37 "Flawless" Selfies & What Was Actually Going On Behind The Scenes
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Bustle presents our Beauty IRL package, a tribute to our readers' love of beauty and the way they use makeup and skin care to express themselves, to embrace their identities, and to self-soothe. Check out more of those stories here.

Even though we all might know better, it's easy to assume that what you see on social media is reality. When our daily lives are so inundated (check Facebook, check Instagram, check Snapchat, check Instagram again) with the constant stream of updates from the lives of others, it becomes easy to simply forget that everything we're seeing is carefully curated. It's the best vacations, the coolest desserts, the good days, and the perfect selfies. But the truth is that what's going on behind the scenes of selfies is usually much, much different than what it seems from the outside.

So no, that gorgeous photo you see from that person you can't get yourself to unfollow (you know, the one with the brand new outfits and picturesque vacation to Maui every six weeks) on Instagram probably isn't as perfect as it seems. When I talked to 37 people about what was really going on behind that "flawless" selfie of theirs, what I learned is that it's impossible to know what's reality when looking from the outside in. We should never assume we know anything, and we should find comfort in the fact that that person probably isn't as perfect as we all think. Here's what was really running through their minds when they posted those pics.

Reality: "Finals [were] totally stressing me out. [I was thinking] 'Can you tell in my face? I think my eyes look too small. Maybe my head is too big? Is my smile even genuine? Are people going to think I'm fake? Is this the type of selfie that will actually get likes? Why am I posting a selfie during finals? Oh, because I want to show the highlight reel of my life, duh.'"

Reality: "I took this one two weeks after being laid off from my job in marketing. Chopping my hair off seemed like the only thing I had control of at the time/a good way to start fresh and move forward."

Reality: "Like everyone else in my corner of Twitter, my anxiety about this presidency is growing pretty much every day — and on top of that, I've been dying to come out as bisexual to my family for a couple of months now. I feel like I get closer every day, but I can never quite throw myself over that edge. I'm lucky enough to have parents that won't throw me out over something like my sexuality, but they both voted for Trump and that has been gnawing at me since the election."

"I know that after I come out, they probably won't be any more interested in activism than they were before, and that probability is hurtful; if I'm not in the closet anymore, then the social issues my mother believes to not be a huge issue will be directly connected to her eldest child. I'm not sure how I could handle that — disinterest in educating herself about current events that will impact my safety and rights as a human being — so I go shopping. I make a big deal of it! Do my makeup all nice and take selfies to post on Instagram and pretend I have my shit together. Because honestly, what else is Instagram if not a place where anxious people can seek validation?"

Reality: "I took this photo about an hour before walking in the room to defend my dissertation as part of completing my PhD program. I had ridiculous anxiety — tears, insomnia, nausea — in the days and hours leading up to the event. I had a good friend of mine do my makeup that day because I thought it'd give me a bit of a confidence boost, but the anxiety was persistent. To top it all off, about 20 minutes before I took this photo, I found out that another PhD student in my program went to defend her dissertation that morning and was unsuccessful.  I was terrified but I put on my 'grown woman' pants and snapped a selfie for the 'Gram and this was the result. (BTW, I passed my defense that day and walked out of that room as a PhD)."

Reality: "This day I was giving a big presentation at my job in front of lots of strangers. My outfit was obviously on point as was my hair and all the rest, but inside, I was crumbling. The confidence I seemingly exude in this picture couldn't have been more false. I felt completely unprepared for this presentation, shaky, and for the cherry on top, had just broken up with my boyfriend a week earlier and was still a complete mess about it. He had just texted me that day for the first time since our breakup about getting our stuff back from each other, which f*cked up my world even more. This was one of those killer selfies I obviously was hoping so badly he'd see and kick himself for. So yeah — behind the floral blazer and killer angle, this girl was a sad, sorry mess inside."

