Lessons from a former advertiser turned Instagram activist
This month Unfold caught up with Alison Rachel, creator of Recipes For Self Love. With over half a million followers on Instagram and a newly published book, Alison has learned some useful lessons since the projects’ first inception.
Lessons from a former advertiser turned Instagram activist
Indeed, the power of clear purpose, how to deal with trolls, and the importance of diversity affects all brands. Her ability to celebrate making mistakes and stay accountable for them has earned the project a wide following, and serve as a helpful lesson for brands wanting to earn trust with their audience.
Who are you and what do you do?
I am Alison Rachel, the creator of Recipes For Self Love; which is known as a feminist Instagram account, but besides that, it’s a media production organisation that creates illustrations and content on the topics of self-love, body positivity, feminism, anti-racism, anti-sexism anti-LGBTQ phobia. Anti all the bad stuff. It seeks to contribute to a culture that is more inclusive and allows for all people to have the same access to justice and happiness. All the good stuff.
How did Recipes For Self Love begin?
It began with me being unhappy with my job in advertising in Cape Town, feeling very lost and disillusioned, struggling with my mental health. So I started making zines on the topic of self love. I wanted to find out from other women how they managed to feel good in a world that seems hellbent on making women feel bad all the time. The zines were made up of contributions from women sharing their tips and tricks, methods and meditations on how they manage to feel good. I compiled it all into a little A5 booklet, with art and illustrations also submitted by women.
I released the first one in November 2016 and sold out within 2 hours at the launch event. So I thought, wow, there’s something here, there’s a need for this kind of content. So I made another and it did really well, then I made another, and each time the net for contributors grew wider. After the second zine, I started an Instagram account, so had contributions from people all around the world, rather than my acquaintances. The Instagram account took off and that has been the home for Recipes For Self Love for the last two years.
How would you describe self love for people unfamiliar with the term
Self love, in my opinion, is about accepting the fact that you are both beautiful and broken. It’s about learning to make peace with all parts of yourself - especially the parts that are frustrating and hard to love. It requires real honestly and sometimes a bit of a sense of humour.
Honesty tends to attract trolls on social media: how do you respond to them?
I don’t. Don’t feed the trolls. Block and delete. There are a lot of people out there who are like immature, ignorant, and annoying. Why waste your energy?
Social media seems to generate a lot of negative behaviour. What are your views on social media, which simultaneously connects and alienates people?
It’s a difficult one because in many ways it's why I feel so strongly about running an account like this because I really do feel connected with people all around the world as these topics are deeply human and do connect people, it’s not superfluous. It’s very real and often very emotional and my followers often engage with the content in a very emotional, honest and vulnerable way. But at the same time, they are strangers. Personally, I don’t engage with the comments. It’s a bit of a commercial mindset but I don't get paid to do this work, I do it for free and I give it away to my followers and it takes time.
I’ll sometimes engage if it's necessary and requires some time to step in and disrupt some kind of intolerance or prejudice and it’s not just a troll. Especially on the topics of sexism, racism, and LGBTQ-phobia. It’s my job as a white, cis person to disrupt that ignorance. I have a lot more time for women. Trolls are generally men so I will just block and delete them but if it’s a woman conflating sex trafficking and sex work for example and she genuinely doesn’t understand the difference, then it’s my job to step in.
Tell me a bit about your views on transparency and learning
So important! It’s something I learned the hard way as it's scary to be told you’ve done something wrong, it makes you feel insignificant, it makes you feel like a bad person, and it makes you feel stupid. These are all very natural responses to being told that you’re wrong or if you’re being called out. Especially in the realm of social justice and especially if you're in a position where you’re perceived to be somewhat of an expert or as a knowledgable person. I got comfortable with being accountable quite quickly, especially in the beginning, and I learned so much during the process. Initially, I didn’t know a lot about a lot of stuff and the language I used was not always correct. Language is so important and nuanced, and I would use a word that was not as inclusive as another or I wouldn’t be concentrating when I wrote a caption and I would write something that was not quite right. People would comment and call me out and I would just say you’re right, I’m sorry, I won't do that again. It’s all about making mistakes and learning from them because we are all going to be making mistakes. Nobody is ever going to not be problematic. You can’t occupy every single oppressed identity. There are so many other people with different lived experiences from you.
