August 15, 2020

Body Positivity and The Instagram Generation: Are the Two Mutually Exclusive?

Body Positivity and The Instagram Generation: Are the Two Mutually Exclusive?

“How can she call herself a feminist when she posts all these sexual photos of herself?”

It’s a question I’ve been asked countless times. I’ve also had girls branding other girls, who only post photos of themselves on Instagram, as egocentric and narcissistic. I’ve had some comical “middle-grounders” argue that although they themselves would never post a mirror selfie, they admire the women that would be brave enough to put themselves out there.

I think we need to stop ridiculing or judging these women, and instead start to understand why there is a growing trend of young women supposedly objectifying themselves on social media.

I’m specifically going to speak about the toxic aspect of Instagram and the generation it has subsequently created. The social media platform currently has 500 million active users. It uses filters designed to make your face look thinner, your mouth fuller, your eyes bigger, your skin poreless, and so on and so forth. At times, it’s gone even further, creating filters (that have now been deleted!) such as Plastica, which gave you both a brow lift and bigger lips, and Fix Me, the shocking filter that would circle the problematic areas on your face and annotate it with presurgical markings such as “fix me”, “fill” and “lift”.

The social platform clearly advocates for women that possess a specific body type. For example, Kylie Jenner is paid $1.2 million dollars for every Instagram photo she posts. Every day, we are bombarded with photos of these perfectly windswept, airbrushed models who quite frankly, don’t exist. And women’s mental health is plummeting, with a BBC survey of 1000 girls aged 11-21 years old revealing that only 61% are happy with their bodies. 93% of these girls felt that their appearance was being valued over their ability.

So, what’s it doing to us? Introducing, the Instagram generation; a growing trend of Gen Zers who aspire to be part of a culture that aligns femininity with Instagram models and influencers. Instagram’s bottomless scrolling has forced us to normalise doctored images and photoshopped faces and bodies.

I think it’s very hard for me to find one guy my age who isn’t following an Instagram model right now. While we’re being taught to think that women are no longer being sexually objectified by men, and that we have achieved the equality we’ve always wanted, the social media platform continues to perpetuate and celebrate the male gaze. Male Instagram users are showing their support for women by liking photos of their bodies. It is very clear what is being prioritised.

Before I go on, I want to make it very clear that although I acknowledge that men’s bodies can also be objectified, there has not been as prolific a history of sexual violence against men as there has been for women. Posting a swimsuit photo will not be considered an invitation for disrespect – a man won’t have to make a decision between being respected or being deemed ‘desirable’.

The effects of the rise in female objectification on social media platforms are evident. A recent Australian survey of around 2000 men highlights how Millennial men have begun to share views with older generations concerning how a woman’s sexuality plays a significant role in her vulnerability, agreeing with statements such as “girls should not be out in public places after dark” and “men dominate sexual relations”. It seems as though we may be facing a backlash against the progress feminism has made thus far. Women’s bodies are being scrutinised and blamed for the male attention that they carry.

And of course, this introduces the balance that women are forced to find between making their bodies look perfect on Instagram, and not being too sexually revealing. Sigmund Freud, who has now been established as a deeply flawed psychologist, conceived the Madonna-Whore complex. According to his theory, there were two types of women in the world: women who are respected by men, and women who are desired by men. The two are mutually exclusive.

As comical as some might find this, I think we need to look around. Going back to the first point I made, women are being judged when posting bikini pictures of themselves. “How can they expect to be respected when they make themselves desirable?” is the nasty truth behind what people mean when they pass their judgement.

It’s everywhere on social media (with the lovely comment section I have decided to include above), in politics, and in the workplace. Last month, a predominantly male team conducted a study to assess the “professionalism” of vascular surgeons who posted pictures of themselves on social media in attire that was deemed “inappropriate” to them, ranging from bikini photos to Halloween outfits. The scandal caused female doctors to share bikini photos of themselves with the hashtag #MedBikini, emphasising that wearing bikinis didn’t make them any less professional or intelligent then their male counterparts.

So here’s my theory. Instead of judging others on how they choose to present their identities, try to understand what internalised misogyny you may be holding. Simone de Beauvoir, famous feminist and author of The Second Sex, talked about how women have been socialised to focus on their bodies and prioritise them as their highest point of self-worth.

From birth, we have no agency over our bodies, as they have already been dictated by the male gaze. Beauvoir continues to argue that narcissism, that very thing that we criticise and judge in other women, is actually what allows them to assert their own individuality.

By posting selfies of themselves, women become both the bearer and the object of the male gaze. We have full control over ourselves, and we share the reflection of how we see ourselves to other men and women.

Although I can’t agree that posting airbrushed and doctored photos of yourself will help to promote your self-esteem, I think that being able to post photos of yourself wearing a bikini or not, taking a selfie, posing, embracing the “narcissism”, allows us to regain control. If likes don’t amount to the way a woman sees herself, and she enjoys and feels comfortable showing off her body, then who cares? Let her be.