INSTA OR IT DIDN'T HAPPEN
by Meghan Marshall
Two teenage girls sit in the front row of the movie theater, looking up at the silver screen, they longingly watch the glamorous blonde starlet, Lena Lamont. With her pristine blonde curls, elegant smile, and luxurious clothes. She appears perfect. One of the girls turns to the other and says with a heavy sigh, “She’s so refined I think i’ll kill myself.” This may be the scene from the 1952 film Singing in the Rain, but it could just as easily be two girls today, talking about Blake Lively while watching Gossip Girl. When completely unattainable standards of beauty (the tall, impossibly thin women with perfect makeup and tight dresses ) are all that are shown on screens, it is hard to not then compare oneself to those portrayals. Because the star was “so refined,” the young girl felt that she must disappear entirely. The internalization of these representations pressure young women to conform to these beauty ideals. If they cannot conform it teaches them that they should disappear, that they are lesser than those who fit these standards. The rise of social media has only elevated this issue, because users now directly participate in the construction of beauty ideals by taking perfectly lit selfies, highly posed bikini pics, and constantly scroll through the photos of others. It is a platform for women to be constantly judged and judging, and for the distinction between what is real and fake to become dangerously blurred. While social media can be an extremely beneficial tool that brings us together as “friends” who are “liking” each other’s lives, it also creates an extremely dangerous space of
judgement and pressure for young girls. Does the use of social media promote an unhealthy perception of the self and submission to sexist female stereotypes? Or can it be a platform for women and girls to re-claim these stereotypes? The line between the two is very fine. It is hard to judge who is to blame.
In the documentary Missrepresentation, clips from movies and TV display how and why the media has created a rigid canon of representing. The documentary opens with a tidal wave of movie and television clips that portray women. Blake Lively looks into the camera as she sucks her finger, Megan Fox stands in a mini skirt and crop top while washing a window, Jessica Simpson rolls over a car being washed in a bikini.In all these clips, the women were performing for or in front of men. The characters, and actresses themselves, were created and directed by men. Yet a lot of the media, like clip from Gossip Girl, is made for a female, typically young, demographic. The male gaze in the media create a trope seen again and again in all sorts of media, that women are performers to spark the desire of men. Majority of TV shows and movies in the recent years have come up with a standard for portraying women. She is hot. She wears a lot of makeup and little clothing. Her story line is always an aid to men, or she is in pursuit of a man. Essentially, this majority of media teaches girls that their greatest value- despite accomplishments- is to be hot and receive male validation. This canon of representing women is distilled into how women and girls use social media. Though there are shows like Broad City, or Girls which both created by and star women, these shows were created recently (2012 and 2014,) a small blip in the much larger pool of female representation. According to the documentary, “Only 16% of stories have women as protagonist” and even when there are leading ladies, their stories normally revolve around a man. Media teaches girls that their “hotness” and looks are all
they are valued for. That their only validation and meaning will come from a man. This creates a competitive mindset towards other women and destructive towards oneself. Media creates a culture that encourages girls to self objectify, compete against each other, and perform for male validation. Performance becomes the norm, girls feel pressure to constantly perform as their most idyllic self.
Social media displays the great impact media has, especially on teenage girls. Their dependence on social media, and the content of their feeds display a deep compliance of these standards. Social media has become everyone’s right arm in a sense, but the teenagers of America are the most affected by its siren song. The award-winning journalist and New York Times Bestselling author, Nancy Jo Sales explores the effects of social media on female adolescents in her book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Life of Teenagers. She explores the paradox of social media both constructing life and destroying it at the same time. She writes that for most “American girls, social media is where they live.” (9). Though they have real lives, going to school, taking care of siblings, nothing really matters or in a sense exists unless it does on social media. Many of the girls she interviewed expressed that they feel like they are addicted. Social media is thought of and treated like another space, or realm to travel to, escape to, much like a movie or TV show. But in this case, these girls can be the stars, which is both exciting and full of pressure. It is a space where they can fulfill the standards that they have internalized. Sales writes that “of all groups of Americans, teenage girls are in fact the number one users of social media” (9). This is not surprising though, as the platform itself is designed or almost geared towards them in many ways. Although it is not clear whether social media can be qualified as an addiction, it is known that “ social media use lights up the reward centers in our
brains, causing hormones to dance. Girls talk about the dopamine jolt some researchers say their brains experience when they get likes on their posts.” (10) The ability to constantly judge the looks of oneself and her peers perpetuates the lessons of movies and TV. Social media acts as a hyper-reality that allows girls to build an ideal version of themselves. Every girl on their phone can become the girls in the movie theater watching Lena Lamont. Though there are the pitfalls of the pressures to conform, there is a shift here. With social media, comes agency for the girls both viewing and in the media. Girls are no longer passive consumers but can actively participate in the creation of images and the larger representation of women. There is a choice to comply or to reject the norms to be hot and in pursuit of validation. But how easy is this choice when the pre existing pressures of ideal beauty thrive on social media feeds?
