Sep 21, 2023

The Head Consuming the Tail


Ashley Castorena

Becoming an Instagram creator and the most unhealthy version of myself

Image By:
Madeline Mullenbach Hall

30 minutes, 80 likes, 20 saves. Am I on target? Will this take off? Do people think I’m interesting? 

My road to becoming an Instagram creator was paved with working retail, an obsession with wardrobe organization, and—let’s be honest—a determination to be sent free things. 

For a long time, I sought to instead be the friend of a creator. “Are you sure you don’t want to start an account? I can help you,” I would say to each of my friends who I felt had the parasocial gaze and spark that I was confident would take off. I wanted the industry insight without the hives that cover my neck the moment a stranger asks my name.

2021 was a domino of traumas. My mother had a life-altering stroke that landed her in a nursing home for an indefinite amount of time, and three months later my brother suddenly passed away. 

It was a lot. It was too much. Both events have changed the trajectory of my life. Most relevant to this essay, the online version. 

One early November morning in 2021, I stared at my reflection in my kitchen window, full of sorrow and deep grief, and in desperate need of a creative escape. Something to bring me joy. Something that would allow my brain a child-likeness.

But instead of a spool of wool, or a canvas and a paintbrush, I decided to invest in a tripod and no less than 30 hours of YouTube tutorials on how to create a reel. 

By the following summer, I had over 100,000 followers. That was what my friends saw and understood, at least. 

“Congratulations, Ashley!” 
“You’re really taking off!”
“You’re like, AN INFLUENCER now.” 

I hated these statements—it meant that friends and acquaintances were paying attention, noticing my rise. Would they notice if I failed? I felt like an imposter. I only saw inconsistent engagement, low-quality reels, and insignificant influence. 

Even more than the Instagram user, the Instagram creator is chronically online. There is a mandatory, endless cycle of engaging to receive engagement, and needing to stay up-to-date on current marketing and culture trends. 33% of creators spend between 30-40 hours a week on content creation (ConvertKit, 2022, p. 65). Good boundaries and time off result in lower engagement. 

My efforts, the head. My demise, the tail. 

This hobby was intended to be a creative reprieve from my full-time job and graduate studies—and oh yeah, my grief. But my reprieve turned to obsession. My obsession turned to isolation. My version of seeing friends was noticing when they hadn’t liked my very niche style post. 

Do they hate me? Do they find me cringe-y? DO THEY EVEN LOVE ME? 

Despite the pain and isolation, the hole I dug only deepened. My YouTube searches continued—SEO caption strategies, how to increase engagement, how to upload reels in higher quality. In the morning, 30 minutes turned to one hour of engagement with other creators. In the evening, 30 minutes turned to two hours of engagement with other creators. 

My efforts, the head. My demise, the tail. 

Still, I was filled with envy when I saw a creator with higher quality content. Breaking down when a post received low engagement became my normal. Even more menacing, deep peace when a post went viral was equally my normal. I didn’t know it at the time, but my self worth and identity were coiled in the ivy of likes, saves, and shares. 

The coil thankfully loosened enough for me to see that this was not normal. No, this was a perfect cocktail of ignored grief, unprocessed insecurity, and a beyond necessary reprieve from my reprieve. 

In fall of 2022, the tail that my head was consuming was scorched in the fire of burnout. 

I was no longer able to keep up. My day job was picking up on top of my graduate practicum, and launching our first collection of Ethel. I had no choice but to take my attention—my obsession—off Instagram. 

When I did, I realized all that I had missed. My grieving family, quality time with my husband, relationships with my friends outside of my awareness of their engagement with my posts. 

I graduated in late December. Ethel work simmered down after finishing collection one. And I was rocked by all the emotions suppressed by the algorithm. My mother, my brother, my insecurities. It was finally time to heal. 

This all feels entirely too personal and vulnerable, if I’m being honest. I look back on this season and am met with the ugliest, most self-obsessed version of myself. But, if I look close enough, I am also met with the most creative, daring, and kind version of myself. 

In the midst of the ugly, I was able to share and inspire an intentional way to dress. One that doesn’t center on consumption, but strategy. I authentically connected with my audience and met virtually with women around the world. I was happy to give my time to assist others—not for the sake of engagement, but because I genuinely love to offer myself to people who are struggling, with their wardrobes or otherwise. Most importantly, I gave myself permission to not just exist, but take up space, in a crowded room. 

It’s now fall of 2023. Thanks to therapy, being chronically offline a good portion of this year, and a commitment to better life rhythms, I’m in a much better place.

Our relationships with social media can only be as healthy as we are before we show up on the app.

To be clear, I am confident that morning journaling and shutting my phone off at 8:00 p.m. wouldn’t have changed the outcome of my first year as a content creator. I often joke about my obsessive personality: The Bachelor, natural disaster emergency plans, and snake-handling cults have all had the honor of a front row seat in my brain.  But having myself—in the crafty guise of analytics—as my sole focus, there is no bath bomb or wellness routine that would have cured my unhealthy online habits. 

The reality is, our relationships with social media can only be as healthy as we are before we show up on the app. Systems and boundaries can help resist self-obsessive patterns, but ultimately we must confront that creating and consuming are both bent toward escaping reality. We have to intentionally bend back.

For so long, I avoided my grief with numbers as though I could package all my sorrow in a 6x3”, baby blue electronic device. But I’ve found the purest medicine to be sharing a coffee with my mother as she thoroughly describes the hawk that flies over the nursing home facility courtyard. She believes it is from my brother. 

It’s sitting on my couch, absorbing the sunset while I listen to my husband learn a new song on the piano. This week, it’s mirrorball.

It’s continuing to allow myself to move around a crowded room, saying “hi, my name is Ashley,” without hives, because life is fragile.

I’m still posting online, but I can actually say it is a reprieve. I am more honestly aligned with my mission to help others create an intentional wardrobe. Not to be a viral sensation or the next it-girl, but just a creator using her education and extensive, obsessive research to simplify others’ lives. 

30 minutes, 30 likes, 2 saves. I am enough. I am loved. What a gift it is to create.

ConvertKit. (2022). State of the Creator Economy Report 2022.

Ashley Castorena is from Louisville, Kentucky, but has made her home in Lexington over the last five years. She recently completed her Master of Public Administration and Policy and is passionate about economic development and community revitalization. She is the the Cofounder and Marketing Director of Ethel Magazine.