Alice in Instagram: A Young Girl’s Fall Down the Rabbit Hole
by Danielle Grimaldi
I am a young woman in the twenty-first century with an all too real understanding of what such a title demands of me in our culture. But this knowledge makes me one of the lucky ones. Most young adolescent girls have a vague understanding, if any, of the paradoxical nature of womanhood. The absence of virginity stamps a label on a young woman that reads: Do Not Touch, She’s Probably A Whore. But for women who are not sexually experienced, the stamp reads: Prude. Young women are caught in a clash of values that are being fed to them by various establishments: religion, family, and media. They must then navigate through this tension while being bombarded with conflicting messages. As Dr. Marty Klein—an expert in the study of sexuality— points out, a young girl is subsequently left with the idea that she “has to be sexual in just the right way, regardless of her actual feelings or needs. To conform, to be an acceptable female, women have to carefully modulate, and therefore undermine, their own sexuality” ( n. pag.). The paradox of womanhood is transhistorical: female sexuality has been exploited and manipulated for years, by media in particular. What has further exacerbated this distortion is our infatuation with social media. In her book, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, Nancy Jo Sales recognizes that “sexualization has become a prevailing mode, influencing how girls see themselves, as well as how they present themselves” (Sales 14).
When the age-old adolescent fascination with sexuality encounters contemporary sharing applications, the result is a dramatic increase in public display and performance. This increase is evident via Instagram, the predominant tool used to share photos. With a community of over 400 million monthly users, Instagram has become the leader in social media photo dispersion (Smith). And as the Kylie Jenners of the “Insta” scene rise in popularity, one must ask: Is there a growing dissemination of the over-sexualized young female body via this particular medium? What are the implications for both females and males? And, as a final culminating question: in what ways can we encourage a healthy sexual expression in young people?
The hyper-sexualized female body consequently feeds instant gratification by way of visual stimuli for young male culture. Promotion of hyper-sexualization also profoundly affects young girls’ body image. There is a distinct “tyranny of the ideal image of beauty,” as Dr. Jean Kilbourne, creator of the film series Killing Us Softly, dubs it. The images on Instagram overwhelmingly dictate that there is one ideal look, and where popular media has long insisted that certain physical attributes are desirable, Instagram adds “sexually available” to that list.
I write through a feminist lens; more specifically, I act here as a feminist media critic focused mainly on social media. Craig Watkins and Rana Emerson, authors of “Feminist Media Criticism and Feminist Media Practices,” define a feminist media critic’s ultimate duty as “[redefining] gendered norms and customs of the media industry, [and enriching] the development of feminist theory and media studies” (Watkins & Emerson). By taking this perspective, my ambition is to call attention to the hyper-sexualized female body by way of academic inquiry and feminist advocacy.
Taking the stance of a feminist media critic allows me to conduct this research through the lens of feminism, while also giving the topic of popular media the attention it requires for the study. “Feminist critic” is a multiplex title, especially when relating it to the broad subject of media. The title denotes a couple different practices that must be understood in order to realize the scope of this form of criticism. Craig Watkins and Rana Emerson further define the role of a feminist media critic:
Feminists have established a body of reading strategies, analytical frameworks, and theoretical models for better understanding the crucial role that media perform in the reproduction of gender inequality. For example, feminism helps cultivate a society that is more cognizant of the social and political implications of gender role stereotyping in popular media discourse. Still, we also recognize that feminist politics have never been simply about criticism but fundamentally about effecting social change (152).
It is important to remember that feminist media criticism, while being an area that is concerned with media, is also deeply concerned with uncovering ways to bring about social reform. The intent is to create counter-narratives that empower women and girls. In this way, there is a distinct element of accountability that comes with being a feminist media critic, due to the concern of female representation in media.