Lauren Greenfield, a contemporary photographer, spent years photographing young women. Her photographs slowly became more focused as patterns of self image, beauty, and desire started showing up. She developed her series, Girl Culture. From the little girls playing dress up and Barbie, to the girls at fat camp, to the women getting plastic surgery, to the beauty pageant contestants, Greenfield was trying to make sense of this “culture” that all seem to revolve around vanity and self image with her camera. She writes in her artist statement about this search for understanding, how she needed to “find the connections, and look for the big picture.” In every photograph, girls young and old are intensely focused on their appearance. In one of her photographs there are three girls getting ready to go to a party. All with the same neat, golden bob haircut. They fixate on themselves, staring at their reflections in the mirror in front of them as if they were in a trance. They all wear a form fitting midi dress, each one in a
different color, blue purple and black. They are reflections of each other, staring at reflections of themselves. There is extreme concentration in their eyes, as they all have their tools at the ready. The girl in black is focused as she alters the color of her lips with lipstick, the girl in purple curling her hair, the girl in blue applying blush to her cheeks. There is an eerie feeling to Lauren Greenfield’s image of these teenage girls getting ready to go out. The girls are using their agency to alter themselves, but their similar appearances speak to the trap of beauty standards. The photograph proves that there really is only one accepted definition of beauty. These girls have complied, knowingly or not, to these standards displaying a lack of options in performing female beauty. Not only in their fashion choices but in the look of concentration and fear in their eyes. The photograph shines a light on the female influence/and pressure to be beautiful. This kind of pressure and self alteration is seen constantly on social media. The intimate, and disturbing portrayals of girl culture in relation to self image and beauty in Greenfield’s series speak to the effects social media has on self esteem.
A very frightening episode of Black Mirror acts as an unsettling reflection of this reality. It displays in a magnified, exaggerated sense, the dangers of allowing social media to dictate our reality and self worth. The episode, “Nosedive”, takes place in a reality where social media controls all facets of life. Every person is ranked on a scale of 1-5, which is dictated by how much people like their social pages. People are literally ranked by how they appear on screen which translates into their real life. The availability of housing, jobs, etc. is all dictated by your social media standing. Reality in this episode has “has morphed into a pastel-colored nightmare of aggressive cheeriness, as citizens attempt to out-nice each other and bump up their ratings.”
(The Atlantic). We watch as the main character, Lacey, obsessively gives people fake compliments and smiles, ending every interaction with good ranking in the hopes of receiving the same. She practices fake smiles and laughter in the mirror. Every conversation is highly censored and fabricated. Everyone is trying to achieve perfection. It is an unsettling look at the way we use and value social media. Lacey actively rejects her true self and puts on fake facades for the validation of others. Though she progressively gets more and more unhappy, she continues to alter herself, and perform in the same way as everyone around her. In the end, the obsessive need to fit in, and to be universally liked takes its toll and Lacey goes mad. Her ratings go so far down that she is eventually exiled, she disappears like the girl from Singing in the Rainwishes she could. The episode shows both the danger of putting all one’s worth into their online presence and the paradoxical truth that while we all try to stand out, we are morphing into copies of each other. It is hard for there, really, to be any agency at all in social media, because at the end of the day to stay “relevant” we all must conform to the same representation.
While at the grove during one of the interviews for Sales’ book, a girl spoke to the danger of social media. The thirteen year old said, “social media is destroying our lives.” (18).. When asked why they don’t simply get rid of it, the girl replied “ because ten we would have no life.” This shows how much value has been placed on the unreality that girls create. They are aware of its sinister affects, causing them to constantly judge. But there is a looming need, a deep obsession that keeps girls shackled to their accounts. It could “destroy” their real life, making them anxious or depressed. But without it, there is no validation, no fulfilling their beauty ideals, no so called “life.” People are constantly toggling between reality and the unreality they build on
their phones. This strange paradox where social media both destroys and creates life perfectly describes teenage relationship with the platform.