There’s a lot you can do to avoid making these mistakes. Especially in the commercial world. Look at the infamous Pepsi ad: you can save yourself a lot of embarrassment and bad PR with just a tiny bit of work, hire someone who actually understands the topic first hand. There are so many amazing people doing great advocacy work, back women, trans women, disabled people. Hire someone, pay them or keep them on a retainer. Or just hire them full time as this is where organisations get in trouble as they aren’t diverse and they only have one kind of person creating media. Nowadays a lot of diverse people have prominent voices. It’s not like before; the media was racist and sexist, but now people have a low tolerance for it and they also have the internet where they can voice their opinions. Your brand will suffer if you do something irresponsible like Pepsi. Avoid it by educating yourself and doing the work. Hire people who actually know what they are talking about. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble.
Diversity is a big issue in communication, both in terms of external communications and internal culture, what are your thoughts on the topic?
I haven’t been in a traditional workspace for a while, the world still very much run by straight white men, but I think it is changing. More traditionally masculine organisations are making an effort to hire women, it’s not just affirmative action. And if there’s high turnover it's not their fault it's yours; what is wrong with your company culture that causes all women to leave so soon? Diverse ideas are better.
It’s not enough to just have positive discrimination in hiring, we need an entire rehaul of the system, it needs to be a holistic approach, everything from having role models to representation at work and in the media. Young women need to look at brands and realise that this is actually a career option. It was not so long ago that you’re only options were nurse, secretary, or teacher. Women suffer heavily from Imposter syndrome. We don’t perceive of our possibilities and capabilities in the same way. We are crippled by fear and have inherited a lot from past generations. When a woman physically brings her body into a space that’s full of men she doesn’t feel comfortable, if there are women in the room, they feel better and can produce great work.
What do you think about purpose marketing? It’s easier for an authentic brand like Recipes For Self Love which had a very clear purpose from the beginning but is there a way for a company that didn't have a purpose before to suddenly create one?
Absolutely. My background is in brand strategy and that’s what we focused on: building brands with a strong positioning, going in to rescue a brand that’s somehow failing as essentially your identity should inform everything you do; your visual language, your verbal language, the way you engage with your customers and all your stakeholders. It is absolutely possible for a brand that is having a bit of an identity crisis to be saved and to be given a new sense of vitality by somebody that’s good at doing that.
Is it possible to take on an entirely new identity?
Yes, brands do that a lot, they get rebranded and take on a new identity. Often it's not necessary to take on an entirely new identity but to have a rebrand of some sort. Because things change, it's a good thing for brands to be conscious of the fact that they may have to change a few times in the course of their existence. To rebrand, to change, to assess the market, to assess the world that they’re operating in. The world around them changes, so change is vital.
And what about brands that are just purpose-washing?
That’s what building a good brand identity is about. It’s about finding something that’s authentic in your positioning otherwise customers can tell. Also if you don't live up to brand promise people will lose faith and your brand equity will suffer. It’s important to have good people craft a solid, strong brand identity that you can adhere to. A brand that’s honest, true and real.
Your project has found great success on a visual platform. Why do you think people respond so much to the visual above other mediums of communication?
Instagram is a great platform for visuals, we are becoming increasingly lazy and less willing to read long things. Microblogging platforms became successful because of that, these bitesize pieces of text, the Twitters and the Instagrams of the world. Humans are very adept at recognising faces and we’re drawn to looking at them. That’s what Instagram has provided: a little television in your hand that you can bring with you everywhere and you have access to all your favourite stuff. Your favourite celebrities and their lives, all the people that you have crushes on, your favourite brands. It’s like having all the best magazines and televisions together in your hand. For me, it was just great for sharing my message, and the education that I wanted to provide.
How do you work? What’s your process, do you research your content?
Up until a few months ago, I had notes on my phone, I would just make notes about stuff that I wanted to post about. There’s lots of inspiration in the world being a woman and just being a person with internet access, seeing all the shit that happens in the world. I studied philosophy and I like to think that it gave me some kind of edge when it comes to critical thinking, questioning the world, and trying to find the best way to formulate an argument. I would often sit and craft these little captions and then I’d get on my computer and do an illustration and that would be it. Not super involved, pretty casual.
What role does an artist/creative have in society?
Such an important role, someone told me recently about a study that was done with chimps on a certain gene, a depression gene in humans. These people are more adept at dealing with certain challenges despite being predisposed to melancholia. The argument is that people who have managed to bring mankind into a new realm over the course of human history have often been these people; they don’t fit in. So I think artists and creative people are so important because they think differently, they interpret the world differently. They can take on challenges that people who are better equipped to deal with ordinary life find harder. But all people are valuable in their own right, we need all these different types of people to help us work together and function as a society.
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