The artist calling BS on your ‘motivational’ Instagram feeds

False body positivity, wellness and clean eating – Laura Callaghan goes after the pseudo-aspirational aesthetics of the modern age

“Happiness will never come to those who don’t appreciate what they already have.” What if all you have is an internship and crippling debts? This is one of the questions posed by London-based, Irish-born illustrator Laura Callaghan after finding herself sick and tired of the sea of pseudo-aspirational quotes clogging up her feeds.

Our Instagram feed tells us anything is possible if we put our minds to it, but our IRL lives tell a largely different story. We may be able to curate our existence within an inch of its life, but often these ‘profound’ phrases presented in a twee, Insta-ready font are, simply, just a bit cringe.

And while we’re fed the benefits of wellness, of eating clean and of minimalist living, women are still held up to impossible standards of beauty. Tackling these issues head on, Callaghan’s latest solo show, Aspirational, seeks to deconstruct the double-edged sword of online living. Below we caught up with the illustrator to discuss false body positivity, our lives being marketed back to us and the cynicism of positive affirmation.   

How did the concept for Aspirational come to you?

Laura Callaghan: I had some ideas for individual pieces which were all vaguely related to the idea of our lives being marketed back to us. While I was researching this further I came across so many inspirational quotes being used by brands on social media to try to engage with customers on a ‘personal’ level. Some were so absurd and cringe-inducing, classic examples of big businesses trying to cultivate a personality, but in most cases these motivational posts were the ones people reacted to the most. I thought that was interesting, and baffling! Why!? They seem inescapable at the moment. I started collecting examples on Pinterest as inspiration for my pieces and four months later I’ve amassed hundreds of the things.

What started to annoy you so much about the abundance of pseudo-aspirational quotes on social media?

Laura Callaghan: Instagram feeds have become a sea of profound statements used with wild abandon. When these bits of advice or encouragement are applied to real life situations they are useless, the meaningful becomes meaningless. It feeds into a larger issue of our identities being packaged and sold to us, you can just post the ethos you want to subscribe to and let the world know how you feel through someone else's words.

It all starts to feel very vapid. Like the Keep Calm posters, an 'inspirational' message which once had a function, have now been diluted to the point where its use doesn’t even elicit an eye roll anymore, it has become that commonplace.

“The meaningful becomes meaningless. It feeds into a larger issue of our identities being packaged and sold to us” – Laura Callaghan

How do you aim to comment on the relationship between how we present ourselves online vs how we really are IRL?

Laura Callaghan: Now that it’s possible to curate our lives and how we present ourselves to the outside world I think we hold each other up to impossible standards. It’s now possible to edit out the shit and difficult parts of life and leave in those posts about success and happiness. Inspirational quotes are a way of saying ‘this is me’, ‘this is what I'm about’ with a quick copy and paste. And I mean what’s wrong with that? But when we’re surrounded by posts depicting people’s perfect lives it’s easy to forget what's real, what is disingenuous and to feel like you are the one failing.

You've always depicted diverse characters in your work, whether that’s in terms of body size or racial identity, why is this important to your practice?

Laura Callaghan: Well my work is very much rooted in reality and the everyday, so I don’t think it makes much sense not to draw diverse characters. It’s important that my illustrations are relatable and accessible, I’m trying to create narratives within in my work and those stories don’t just belong to one girl.

It seems there’s been heightened interest and popularity for body positive artists recently, but do you think any beauty standards have actually been disrupted or removed?

Laura Callaghan: I don’t know, that’s difficult. There’s more discussion about body positivity than ever but looking at how the movement has translated to mainstream media I think the message has gotten lost down the line. A broad and all-encompassing issue has somehow become primarily about how we should all love our curves… as long as those curves are in the right place and still fit into a size 16 dress. It doesn’t feel as though beauty standards have changed so much as the goalposts have moved slightly. It depends on where you're looking I suppose, some make-up artists and photographers are really taking to task our preconceived notions of what's 'ugly' or beautiful' –  but a lot of what is classed as body positive art doesn’t stray all that far from what is considered traditionally beautiful.

“A broad and all encompassing issue has somehow become primarily about how we should all love our curves… as long as those curves are in the right place and still fit into a size 16 dress” – Laura Callaghan

Do you feel like there is a push towards diversity in the illustration community in particular?

Laura Callaghan: There is certainly more awareness of the lack of diversity which has existed for decades – and a push towards better representation – but whether than has translated into actual diversification, I’m not sure. The illustration community in the UK at least is still overwhelmingly, predominantly white and middle class. It’s important that those who commission illustration and organise illustration events or exhibitions actively seek out more diverse voices, because encouragement within the community is great but in order to keep making artwork people need to get seen and paid.

I do think there’s a danger that the art community in the UK is on its way to becoming more homogenised due to rise in university fees. Paying £9,000 a year to study a field which doesn't guarantee steady (or any!) employment is just not an option for a lot of people.

How do you feel about the relationship between social media, body positivity and buying products?

Laura Callaghan: It makes me feel a bit tired. Like any organic movement it’s only a matter of time before it is gussied up, stripped of political meaning and sold back to us. Body positivity seems to be flavour of the month with fashion and beauty retailers in particular, but somehow it’s been edited down to 'it's ok to have a slight muffin top now!' leaving race, ableism and trans issues at the door.

We’ve now got an endless stream of conventionally attractive hourglass shaped size 14 women being used as poster girls for “smashing the industry's beauty standards”. Change in the fashion or beauty industres happens in imperceptibly tiny increments so you could argue any progress is good progress but the idea that body positivity is somehow linked to buying body lotion and underwear is cynical in the extreme.

What do you want people to take away from Aspirational?

Laura Callaghan: Whatever they want! The work isn’t intended to bludgeon people over the head with a message, it can be as lighthearted or serious as you wish. To quote a famous Instagram philosopher –  “The glass is not half empty or half full. It's refillable.”

Aspirational, Laura Callaghan's first solo show, opens at KK Outlet June 1st, private view 7-9pm – more info here. The exhibition runs 2nd June-2nd of July