When Hugh Hefner launched Playboy magazine in the mid-20th century, he didn’t only launch a small media imperium but turned the idea of looking at women-as-objects into lucrative stuff. Some seven decades and three (or, dependent on your counting, four) waves of feminism later, and this business idea has seeped so deeply into Western society that women themselves are euphorically selling objectified images of their butts and abs for money and, more valuably in today’s currency, Instagram likes. It’s a euphoria not unlike some of the feminist rhetoric around #MeToo. Vox staff writer Constance Grady explains, ‘a lot of media coverage of #MeToo describes it as a movement dominated by third-wave feminism’ — think the empowering thrill of women being girly and threatening; of wearing shiny latex pants and simultaneously ‘doing what she wants to do, of taking control,’ as Saint Laurent creative director Anthony Vaccarello envisions ‘his’ contemporary woman. To Grady’s mind, this articulation of feminism nevertheless ‘feels different’ to the third wave. She quotes feminist Jessica Valenti’s proposal, put forward in 2009 (that is, before the birth and meteoric rise of Instagram), that the fourth wave might be online. I’d locate it specifically within social media, on Instagram.
There’s a huge strand of young social media-savvy females — call them Instagram models or hyper-body-confident influencers — that’s been fashioning the photo-sharing platform as an empowering (and money-giving) way to spread over-sexualised images of themselves. ‘Sometimes what [women are] projecting, even though it’s stronger women, they’ve sexualised themselves a lot more with social media,’ says American volleyball expert and model Gabrielle Reece. A case in point is American fitspiration model Sommer Ray. In an interview with Forbes, she explained her way into the industry: ‘[my sister] had a friend, who was a photographer [and] would come over and do photo shoots with her. She started shooting me when I was 15. I was doing very mature photos for my age. I’ve always been more expressive, in a sexual way. But that doesn’t mean that I’m like that as a person.’
To say ‘that I’m not like that as a person’ is to separate the social media brand from oneself, is to offer an objectified product — a cropped, often even faceless image of one’s body or body parts — for sponsors to invest in and people to like. ‘So we have this mix message going on,’ notes Reece in The Joe Rogan Experience. It’s ‘#imangry, #MeToo, #treatmeequal,’ on the one hand, and ‘I’m going to objectify myself in the most hard-core way in any time in history,’ on the other. To be clear, we’re not talking about women wearing heels and red lipstick to work but about a specific definition of success, tied to social media, that Instagram models like Ray are putting forward. Problematically, the fact that it’s females driving the trend makes it difficult to cast it in a bad-for-women light, while also implanting the Hefner-esque ‘thinking [into] boys, who come to believe that “supporting” or “appreciating” girls means liking photos of their arses on Instagram,’ as Laura McNally writes in the Feminist Current. Being ‘not only normalised, but [also] celebrated, in contexts like Instagram, it becomes practically impossible to challenge.’ And in some respects, Ray’s case is even more difficult-to-challenge since it fuses body confidence and sexualised selfhood with fitness — or what many might deem a good-for-us approach.
The Instagram-Slash-Fitness Model
‘Don’t ever compare your living, breathing, beautifully imperfect real-life human self to someone else’s controlled online content,’ British supermodel Jourdan Dunn posted on her Instagram for World Mental Health Day. She’s not an Instagram fitness model — her face is well-known in the wider model industry. And yet, her motivational quote post hints at the paradox of the Instagram fitness model phenomenon: you post online content on your Instagram trying to inspire others to follow your mindfulness (or workout) cues, while acknowledging you are controlling (read: filtering) your posts, and thus setting mental health (or body) standards that are humanly impossible to achieve. In contrast to many Instagram fitness models like Kardashian-befriended Amanda Lee, Ray hasn’t undergone any cosmetic surgery. ‘I just want to promote a healthy, natural lifestyle. I’m really against plastic surgery and all that stuff,’ she explains in the above-mentioned interview and adds, ‘I worked hard for my body. I’ve sculpted it. I’m not going to just keep it in the garage. If you have a Ferrari you’re going to drive it.’ But just as her Ferrari metaphor is inevitably tied to social status, her objectified projections of ideal body parts and proportions are calculated to send followers off the beaten track. As recent studies have shown, there is a close link between viewer’s consumption of objectified images, self-objectification, mental health issues and eating disorders. Add to Ray’s portfolio that she’s also released a calorie-counting fitness app called Evolve, and her problematic role model position becomes even more apparent. As McNally puts it, ‘these “influencers” are lining their pockets by inculcating eating disorders and paralyzingly painful insecurities into girls half their age. Yet, in a cruel twist, they then have the audacity to pick up the torch for “mental health awareness”’ — or fitness, for that matter. These influencers are partly the reason we’ve come to invent words like chub rub, arm vaginas and jabba flabba; and why underaged girls are embarking on social modelling careers even before they graduate from school. If they’re lucky, their pursuits backfire before it’s too late.
The Confessions of an Instagram Model
Is there a way out of the feminist objectification trajectory? Yes and no. In her collection of essays Trick Mirror, The New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino observes: ‘The anti-Instagram statement is now a predictable part of the model/influencer social media life cycle: a beautiful young woman who goes to great pains to maintain and perform her own beauty for an audience will eventually post a note on Instagram revealing that Instagram has become a bottomless pit of personal insecurity and anxiety.’ Yet customarily, after the beautiful young woman posts calculated motivational quotes like Dunn’s or indulges in a short detox week from social media, this narrative starts exactly where it ended — on social media.
In 2015, one of Australia’s first Instagram-famous models helped pave the way for a more considered exit from the warped trajectory. Essena O’Neill changed her Instagram title to ‘Social Media Is Not Real Life,’ edited some of her captions and ended up deleting her account in an attempt to disclose her shallow, digitally tampered social presence. Soon after, she launched a website, Let’s Be Game Changers, and received roughly $10,000 in donations for prospective content. It ended up being closed, with no refunds offered. Negative commentary ensued, including accusations of hoaxing and improper use of social media; YouTuber Dodie Clark claimed, ‘[t]here is a right way to use social media, I promise. You weren’t doing it right and that’s why you’re so unhappy.’ Clark may be right but I just wonder why this kind of accusation gets thrown into the room when O’Neill points to a deeply rooted social problem that won’t get solved by using social media ‘the right way’ alone, if there is one. To be fair, O’Neill’s case did go viral and ironically earned her even more followers. Yet isn’t such a narrative needed to offer a way out of the trajectory? Maybe Clark’s comment is just another indicator that we’re still covering up too strongly for the feminist narrative about the young successful female who makes a living from selling images of a (never ‘her own’) strong, confident, perfect, beautiful, sexy self.