By Maria Yagoda
Updated June 30, 2016 04:20 PM
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Credit: Instagram

The activist and organizer Deray McKesson once compared Twitter to “home,” Facebook to “grandma’s house” and Instagram to “24/7 prom.” Indeed, the model Hari Nef, who has over 109,000 Instagram followers, often looks like she’s having the best, most glamorous day of her life, posting shots of chic outfits, goofy hijinks, Vogue shoots and close-ups of her striking face. But Nef has also used the app for something far more personal, a sort of private prom.

“It helped me elucidate the things I liked about myself and wanted to share with people,” she tells PEOPLE. “When I was 19 years-old, I wasn’t sure what I liked about myself. So it sort of helped me figure that out.”

The model, writer, activist, and Transparent actress – who made history in 2015 by becoming the first transgender woman signed to IMG Worldwide – uses Instagram to stake her own claim in the way she is represented and, most crucially, seen, as an essential forum for women, people of color, LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming people aren’t always able to put forth their own images of themselves. Nef, too, has allowed herself to be seen the way she wants and celebrates others who do the same.

“I think it’s been particularly important for people who require a further degree of self-imaging than perhaps the average person to see an image of themselves reflected back in visual culture,” Nef says. “The people who are not comfortable with the supposed image of themselves reflected back to them in visual culture are the ones who really kill it on Instagram.”

Much like every person who has ever used social media, Nef admits to Instagram crushes and obsessions, of falling down the “I hole” of clicking on the profile of a friend of a friend of a collaborator of a mom, until an hour has passed and you have no idea where you are. But what she truly cherishes is the space to image herself exactly how she likes – a practice in authenticity that is not lost on her thousands of followers.

“I’ve gotten many messages and comments over the years that are sort of similar in content, but the way they touch, affect and inspire me never really dulls. Just people saying that me being so visible in my authentic self has helped them be their authentic selves,” she says. “That feels really cool. It’s been a really rewarding part of being so visible, which, to be perfectly frank, has taken a very severe toll on me. Being on Instagram – being seen on Instagram – is a mixed bag.”

As for the Age-Old Selfie debate, Nef is unequivocally pro, which also happens to mirror her stance on the age-old Kardashian debate.

“I love Kim Kardashian. You can say what you want about her media and social media presence, but the Kardashians are a coven of women who have become some of the most famous people in the world by doing their thing,” she says. “It’s all women. The men are to the side. People don’t talk about that enough.”

Everyone could do well to adapt a little of this ethos – to be the Kardashian you wish to see in the world.

“No matter the way you’re framed in your day-to-day life, whether you work in an office or you’re an actress or model, people are going to operate based on a conception of you and the way you look,” Nef says. “And if the way people see you doesn’t really align with how you see yourself, put forth an image of yourself that you love.”