According to a study from the Huffington Post, “60% of people using social media reported that it has impacted their self-esteem in a negative way,” and "50% reported social media having negative effects on their relationships.” (The Huffington Post). This obsessive consumption, and passive compliance with a highly altered reality is dangerous to the well-being of users. Women and girls become these passive creatures, simply objects for which to stare at. This is dehumanizing of course, while they crave the validation, the anxiety of it all stills looms. Because in this alternate reality of social media, everything is expected to be perfectly polished and refined. Everyone is the best they’ve ever looked and does the most amazing things. It promotes a pressure and a need to belong, to fit a mold, a fear. It creates inherent anxiety. Nancy Jo Sales speaks to the mental implications social media has on its users, “the APA surveyed multiple studies which found links between the sexualization of girls and a wide range of mental health issues, including low self esteem, anxiety, depression...” (14). The dependence on digital validation, and obsession with curating an ideal self is brutalizing.
While social media does give in to the very self deprecating and objectifying sexist ways media often treats women- the focus on beauty can also be empowering to some. Sales writes that for some girls “beauty was a from of self expression and it was liberating not a sign of internalized suppression- in fact it could be seen as a symbol of resistance” (86). Using Instagram to show ones beauty and self expression certainly is empowering. Women on social media are both the performers and the creators of their story. To acknowledge one's own beauty, to proudly display it to the public is brave. It feels good to receive good feedback, and it can be
as simple as that. How is it possible to celebrate beauty through self portraits that is not comlient with secist expectation? During her Netflix special, The Leather Special, comedian Amy Schumer opened with an anecdote about a selfie. She casually yet proudly said into the microphone, “I tweeted out a photo of myself wearing just underwear.” in the audience women start to cheer. Amy pauses here and then sharply replies, “thank you, just the women!” The only people that can acknowledge the posting of a selfie in underwear as powerful and good. The male silence, angered Amy. Was this because they did not share in the validation of her empowerment, or was it because Amy wanted positive male response? Again the line between empowerment and falling into the trap of compliance with male charged beauty standards. Though this can sometimes be the case, and the larger culture surrounding the values within social media come from a sexist basis, women can in fact reclaim the gaze placed on them. It is possible for a women to post a bikini pic or a selfie, and do it for herself. She may be searching for that dopamine rush, but the strength of displaying oneself to the world is brave, it does not always have to be belittling. The conversation needs to shift to be around the culture that helped promote the idea that women are just their looks.
Despite the inherent anxieties I get from my own Instagram feed, and despite the very essay you’re reading, I scroll through Instagram almost every night before I go to bed. Model after model, the work of my photography peers, my favorite celebrities promoting their shows and movies flashing at my tired eyes. But one post stopped my thumb in its tracks. I came across a post from Maddi Bragg. Maddi is a “instagram celebrity” a classic example of the values distilled into social media. The 19 year old is famous simply because she is beautiful, wears
expensive clothes, and gives makeup tips. She is an icon of ideal beauty for the teenagers on social media, and has one million followers because of it. But this post was different from her usual makeup tutorials and polished selfies. It was a cropped picture of her phone staring into the mirror in front of it. On the front of the phone there is a sticker, it reads: “Social media seriously harms your mental health.” This took me aback. This girl, her post, was the personification of my issue. She is an icon of beauty, she has a million followers because of it, and seemingly has a perfect life from her clean, white aesthetic. Through all of this perfection she still suffers. Though the use of social media can be empowering for some it is clearly detrimental. But why does this have to be the case? Whenever a woman takes a selfie in their makeup and nice hair, or shows off their body in a bikini does this mean that they are automatically tied to a larger agenda, that wants to strip women of agency and leave them as objects of beauty? Can’t a woman celebrate her beauty without self objectifying? The larger interpretation of beauty and what women are worth needs to change. There needs to be a space where beauty can be celebrated but not as a performance or as a hunger games of beauty and validation. The general culture supports competition and belittling. This needs to be a more positive rhetoric. What still concerns me is how these representations can change? Women do have agency on social media and can create an accurate portrayal of women. The competitive, obsessive mindset that comes with using social media has to change. Girls look at their smartphones the same way the evil queen looked in her magic mirror, obsessively checking to make sure she was “the fairest of them all.” It is this rehtoric and mindset that just change. Individual beauty should not be a weapon used in battle, but something to be admired.
Gilbert, Sophie. “Black Mirror's 'Nosedive' Skewers Social Media.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 21 Oct. 2016,www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/10/black-mirror-nosedive-review-season-three -netflix/504668/.
Kelly, Gene and Stanley Donen, directors. Singin' in the Rain. MGM, 1952.
“Mirror, Mirror - by Lauren Greenfield.” Lauren Greenfield Photography - Artist Statement,
Newsom, Jennifer, director. Missrepresentation. Girl’s Club Entertainment, 2011.
Sales, Nancy Jo. American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. Vintage Books, a Division of Random House LLC, 2017.