Instagram has swiftly metamorphosed from that app no one really understood into a tool for self-promotion, and, perhaps more detrimentally, identity creation. There is interplay between the visual and textual elements, but the space is mainly one where visual rhetoric can flourish. Because contemporary consumer culture is ubiquitous and predominantly visual, it is difficult to separate the consumer mentality from Instagram. Curating an Instagram feed becomes an act of marketing; perusing the images on Instagram becomes an act of consuming. In marketing the goal is, more often than not, to create whatever will receive the most attention. When self-representation becomes an act of marketing, it only makes sense that one would simply do what would get the most attention—what would get the most people to buy. This phenomenon is confirmed by our recent tendency to use the vocabulary of marketing to describe things previously separate from consumerism–specifically, self-image and identity are now commonly called one’s “brand.” When a “sexy photo” generates a high number of “likes,” it perpetuates the idea that hyper-sexualization creates the most profitable “brand.” However, self-marketing and self-promotion is treacherous territory for young women; it’s too easy to succumb to the artificiality of it all. Instagram has become a surreal distortion of the natural world. It is a Wonderland-esque space in which one has unlimited power to transform: it’s as easy as taking a sip out of a bottle marked “DRINK ME.” But unlike Wonderland, in Instagram, there are no quizzical caterpillars guiding our contemporary Alices to the restorative antidotes.
I interviewed a sixteen-year-old junior in high school, Sally¹, who spoke to this issue. She initially struggled to understand the intricacies of self-representation on Instagram, and this in itself is indicative of the eventual outcome on which Sally elaborates: “If you post a picture with your [breasts] pushed up and out, then you’re honestly probably going to get more likes. And that’s the goal pretty much, isn’t it?” (Personal interview). So, there are two key issues at work here: First is an inability to recognize that one can (and inevitably does) self-brand via Instagram. Second is ignorance to what hyper-sexualization looks like and the damage it can effect.
Defining and identifying over-sexualization
Young women are unsure of how to self-display, and the contradictory messages from major social media pundits don’t help their bewilderment. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of The Body Project, eloquently summarizes:
At the end of the twentieth century, American girls have to negotiate between their desire for sexual expression and the prospect of sexual danger. Although it is hard to grow up these days without hearing about the hazards of sexual intimacy, the media and popular culture also push the idea that sexuality is the ultimate form of self-expression. In a world where the HIV virus coexists with the imperative to ‘do your own thing’ sexually, adolescent girls need to think about sexuality, and its related body projects, in ways that are healthy and realistic. More than any other generation, and at an earlier age than ever before, they must learn to handle the emotional and physical risks that are involved in being sexually expressive in a postmodern, postvirginal world. (142-143)
The fact that our society recognizes legitimate sexual desires within the 21st century girl is encouraging. The right to sexual expression is not just singular to males any longer. However, M. Gigi Durham, author of The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls, points out that the “emergence of a right to sexual expression can be as problematic as the right to smoke cigarettes” (Durham 142). We cannot question the right to freedom. Instead, we must examine the peril in freedom without knowledge: the knowledge of how to navigate the tension of adolescent sexuality in a genuinely sex-positive way. In certain cases, this emergence of sexual expression leads to a kind of over-indulgence that is recognized as hyper-sexualization.
But what does “hyper-sexualization” actually look like in this day and age? As I observed pre-teen culture, achieving “effortless hotness” seemed to be at the forefront of their minds. A fitting example of this can be found in Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. One of Sales’ interviewees said, “‘Some people in our grade post pictures of their butt and boobs in a bikini and you see everything. It’s totally common.’ [The young girl then] thumbed through her Instagram account, pulling up pictures of girls they knew posing in bikinis, lounging next to pools, Kim Kardashian-style. ‘This is a girl in seventh grade—she’s like twelve,’ she added” (Sales 67). But this effortless hotness is really a conundrum. A girl must attain the utmost level of sexiness without looking like she’s forcing it. I discovered this phenomenon as I scrolled through the accounts of young girls from my own hometown. They were striving for magazine-status attractiveness, while still trying to ensure it looked natural—not over the top. But no one recognized that this is entirely impossible. The girl I interviewed, Sally, elaborated, “It’s hard to know exactly how you’re supposed to present yourself, you want to look hot, as bad as that might sound, but you don’t want to look like you’re trying too hard” (Personal interview). This is the reality of what goes through the minds of young girls, even as they get ready to go to school each day. M. Gigi Durham further elaborates that effortless hotness is “culturally emphasized as an important—perhaps even the most important—characteristic of girlhood; on the other, simultaneously, the specter of the slut or the ‘ho’ still haunts young women” (Durham 67). And all of the efforts of these girls desperately trying to satisfy these requirements are documented on Instagram, always at the mercy of their followers.
