, my mom died when I was very young, I was 19, and for a long time people didn't ask me about it, but I wanted to talk. It was just that people wouldn't ask. And I think eating disorders are a bit similar at a certain point. You want to share, you want to feel seen, you want to feel heard. I think that creating safe spaces where women can discuss it. I think there needs to be a huge amount of agitation to the point that teacher understand it, parents understand it, because it's so common. Not even the extreme of eating disorders, but like disordered eating. If you look at the stats, the number of women that have been on diets, or skip meals, or have just alcohol and no food, things that aren't really ok. Why do we normalize that and not the conversations around what's going on in our brains?
You are a journalist yourself. Do you see a change in the media happening, right now?
That's a very good question. A change in traditional media? I think I see a change definitely in new media, like in social media I see a huge shift in that people are normalizing different bodies, different conversations, eating disorders, mental health, anxiety, conversations around race. We see a huge shift there. With traditional media, I don't know that I have. I think it's probably better than it was 10 years ago, or 15 years ago, but it will take a while to filter down, I think, from that kind of social media into what the average person consumes. We still see tabloid magazines with pictures of celebrities on the cover whit cellulite, but you don't really see the kind of genuine, open conversation around mental health. It's a very good question, I want to think about that more.
And during quarantine, a lot of triggering massages started to appear, picking on weight gain, exercising to the fullest, eating too much…
I think that you're absolutely right. As soon as the pandemic and quarantine started, the conversation just shifted, and it shifted so strongly on women gaining weight. And I don't know if you remember this but the first month or so of quarantine there were all these memes popping up about "me pre-quarantine, me post-quarantine". And the post is always like a heavier woman, or someone really badly styled. I think it really reveals how far we still have to go with this weight conversation. Even though we are seeing different bodies in the media, even though ads feature plus-sized models of color, even though we are seeing stuff like that, at the end of the day, given a pandemic, the conversation still shifted into tearing apart women's bodies. That just reveals to me how much work still needs to be done.
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Look. You can eat all the kale. Do all the workouts. Even rub weird stuff on your skin because the internet told you to (don’t please). But until you sort out what’s happening in your HEAD, what you see in the mirror won’t really change. Confidence starts on the inside. And my gosh, is it ever a game changer. For years, I really struggled with confidence. Because all the quotes shouted to ‘BE CONFIDENT’ and ‘LOVE MYSELF’ but no one really bothered to explain HOW. Today, I just want to share a few things that have helped me along the way. And maybe, just maybe, they might help you too. ❣️ Don’t join in negative self talk. For some weird societal reason, women bond over tearing themselves down (‘oh my god my thighs!’ ‘Oh I am so stupid!’). But our words become our actions and these things matter. Skip it. ❣️ Set boundaries and honor them. Say NO when you want to — even if you worry people will be mad at you. Confidence is about knowing you, the REAL you, is worthy of love. Even WHEN you say no sometimes. When I’m not sure, I search for feelings of resentment. Am I angry that I have to do something? Resentful? Then maybe that’s where I let my boundaries be crossed. ❣️ Allow yourself time to REFLECT before you REACT. There are a lot of strong voices out there in the world, and sometimes it can get hard to find our inner voice when everyone else is shouting. Especially for us PEOPLE PLEASERS. For me, allowing myself distance before responding or taking an action helps me figure out what I believe. And then I can honor that. ❣️ Start SMALL. So if you want to wear a bikini but haven’t in years, try wearing it around your house first. Then your yard. Then to the pool. Let yourself ease into things. I’d LOVE to know your tips too. I’m still learning myself. But it’s a journey I absolutely know is worth it. I’m so gosh darn glad we’re in this together. x Photo by @chiclebelle :) And post inspired by @nutritionalblonde ? #selflove #confidence #confident #selfacceptance #stretchmarks #instavsreality
Regarding the work that you do, do you feel like women are more acceptant of themselves once they start following you and engaging with the community?
Yes, I do. I think it's not really me, it's just that I'm giving them the tools and changing the lens through which they see themselves. They're still doing that heavy internal work. But I receive so many incredible messages of women who wore a bikini for the first time, or wore shorts for the first time, or looked in the mirror. I get some from girls with eating disorders who are like, "Ok, I wasn't going to eat today, but now I am going to eat". I had this teacher, and one of her girls started to tear her body apart, and the teacher sent her my profile, and then all the students sent around my profile, and the teacher said that it changed the tone of the conversation. At the end of the day I'm not doing anything groundbreaking, I'm just showing a women's body as it exists, but the community and the need for this and the desire for this, I think for me that's what's so incredible, seeing these women. I hope people leave feeling better about themselves.