Posted Caption: "did a lotta shit just to live this here mood instability lifestyle"

Reality: "I use Phhhoto to make gifs of myself when I'm in my darkest hours. This one is from last Jan. 24, when my mental state/the looming inauguration actually drove me to buy a pack of cigarettes and do something I haven't done since I was 17. (Well, I have smoked a cigarette since then, but this was the first time in my adult life it was out of stress and I was sober.) I moved to Portland six months ago with no job and very little money. The job hunt is going fairly unsuccessfully, and as a bisexual woman living under the Trump administration, my mental health has gone from 0 to 100 real quick. But this gif makes me look like some super hot and mysterious private detective in a noir film, which clearly tells you that you should never take a selfie at face value."

Reality: "Anxiety. The kind that you get in your 20s trying to be everything you think you are supposed to be and everything that everyone else thinks you're supposed to be. [I was ] pretending like I'm not feeling like a complete failure [in this photo], feeling behind on whatever timeline we all should be on. As I [took] on a 9-5 desk job I started to believe that maybe all my dreams really are too out of the ordinary.

[I thought,] 'My thighs are too big, my hips are too big, my tummy isn't chiseled enough; like a perfectly sun kissed Australian IG goddess. Model? Me? What a joke. How could I possibly help women feel better about themselves through health and fitness when I hate just about every inch of my body? Currently going through some binge-eating cycles that are throwing me off the wall and back to ground zero. Am I a fraud? I don't have any answers to anything, but here's a selfie to gain some self-esteem through your double taps while you believe the confidence I exude.'"

Posted Caption: None.

Reality: "I took this over Christmas break. The whole break, my younger sibling was thinking about coming out to our parents as transgender (I was the only one who knew at the time). It was a really difficult time on both of us. My sibling was afraid of being kicked out and ridiculed, and I was afraid of how our parents would react. Well, that night my sibling decided to come out. They reacted very well, better than I could have dreamed, and we are a much happier family because of it."

Posted Caption: "Just thinking of world domination 💁🏻 Who wants to join?"

Reality: "When this photo was taken, I had recently quit my job. A job that for quite some time had been stressing me out and making me unhappy. A place where I thought good things could come from it, but turned out to be the opposite. Out of desperation to get out, I got a new job which is where I was headed to when this photo was taken. Sadly, my new job, which I hoped would be much better, also turned out to not be the greatest fit for me and once again I was job searching. I spent a lot of time feeling anxious, worried and unhappy because it seemed like I couldn't make the right choice no matter what decision I made. I would wake up every morning dreading the work day ahead."

Posted Caption: None.

Reality: "I took this selfie the fall of my senior year of college and it's still my favorite photo I've ever taken. What you can't tell from the picture, and what hardly anyone knew at the time, was that I'd been diagnosed with genital herpes a few months earlier, and had just left an emotionally abusive relationship. That fall was one of the worst of my life, full of anxiety, self-loathing, shame, and fear.

I'd been feeling unattractive, disgusting even, for six months. But my roommate had just gotten home from doing makeup for a friend’s thesis film and I asked her to do my eyes before she put her kit away. I took a bunch of selfies using Photo Booth and didn't recognize myself: I looked phenomenal despite how terrible I felt. I suppose I was thinking, 'Who the hell am I now? Can I be the person I was before I ever met him?' It sounds ridiculous, but that selfie is still so special to me. That was the first night I went out in a long time, and I wound up crashing the party where I met the man who went on to become my boyfriend for the next year. I was never the person I was before herpes, or before my ex, but I'm someone better now."

Reality: "I posted this four days after being released from a psychiatric ward, and at the time, only a handful of people knew what was going on. I got dressed to leave the house for the first time in weeks and took a #shamelessselfie. At dinner, I ran to the bathroom to cry."

Posted Caption: "Ben texted me from a Brand New/Modest Mouse show that 'our generation is a hoot' and I'm sitting here on the dog bed getting drunk by myself, so I have to agree."

Reality: "When I took this selfie, I wasn't sure I'd still be married by the end of the month."

Reality: "It was my 22nd birthday and I was out with my friends looking like a hawtie birthday girl. Everyone around me kept telling me I looked damn good, and before you think this is the biggest humble brag of all time, just hold up. Getting ready that night I had changed my outfit nearly seven different times. I re-did my hair twice and did my full make up one time, took it all off and re-did it (basically looking the exact same as the first time) all because of insecurities I had about my looks.

