‘In memory of Whitney’: New Utah billboards take on social media’s culture of perfection

(Photo courtesy Epic Marketing) This photo shows a rendering of one of the electronic billboard messages that's appearing in Salt Lake and Utah counties.

Collin Kartchner decided to fight Instagram with Instagram.

The 36-year-old videographer last year created a gushy social-media personality to poke fun at the internet’s obsession with achieving the perfect hair, kids and life.

In one Instagram video, he offers advice for how to do kids’ hair:

“Supes easy,” he says confidently. “So, step one, I make the nanny do it.”

In another, he brightly confides: “I’m just heading up to the beauty lab for my tonsil filler appointment.”

The goal, he said, was to use laughter to highlight the “toxic culture of perfectionism that really is rampant here in Utah, of everyone trying to portray perfect lives.”

But his Instagram feed took a turn in mid-January, after he bumped into one of his wife’s former co-workers and asked about her family.

“She just looked really miserable,” he said. “And she said … ’My daughter, Whitney, she died. It was a drug overdose.‘”

The mother traced her daughter’s depression and addiction back to bullying on social media about her appearance in junior high.

Shocked, Kartchner shared Whitney’s story on Instagram — and people responded. As his followers ballooned from 26,000 to 42,000, hundreds shared stories of how they felt expectations set by social media led to depression and self-harm.

Leaving his character behind, Kartchner posted videos that showed his obvious distress.

“I don’t even know what to say, other than this is a much, much, much, much bigger deal than I ever imagined,” he said, “and we’ve got to do something.”

Now he wants to promote a conversation about having a healthy self-image — and a first step has appeared next to Interstate 15 in Salt Lake and Utah counties, where ads for plastic surgery, weight loss and Botox often dominate the landscape.

New billboards declare, “You are beautiful,” “You are unique,” “You are loved” — and, in smaller print beneath those statements, “In memory of Whitney.”

‘Super staged lives’

Kartchner, whose videography work has appeared on shows and sites from “Rachael Ray” to the Food Network to Mormon.org, had used his Instagram account in the past to raise thousands of dollars for hurricane victims and children with cancer.

So after telling Whitney’s story, he said, he asked for help to put up billboards in her memory — and raised $3,000 in 10 minutes.

When he learned that charities get twice the space for the same price, Kartchner partnered with the Utah Safe Harbor Foundation and Utah Hope Squads, which work to prevent intergenerational poverty, child abuse and youth suicide. In 12 hours, he had $14,000.

Kartchner was hearing from family members, teachers, psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors and even high-school cheer coaches, he said, about the negative impact social media can have on kids, teens and adults.

Some posted their responses publicly. He shared screen shots of many private messages, blocking out the posters’ names. And he encouraged his Instagram followers to pull back from social media — and specifically, to stop comparing themselves to the perfection seen in many online accounts.

“Don’t follow anything in your life that makes you compare yourself to anything that has the potential to steal your happiness or steal your joy. Or make you feel less,” he said.

He said he didn’t mean to single out individual social-media influencers — who are paid to promote products to their followers and typically post images of spotless homes, beautifully dressed children and fabulous vacations.

But his followers posted messages that criticized the blurring of reality by accounts that “don’t tell us that this is an ad and this is an ad.”

One woman wrote: “I have had moments where I honestly feel like my babies might be better off without me because I can’t give them the perfect home/activities etc. in comparison to these super staged lives. … THANK YOU for helping me open my eyes to it all.”

Kartchner said he was “crushed” when some social-media influencers, believing they were the targets of his campaign, started sending him private messages and posting comments calling him a bully, a narcissist and worse.

His satire account linked to a merchandise site that was part of the joke, and it sold “a little bit” of merchandise, so he was called a hypocrite.

He said he has spent those proceeds on his various charity efforts.

Shaken, he used his Instagram feed to apologize to social influencers who felt attacked.

“I am not blaming them at all,” he said. “We have all kind of created this. No one would be selling if someone wasn’t buying.”

‘Being more authentic’

Kartchner said several internet personalities are interested in joining with him to debunk social-media portrayals of perfection.

Stephanie Riskey, a mother of four in Texas who promotes her Sparrow Design Co. on Instagram, said she thinks the conversation Kartchner has sparked is healthy.

She said she had been amused by Kartchner’s earlier satiric videos, comparing them to a “Saturday Night Live” skit. She maintains two Instagram accounts — a professional one for her design company with staged photos of her work, and a private account for friends and family that shows “normal life.”

“If everyone is aware of being more authentic, I think that would be a good result,” Riskey said.

Alright, I want to join in on the #thisisme movement started by @collinkartchner and @weslie_ . So many people have gotten involved and it’s truly inspiring. Social media is a double edged sword. It can be so good in so many ways but it also can be a detriment to us, our families, and our lives. This is my business account so I am using it as a curated feed for home decor, design, and lifestyle inspiration. So my little squares will lean toward a portfolio bent (I have a private account for family and friends that get to see my “real life” more- school plays, ER trips, etc.). I am not perfect. In real life I range from type A to a complete hot mess on any given day (truthfully I bounce back and forth all day long- most days). My marriage is NOT perfect. We have struggled all throughout our twelve years of marriage and fought for our marriage. I’m a Mom to four imperfect kids who most days make me feel like I’m one step away from being institutionalized. My home is picked up about half of the time, dirty, and rarely clean. I am NEVER caught up on laundry. I mean never and if I am even close it’s for 2.5 seconds. In our home we fight, bicker, and love fiercely in an imperfectly perfect way. We are currently still wading through one of the toughest years/transitions of our life and still are far from nearing the finish line. I color my hair. I am currently dealing with hypothyroidism and anxiety. But I serve a perfect Savior and am thankful that I never will attain perfection this side of Heaven and I’m okay with that. #thisisme #sparrowdesignco #comfortablehomedesign #simplify #letsbereal #thisisus

A post shared by Sparrow Design Company (@sparrowdesign_co) on

Kartchner showed Whitney’s mother, Roxanne, an illustration of what the billboards would look like before the first ones went up on Friday.

The Utah County mother said she hopes the billboards help to start a conversation between parents and their children. She asked to be identified by her first name to protect the privacy of her family.

Roxanne said her daughter was popular at school and at church in her midteens. But when she joined social media, she saw comments about her appearance, and she was later harassed by boys at school, Roxanne said.

As part of a “downward spiral,” Whitney started to use drugs in high school, Roxanne said. Despite counseling and multiple rehabilitation attempts, Whitney died of a heroin overdose at age 23, her mother said.

“We can’t keep quiet about everything that happened to Whitney because we’re either sad about it or ashamed or whatever,” she said. “Her life needs to have meant something ...if only it can help someone else.”

Kartchner said he will be announcing new charity efforts in coming weeks — but from new social-media accounts.

He ended his satiric Instagram feed because, he said, “The plan was always to ‘kill the character off’ and say, ’What have we learned? Maybe we’re putting too much into social media. Maybe it’s consuming way too much of our lives and consuming too much of our happiness.’”

Tribune reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this report.