But, we must remember that behind each “like” (or lack thereof) is a human being trying to navigate this experience. And I found that this unsettling confusion is not exclusive to the young girls who post hyper-sexualized photographs; their female followers often feel the same uncertainty when they see such a selfie. Another young female interviewee, Jane², admitted she often grapples with conflicting ideas as she scrolls through Instagram. She said:
When I see a picture of a half naked girl [on Instagram] with a caption about loving our bodies and being who we are, I’m all for it…we should be proud of who we are. But there are times when I look at a picture and think that the person who posted it just wanted to show off…because [the photo] can create jealousy and make other females hate their bodies even more. Why show off when you can just keep your happiness to yourself? This is where it gets tough because this type of post can be misunderstood. (Personal interview)
Confronting Jane with this topic proved uncomfortable for her. It was clear that she wished to tread lightly, likely because she did not want to sound overly critical towards those who do post sexualized selfies. Many young women are in over their head when it comes to navigating the hyper-sexualization that characterizes Instagram, and my interview with Jane exemplifies this treacherous reality.
Media It Girls’ Contribution:
The media incessantly targets girl culture with sexually charged messages. A manifestation of this is what I have come to term as the “Kylie Jenner Obsession.” The Kardashian family is, of course, well known largely because of their reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Kylie Jenner especially stands out from the rest because of her status on Instagram. She is the ultimate “It Girl.” With over 54 million followers she certainly has an audience, not to mention millions of likes on her photos (e.g. figs. 1 & 2). But at just eighteen-years-old, she has already had lip enhancement. It is my opinion that the topic of body modification is one that should remain personal to the individual. However, Kylie is in the eye of the general public and this has repercussions. Enter the movement dubbed the “Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge”. This “challenge” had young girls sticking their lips into a shot glass, sucking the air out of the shot glass and creating friction, which subsequently plumped their lips. This was wildly unsafe because of the risk for scarring and disfigurement (e.g. see fig. 3). In terms of mental repercussions, it proves to be yet another opportunity for a girl to try to emulate the image of a sexually appealing being. Kylie is—whether she knows it or not—encouraging this image. But how are these young girls, who are trying to achieve Kylie’s look, supposed to know better? They see her success on social media and commit to doing whatever it takes to achieve that brand of celebrity.
In Nancy Jo Sales’ book, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, a group of young girls try to make sense of the “Kylie Jenner Obsession.” Sales writes, “The girls said they didn’t think most girls who posted provocative photos in this style were trying to elicit sexual encounters with adults or even boys. ‘They’re just trying to get more likes,’ [one girl] explained. ‘It’s like a cool girl’s way of being like the Kardashians’” (Sales 67). The mention of these It Girls is significant because it lets us know that their efforts of mass media popularity do not go unnoticed, in fact, just the opposite. They have amassed an intensely loyal following. M. Gigi Durham points out that girl culture is acutely aware “that sex is important; that desirability is vital to social success; that in their peer groups, sexual badinage and knowledge will give them an edge; and that ‘hot’ is the highest accolade a girl can get” (Durham 67). The most frightening aspect of Kylie’s presence on Instagram is the population of young females who revere and replicate it, perhaps without a deeper understanding of what that means for them.
And yes, Kylie Jenner’s posts are perfect examples of “hotness.” Kylie favors one selfie in particular, a “mirror pic” in a see-through white shirt and black underwear (e.g. fig. 4). She is kneeling in the photo, exposing pronounced breasts and full, pouty lips. She was seventeen years old when the photo was taken. For young girls, the 1.4 million likes on it are proof of the social success that accompanies hyper-sexualization.
Essena O’Neill has a similar story of Instagram fame, but with a more hopeful ending. O’Neill was well on her way to Instagram stardom at just nineteen-years-old, with more than 840,000 followers. After some time on the app, O’Neill decided to make a major change: she deleted approximately 2,000 photographs and altered the captions of 96 others (Dewey). Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post writes, “[where O’Neill once] paired her glamorous selfies with inspiration quotes… they now say things like, ‘took over 100 [photos] trying to make my stomach look good’” (e.g. fig. 5) (Dewey).