The whole night out I was sucking in, fixing my hair, and basically looking around for people’s approval. Like most humans, I’ve struggled with body issues, but because it was my birthday I put an extra (totally unnecessary) pressure on myself to look a certain way that night. Though it might look like I’m channeling sexy unicorns and cupcakes in this photo, what’s really running through my mind is how far down can I angle my chin so my face looks thinner. Since this picture was taken, I’ve learned the only person you need to impress is yourself and you should do that just by waking up every morning and being you. Living life to please other people is exhausting and you just gotta be you, whoever or whatever selfie that looks like."

Reality: "This selfie came the same day that my best friend of eight years decided she didn't want to be friends anymore. Literally same day. My boyfriend was on tour and out of communication, I had no friends in a city that I desperately didn't want to live in, had no job, had no path towards the career I wanted, and generally felt unattractive, lost, and worthless. So I put on my favorite dark purple lipstick, winged that eyeliner, and pretended I hadn't spent all day in bed crying my eyes out."

Reality: "This picture was taken this summer when I was working in DC and living at my aunt's house. I had just finished my sophomore year of NYU, which was absolute hell, and had made no friends so far where I was. I was anxious, depressed, and couldn't understand what it was about me that people didn't like. So, to cheer myself up I put on some lipstick and read a book outside, which is when the selfie occurred. On the outside I look like a girl enjoying her summer but on the inside, I was broken. I think I posted it because I thought I would get some validation from the outside world through likes and comments but at the end of the day, I still felt shitty."

Reality: "I was actually in a hotel room with my mom. She flew out from Chicago because just a day before I was discharged from a 51/50 hold at a hospital after a severe mental breakdown. I hadn't slept more than 2-3 hours a night for over two months and was dealing with a severe breakup and anxiety. But of course as much as I was trying to play up the cute single girl thing, in reality I felt extremely broken."

Reality: "I had literally just cut off my hair out of sadness over a really rough breakup. I was in a nine-month relationship with a guy I had gotten to the point of feeling like I was in love with. He met my family the previous weekend, and then broke up with me very suddenly and without ever giving a satisfying reason. I was devastated because at 26 I felt like this relationship was actually finally the kind of adult commitment I was looking for, and I had gotten over a lot of issues to allow myself to trust it. Definitely wasn't as happy go lucky as the selfie would suggest."

Posted Caption: "Because it's 5 o'clock somewhere..."

Reality: "My husband and I suffered a stillborn miscarriage and we took this picture because we are out celebrating what would've been her first birthday."

Reality: "I took this selfie on my first venture out into the real world after having my daughter Emma, who is now two. I remember putting myself together that day for the first time in what felt like forever. Even though my eyes say, 'I'm ready to take on the world,' my heart was petrified and culpable for leaving my daughter."

Posted Caption: "Red lipstick = 💪"

Reality: "I was feeling really hurt when I took this selfie — a guy I'd been dating and had been beginning to feel strongly about had just broken up with me over text, and I was feeling really down, particularly about myself and my appearance. So I slapped this red lipstick on, made plans with friends for dinner, and took a selfie to remind myself that I am a badass bitch. It took some time for me to fully feel that way again, but this helped."

Reality: "In this photo I was feeling absolutely petrified, I'd just taken a placement year from uni doing internships and working and I took this before my leaving meal for my job, and I was so scared to leave the working world, to go back to uni and move away from all of my family and for my final year of university, I was so nervous and just thinking  'F*ck, my whole career depends on this last year of uni!'"

Reality: "I loved this dress. Loved, loved, loved. It was New Year’s Eve, and it felt perfect. But it was tight. I’m talking, like, barely-zipped-up-but-I-was-determined-to-wear-it tight. I was committed, so I wore it to dinner as I ate and drank excessively (as everyone should on NYE). At the end of dinner, I exhaled deeply and the side zipper (which went from my armpit to my thigh) just completely separated. There was no saving it.

