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How Instagram is Perpetuating The Beauty Myth

On Instagram, we desperately aspire to be women who aren't real.
By Courtney Sanders, 06 Apr 2015
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How Instagram is Perpetuating The Beauty Myth
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"I'm terrified for my girls", my 37 year-old cousin told me over dumplings a few nights ago. This was in response to a conversation about how perfect girls have to appear on social media in order to get followers, which is becoming increasingly important for real life things, like, oh I donno, getting jobs. Similarly, the 20 year-old interns who frequent our offices, who regularly make me feel old and out of touch, and who I never usually discuss technology with lest I hear my parents in myself (who are terrified of Facebook and once hid behind foliage to avoid being photographed by the Google car because *surveillance*), collectively tell me the "pressure to be perfect on social media is intense".

Via social media, our aspirations have skyrocketed. Because we can access the lives of the rich and famous (hi Rhi-Rhi), rich and famous women – with their bodies, their makeup, their clothes, their holidays, their wealth – become The Perfect Women. We construct ideal versions of ourselves to more closely resemble The Perfect Women, which means that, in turn, we're all kind of perpetuating The Perfect Women. Because we'll never be able to truly measure up to this, The Perfect Women are at the heart of our modern, female insecurity. Via social media, we're wilfully oppressing ourselves.

This is most obvious with regards to how women look on Instagram. Instagram is a visual-only social media platform dominated by women, #fashion and brands. 20% of all women use Instagram, as opposed to 15% of men. Women are more likely to connect with brands on Instagram than men. Instagram users spend 13.5 minutes on the platform per day (which is a lot of attention in internet terms). #fashion is the 23rd most hashtagged word on Instagram, behind #love, and ahead of #food.

We know that advertising has always played on our insecurities to sell us things we don't really need. Like, can someone please explain to me why we started shaving everything if not because we would then have to buy razors, wax and get laser treatments. Oh hi Naomi Wolf, who wrote this in The Beauty Myth, published in 1991: "The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us...During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing specialty...pornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined, and thirty-three thousand American women told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal."

Fourth wave feminism, for which we largely have the Internet to thank (the devil wears many disguises), has meant advertising to women has turned into "femvertising", whereby companies use the "trend" of female empowerment to sell us things. Sarah Wood, the co-founder of video marketing company Unruly, explained to The Telegraph that "advertising often reflects the concerns, anxieties, dreams and aspirations of society. Right now in society, social media is laying bare the extent of hidden misogyny that affects women all round the world. There have been several incidents that have unfolded on social media this year, such as Jane Austen on the pound note, Gamergate and Emma Watson being trolled online." In the same article, there's evidence to prove companies from Dove to Nike credit increases in sales with "femvertising".

All of this is to say that advertising is clever, in that it understands the power of trending topics, of viral imagery and videos and of social media platforms. But advertising is still advertising, and as it gets cleverer, we get cleverer at ignoring it.

However, on Instagram, advertising imagery has become completely organic. Because Instagram is an aspirational social media network, we're all busily working away to be The Perfect Women with The Perfect Instagram Accounts – as Catalogue contributor Djinous Rowling recently wrote, "I don't Instagram the $1.99 in my bank account. Why? Because it's fucking depressing".

Because The Perfect Instagram Account is about looking fabulous, owning fabulous items and doing fabulous things, we want to work out, shop and travel in the process. We admire The Perfect Women who do this, and we're likely to buy what they buy or do what they do to be more like them. For example, I'm likely to buy (read: I have bought) the latest Nike Flyknit running shoes as seen on @susiebubble's Instagram account, because A) they're "cool" because an "influencer" is wearing them, B) I'll wear them when I run (which I will probably photograph), which will then C) make me look better in all my Instagram photos. Have new things, look good, win at Instagram, win at life.

Companies, like the Mobile Media Lab in New York City, exist solely to represent the owners of popular Instagram accounts to companies who want to promote and sell product through them. The Mobile Media Lab, for example, boasts combined Instagram audience of $60 million users, and works with clients like Timex, Stoli, Expedia, and Puma.

The Perfect Women are being further mythologised by Instagram's distaste for women as they actually are. The platform made headlines last week when they removed Rupi Kaur's photo depicting a tiny amount of menstrual blood (like, gross) in an otherwise Perfect Instagram Photo. This decision follows many instances where Instagram have removed harmless photos of normal women – "normal" meaning women complete with pubic hair (shock, horror) or a little excess fat – but the retention of photos that, for example, celebrate #bulimia, celebrate #thinsperation (the replacement for #thinspo, there are currently over 77, 000 photos tagged with this), and are sexually degrading. I'm just speculating here, but it is interesting that the economic interests of large brands on Instagram coincides with the platform's narrow depiction of women.

The aspirational nature of Instagram has created an environment where women are forcing other women to be more perfect than ever before. Let's chill on the filters and fake Fendi's, and encourage others to do the same.

-

Liked this? Read these articles about women's issues:

1) 6 Times Instagram Shouldn't Have Removed Photos Feat. Women

2) Artist Rupi Kaur's Photo Feat. Menstrual Blood Removed by Instagram

3) #DropThePlus Demands Fashion Industry Drop the Plus Size Tag

4) It's Time to Stop Being Terrified of Periods

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