At the young age of nineteen, O’Neill was beginning to understand the implications of Instagram culture, and even described feeling “suffocated” by it (Dewey). Her issue was explicitly with the “like-factor”, or the amount of likes you’re able to accumulate through the infamous double tap. The idea of getting feedback from your peers in the detached form of a single like is precisely the problem with Instagram, and apps of this nature. Girls are being placed in this experience thinking that a number defines their social value. Caitlin Dewey elaborates, “After every action you take — even the small ones — the network signals its approval or lack thereof. It’s a constant and unusually explicit feedback loop, providing a steady stream of unsubtle social nudges: post more of this, say less of that, stop trying to be funny, [etc]” (Dewey). O’Neill decided to opt out because of this dangerous feedback loop. Indeed, her situation should serve as a cautionary tale to young women.
The massive Instagram presence of Kylie—and previously of Essena O’Neill—and those similar to these young women, perpetuates the destructive sphere of unrealistic images that young girls compare themselves to. Joan Jacobs Brumberg recognizes the body as a “consuming project for contemporary girls because it provides an important means of self-definition, a way to visibly announce who you are to the world” (Brumberg 97). If girls are self-defining based on an unreachable goal, they are continuously set up to fail. O’Neill is a beacon of light in a space that is predominantly dictated by Kylie Jenner’s, who may or may not understand the repercussions of their actions.
The Manifestation of Over-sexualization on Instagram
When I interviewed Sally, her answer to the question of “What does a sexualized Instagram photo look like to you?” poignantly summarized the situation young girls are dealing with. As you will see, this is a young girl trying to make sense of the pressure to sexualize an Instagram photo in just the right way, and struggling to understand all of the implications. She is caught in the paradoxical nature of young womanhood. She said, “I guess a ‘sexy pic’ on Instagram looks like you, but a you that is more than you…does that make sense? It’s kind of whatever you want it to be but it would be better if you showed some skin, if you know what I mean, but not too much—you don’t want to look like a slut” (Personal interview). She emphasizes that the photo has to be one that depicts a “you that is more than you”. She must go beyond herself, while not overstepping her boundaries. It is also Sally’s mention of the term “slut” that brings up a crucial piece to this puzzle: the slut versus player dichotomy.
First we must identify the very-real, very-damaging issues with the word “slut”. Within her article, “Sluts and Riot Grrrls: Female Identity and Sexual Agency,” Feona Attwood closely examines the history of the word and how its use has transformed over the years. She elaborates on the use of “slut” in the early twentieth century and in modern day language:
By the twentieth century [the word ‘slut’] had become ‘a widespread term of abuse’ for women who did not ‘accept the double standards of society’. [It is argued that] this pattern, in which terms associated with women acquire negative connotations and become a ‘sexual slur’, is a common one. This tendency towards the linguistic sexualization and denigration of women also emerges in studies of slang… the term ‘slut’ has clearly taken on its meaning in the context of a sexual double standard that conceives of women’s sexuality in terms of a Madonna–Whore binary…. (233).
The Madonna-Whore binary that Attwood mentions persistently informs and reinforces the slut versus player dichotomy, which in turn affects the manifestation of hyper-sexualization on Instagram. M. Gigi Durham realizes that this binary makes a false promise to girls: that they can “experience joyful sexuality and femininity, but only at a price: the price of conforming to the restrictive ideals it imposes on the entire landscape of female sexuality” (Durham 217). Young girls are forced into a box where they are disallowed from exploring sex and sexuality in an organic way, because they’re forced to adhere to these aforementioned expectations. In The Gender Trap: A Closer Look at Sex Roles, Carol Adams and Rae Laurikietis mention that those who do dare to stray from the path and venture into the world of sexuality “are disapproved of, they have ‘a reputation’. They’re made to feel ashamed of what boys are supposed to feel proud of…” (Adams & Laurikietis 35). They are sluts. The female is forced to fall in line with the rules of the sexual double standard, with the strict punishment of falling into the category of “slut” ingrained in their minds.