I had to excuse myself from dinner and desperately try to cover half of my body as the dress fell open. Looking back, it’s hilarious, but at the time I was horrified. I was embarrassed and annoyed at myself that I wasn’t thinner (when in reality, let’s be real, the fault was the dress’ and the dress’ alone). I cried alone in the bathroom before finding something else to change into. But, hey, at least I got this selfie before it all went wrong."

Reality: "I had recently had a really bad breakup with someone from my hometown. I'd already moved away so it would have been easy to stay away, but it was really important to me that I not let him make me feel afraid in my own town, which I'd lived in my whole life, much longer than he had. This is the photo I took when visiting it the weekend after our devastating breakup. I was trying to prove how happy I was, when the act of literally existing in the same city limits as him made me want to throw up and cry all at once. At least my hair looks good, though."

Posted Caption: None.

Reality: "I took this selfie a few days after quitting my job of 7.5 years to move cross country and get my PhD, something I'd been dreaming about for years. I was four days into packing and hit the terrifying wall of 'I can't do this.' The process of getting all my belongings moved felt insurmountable, I was running out of money, leaving a home I loved for a place where I knew I didn't fit in, and so worried after all this, I would fail. I snapped this pic in my 'you can do it' shirt when I honestly believed that I couldn't. I hoped if I snapped a pic and asked my pocket friends for help, they would reassure me. It worked."

Posted Caption: None.

Reality: "I took [this selfie] in December 2015, a couple of days after I had been diagnosed with stage II thyroid cancer. It mercifully turned out to be a fairly self-contained tumor that only took two surgeries to remove fully, but at the time the only things we knew for sure were that a) it could spread without any warning and b) the tumor was so large you could see it just by standing in front of me. I was a part-time arts worker at that time; I got the news over my half-hour lunch break, and after the doctor gave me a pamphlet and a list of recommended surgeons I went back to my desk and kept working. I made it about two days before I had a breakdown. I was sitting at home the evening of this picture trying to figure out how much time I would have to take off work to have my first surgery when I felt compelled to look at myself in the mirror to see if I 'looked' sick (once I realized the tumor was there, it was all I could see)."

"I had just found a shade of lipstick I really liked, so I put it together with the rest of my makeup. I did my whole face, chose my favorite special-occasion eyeshadows, spent about 10 minutes on my eyeliner alone, and dug for my most voluminous mascara. I couldn't meet my own gaze in the mirror and all I could hear was a rushing sound in my ears, and this was the last picture I took before I put down my phone and cried for two hours. I remember thinking that if things went wrong I might never look like a 'whole' person again, that it would take makeup to blend in for the rest of my life if the cancer spread. Thankfully things did not worsen and I am now cancer-free, but I've never posted this photo because I took it out of fear and I remember feeling that way when I look at it, despite how carefully I put it together."

Reality: "For this one, trying to master a selfie where I look confident is typically one of the most crucial requirements before posting. Particularly full body or not front facing camera selfies, I want to make sure that the way the photo is cropped and how I appear is attractive. In reality, I am fighting my own self criticism and my unhappiness with myself & my body. Typically, it is more than just unhappiness with appearance but the way I actually feel (not confident and not attractive). Selfies, to me, are performance pieces. I am filling the role of someone I often wish to be. Sometimes it helps me become her, sometimes it makes me jealous of her."

Posted Caption: None.

Reality: "I took this photo this morning in the break room in my office. I have started to try to take a selfie every day. I'll be 25 in a few weeks, and while I cringe at some of my photos from when I was younger, I find that more often than not I think they are sweet and cute and good memories looking back. But I was always so worried about looking 'bad' then. I can remember hating pictures of me that I love now. So I have decided to let go, I guess. Of all the negative self talk. Our generation is lucky, we have the unique experience of inventing and perfecting the selfie. Unabashedly loving ourselves. I don't want to let anyone take that away. Even if I'm not wearing make-up and my hair is a mess and my jacket looks like a mom-jogger in an '80s movie."