You also talk about this Instagram vs. reality dichotomy, and how the right pose, the right angle and the right kind of light play a huge role on the photos we see on social media. Thinking of younger women who may not realize the kind of work that goes into getting that "perfect" image, have you had the chance to engage and have conversations with them?
Yes. A lot of my followers are young women. I have a lot of teenagers. Some of them are being bullied in school, some of them have struggled with their own bodies or eating disorders. I am so thankful whenever they send me messages, and it often is to say thank you, or this changed this, or I feel better about this. It feels weird talking about it because I don't want to be like, "Oh, I changed all these lives", because I don't feel that's me who has done that, I think it's more just helping them realize that they are normal, and then they change, they do the work. That's what I hope, I hope I help them feel a little more normal.
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Workout because you LOVE your BODY, not because you HATE IT. For me, that idea was a game changer. All these pictures are taken seconds apart. They’re all in the same outfits (@womensbestwear, who actually have a massive up-to 60% off sale at the moment and are my fav — see my stories for info). The only difference is the way I’m posing. Yet for YEARS, I let photos like this GET ME DOWN. Because they seemed to suggest a level of PERFECTION that my moving, wiggling, bending, folding body never really achieved. Only now I know I was chasing the wrong thing. I was trying to LOOK LIKE HER, instead of trying to be the BEST VERSION OF ME. Now things have changed. These days, I don’t workout as punishment for what I ate. I EAT to FUEL myself for my athletic goals. I train because I love it. I’m focused on what health FEELS LIKE for me. Not what it LOOKS LIKE on some possibly dodgy FITSPO PAGE. So today, let me remind you of things I wish I had known sooner: Health looks different on every body. Sometimes that means HIIT or running or meditation, or sometimes, if we’re recovering from EDs or injuries or simply are exhausted, it means nothing at all. No one looks like fitspo all the time. And movement should always, always come from a place of love. You got this. Kit @womensbestwear #YesThisIsAcollab #SponsedWithWB #womensbest #selflove #selfacceptance #instavsreality #instagramvsreality #socialmediavsreality #posing
The truth is that since very little we are taught that thin is healthy, the opposite is unhealthy. Thin is happy and the opposite is not. Or when you are exercising the goal is to reach a certain number on the scale. And you are changing that with your own narrative. How do you let go of these ideas and this pressure?
I think you're absolutely right, that's what we're fed from the time we're little girls, that the goal is to be thin. And that is so wrong. Every body is different, your bone structure will be different from mine, different from hers, and our healthy weight is going to be different. I can say this as someone who has taken thin to an extreme, where I was incredibly unhealthy and my hair was falling out, but I was being rewarded for it. There is something wrong there, there is something wrong in that goal. I think for me to move away from that goal is to change what you are striving for. I strongly believe that unless you are working with a doctor, women shouldn't own scales. I mean, why? I would say get rid of those. I would say look at health goals rather than just aesthetic. I mean, it's fine to have an aesthetic element in your goal, it's fine to want to curl your but, or get some abs, but focus on the health beyond that. To run faster, to lift heavier, to feel calmer in your mind. Focus on the health, not just the appearance, not just the physical. And for me that's a huge transformation and it changes the entire conversation.
What are some of your hopes when it comes to body positivity, and body image?
I just hope that women, and girls, teenagers, start to feel more normal. I think that self-love is a big ask and it feels like a big word, where you look in the mirror and you're like, "Yes, yes. Yes, yes, yes." But to look in the mirror and be like, "Ok, this is me. I accept this", I think that is a much more achievable goal, and I would love that. I would love that more women, instead of tearing themselves apart whenever they see their own body or feel their own shape, they feel, "Ok, this is me", that kind of self-acceptance. And for the younger generation, I hope that they grow up more aware than we were, that they look at these images and just go in with a bit more of tools, and realize that not everything is the way that it seems. That's true in images, that's true in videos, that's true in how people portray their lives. Just being a bit more cautious and aware, that they don't rip themselves apart for not meeting that.