Posted Caption: None.

Reality: "This selfie was taken this past summer — August 5, to be exact. Some friends and I were about to go on a dinner cruise, and I had just finished getting ready. Before I finished my makeup, I made a last-minute decision to wear a deep mauve lipstick. The color complimented my navy romper, chestnut hair and rosy skin. I felt so beautiful. At the time, I especially struggled with anxiety and work-related stress. Before meeting up with the entire group, I was told my lip color didn't look good because it was too dark. The next day, I remembered my selfie and made it my profile picture. Don't let others define your beauty."

Posted Caption: None.

Reality: "[I was] thinking about the two separate panic attacks I had that day (one in the bathroom at work, one in a crowded Starbucks on the way home), about how rundown and empty I've been feeling, how terrified I am of losing people but also how being vulnerable freaks me out so I keep pushing people away. Sad that one of my co-workers continues to talk down to me, upset that I continue to take it instead of standing up for myself. Constantly second guessing everything I do or say or make to the point where I'm neglecting the things and people I'm most passionate about. But it's not all bad, I suppose, because I did get a free coffee in the morning and a stranger in the elevator told me I had really pretty eyes."

Reality: "At the time that I took this selfie, I was a nervous wreck. I was all but sure that I was going to fail a class that was required for my degree, this dashing my hopes of becoming a Child Life Specialist. I could feel a sickness coming on and woke up with a killer headache, and just knew that my day was ruined before it started. I also don't think I look particularly attractive or selfie-worthy, but I knew I needed to document how I felt. I so badly wanted to become a CLS because I fought, and won, a battle with cancer at age 10. Ever since then I've been involved with a camp for children with serious illnesses called Camp Boggy Creek. CBC is a place where children who are so often told they can't do things are safe, respected, and loved and can finally hear the word 'yes.' Attending and working for this camp has shaped my life in an ineffable way."

"It was at CBC that I made the shirt that is pictured, depicting the 'Boggy heart.' At staff training we learn that we have the responsibility of choosing our attitudes each day. It's incredibly empowering to know that you have control over your emotions and attitudes, and it is also a big weight on your shoulders. You constantly have to ask yourself if you're indulging in self-pity or petty tantrums, and if so, is that who you want to be? So I donned my Boggy heart and snapped a pic to remind myself that no, I won't be dragged down, and yes,  today will be a good day. Side note, I didn't become a child life specialist after all. I decided to become a Social Worker and work for children who don't have support and are abused and be an advocate for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence."

Reality: "This photo was taken December 2016; my first holiday season after the end of an almost four year relationship. My boyfriend broke up with me the day before his best friend's wedding because he had finally had enough of my compulsive shopping and untreated mental illness. For the two years that we lived together, he tried his best to support me and help me get my finances on track, while I resisted every step of the way. I had a job that sent me into a deep depression to the point I was often suicidal and I refused to go to therapy or on medication because I thought it would be admitting failure. I cried every day on the way to and from work. My depression ruined my sex drive, kicked my overeating (and eventual return of bulimia) into overdrive, and made me a nasty person. My ex did his best but I could tell I was letting him down over and over. He had his issues as well, but they were few and far between compared to mine."

"I fantasized about marrying him and eventually having children with him while he grew to resent me and my refusal to seek treatment. As a result of the end of our relationship, I had to move back in with my parents at 28 and I've been on a bit of a spiral since. Right before the break up, I did start going to therapy and got on Zoloft and it's already started changing my life for the better. My lows aren't as low and I feel like the fog is clearing. The photo attached was taken in my childhood bedroom after I put up some Christmas lights. I'm not sure what to call my expression in it. It's kind of a weird smirk-sad smile-know it all look. It's a look that says I feel like shit but I look cute and I know things can be better. I can be better. I will be better. I can't wait to feel happy again. "

Reality: "I have struggled depression and anxiety most of my adult life. Taking selfies of myself when I feel my best is one of my go to things to do when my makeup is 'fierce.' This time in particular, I was coming up on two years into my only relationship I've ever been in. I was feeling anxious about the future, stressed about the few fights we've been having that seem to be happening more often, and uncomfortable in my self esteem from gaining weight. On top of the relationship stress, my job was going into slow season meaning less hours and money, my family was coming up an unwarranted move from our home of eight years and it truly felt like the world was collapsing all at once."

"I was having one of those days that I didn't feel cute in anything and decided to zone out and do my makeup. My makeup felt like it turned out flawless, I was so present with each movement, each decision to be both 'natural' & 'bold.' My whole face was so easy to complete and even my wings were symmetrical (#goals). I took this picture with lighting I've never found before or ever again and I finally felt like I was glowing for the first time in a couple weeks. Selfies are important, and I love seeing not only my best selfies but those of my loved ones too. I hand out 'likes' as much as I breathe air. Although it's never a permanent fix, the temporary happiness helps make the days go better and smoother."

Posted Caption: None.

Reality: "I hate selfies. I can't really take them because I think I look stupid and that's why I probably hate them. On this fine day, due to a major miscommunication, I was asked to reach a concert venue (while I was all dressed up in Mumbai's heat) four hours before the actual time. I was fuming but had to be polite. I had dragged my sister along and she was mad too. I always get anxious and this wasn't helping at all. I was starting to sweat out my makeup. Finally we decided to head to the nearest mall to get a bite and called ourselves a taxi. On the way, I realized the lighting was perfect and I was eager to test the camera on my brand new iPhone. And voila, the best selfie I've ever taken!!"

Reality: "This is probably my favorite selfie that I've ever taken because it's one of the few that I think actually looks like me. I was basically hiding in the Reformation dressing room taking like 1500 pictures of myself because the lighting was so good and I don't feel comfortable taking selfies in front of other people. I went shopping by myself that day because I was home alone and got really depressed for no reason. It just happens to me sometimes, and the only way I can ever feel better is to get outside and distract myself. I think it's ironic that this is one of my favorite images of myself ever and I wasn't particularly happy when it was taken."

Posted Caption: None.

Reality: "The other day I spent maybe an hour to an hour and a half trying to capture the perfect selfie. I know, that's a lot. I spent this much time partly because I was bored, but mostly because I was really feeling myself and Kehlani had come out with her new album, which I was really feeling too. It took me about 300 tries to get this. The other 299 are all taken at the exact same angle with minimal differences. Halfway through, to my horror, I realized a lot of them exposed my mountain of dirty laundry in the background, so I fixed the problem by taking pictures progressively closer and closer to my face. Notice the carefully applied smokey-eye that I could never take credit for myself. Thank god for make-up apps and large camera rolls!"

Reality: "I took this photo of my cat and I 12 days after Hurricane Sandy. I had just moved into Astoria with my friend, and her boyfriend, and their roommate with my two cats, the first of a few temporary living situations I'd encounter. The night of the hurricane, I was home, since I didn't live in a mandatory evacuation zone. I'll spare you the details and just say that my old address is now one of the first places that will be mandatorily evacuated should a coastal flood occur again. Whenever I see this photo, I'm reminded of how stressed out of my mind I was, and how I had no idea that there was even more where that came from — seeing that bright blue paint of my friend's room brings me back to exactly how I felt that day, and how I'd feel very often for the next few months."

Reality: "My honest thoughts behind this birthday selfie: 'Happy 22nd Birthday to me! Wait… I'm 22 now. I'm getting older. I'm not in college. I don't have a full-time job. I'm just an intern. Everyone else around me is graduating. Everyone else have jobs lined up. Everyone else is moving on with their life. Everyone else is entering adulthood. But what about me? What's next for me? What am I going to do because I'm not on the same path as everyone else? Will everyone judge me for not doing things the traditional way? Oh well, gonna smile through the uncertainty that is my life!'"

No selfie is exactly what it seems. But in a way, knowing that all those "perfect" photos you're looking at are often taken in times of struggle or anxiety makes them even more powerful. That knowledge helps expand our definitions and perceptions of beauty and perfection — and that's a beautiful thing in and of itself.