On the other hand is the “player.” This is the male who is allowed an uninhibited expression of sexuality. Not only is he allowed, but is encouraged from quite a young age. Adams and Laurikietis highlight that adolescent boys are “taught to be crude about sex, to tell dirty jokes, describe sexual experiences, read pornographic magazines, collect pinups. The more they do this, the more they will be admired by other fellows” (34). Boys are profoundly influenced by their peers, and this pressure is then compounded with messages in the media as well.
I asked a college student to give his thoughts on the subject. I aimed to gain a deeper understanding of male culture in the later teen years, and how these individuals navigate this dichotomy. James³ elaborated: “Guys aren’t exactly outwardly encouraged to sleep around, it isn’t a spoken thing. But when you do, it’s cool with all your friends. In my experience, the celebration isn’t a big deal—we’ll just say something like ‘Nice man.’ But when we think the guy can do better—we’ll really let him know, a lot of the time by calling him desperate. We’ll hound him about it” (Personal interview). It’s important to note that the word “desperate” as James uses it here, isn’t quite the way it is understood by definition. After I asked him to say more on this he continued, “For my group of friends, desperate pretty much means that the guy is willing to sink to a low level just for sexual purposes, like he’ll just sleep with whatever walks by” (Personal interview). Yes, whatever not whoever. So really, calling the male “desperate” was simply a way of letting him know he could do better. The frequency of sexual acts was never called into question. Rather, the fixation was on whom they were sleeping with: if they were hot enough, if they met the standards of attraction for the male gaze. The male was still having sex, yet it just wasn’t with the right girls. This use of the word “desperate” calls to attention the manipulation of language by a particular discourse community. Of course in this case, the community is young males. The example of James unveils the reality that this young age group is forming their own discourses that may have deep rhetorical repercussions. When I asked him about his ideas on the meaning of the word “slut,” James also said, “It’s a girl who gets around…sometimes she’s attractive, but to be completely honest most of the time she’s not. I know it sounds harsh or mean, but that’s just the reality of how it is. You can usually pick one out by the stuff they post, on Instagram, Twitter, places like that” (Personal interview). Entirely interested in the images that denoted a “slutty” girl, I then went to another one of my male interviewees, also a college student. I asked him specifically about the nature of the imagery. He said that, “A big part of it has to do with a girl taking constant selfies of herself in really revealing clothes…like those tight yoga pants or shorts that could fit a Care Bear, and those high cropped belly shirts. Just fishing for likes because they’re bored. Also, random bikini pics because that’s usually a dead giveaway” (Personal interview). For young males, these words—“desperation” and “slut”—come to life on Instagram in the form of selfies.
Feona Attwood sums up this male idea of female sluttiness, “As the history of the term shows, ‘slut’ carries a particular class significance. It is the lowly, dirty, sleazy quality of the slut that marks her out, a quality that suggests that overt sexuality in women is precisely not ‘classy’” (Attwood 239). Overt sexuality in females is somehow evidence of their inferiority. Overt sexuality in males, on the other hand, demonstrates their superiority. These are the ideas that become foremost in young male and female minds, and they are certainly not without repercussions.
These ideas that promote male sexual domination are perpetuated by peer culture, but also by the mainstream media, which as we know is a leading force in adolescent lives. According to Sami A. Beg and Anne Loveless, this age group “spend[s] more than 6 hours per day using media. Nearly half of that time is spent watching TV. The remainder of the time is spent using other electronic media alone…” (Beg & Loveless). Imagery creates ideas, and these ideas are bombarding young minds every single day. The consequences of this heavy exposure are not singular to females; they’re apparent for females and males alike.
The media is a massive contributor in shaping young male ideologies. The Mask You Live In, a documentary directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, carefully picks apart the nature of boyhood in America and the media’s influence on young males’ development. In the film, Jim Steyer—an educator and youth advocate—talks about the early exposure of highly sexualized women to young boys. He emphasizes that, “childhood is a sequence of revealed secrets. Today there is no sequence of revealed secrets, kids are exposed to porn at age five or six because they’re in the middle of a video game and something pops up, or they click on the wrong website” (The Mask You…). The subjection to pornography becomes addictive, as the visual sexual experiences over-activate dopamine receptors. This consequently leads the viewer, a young male in our case, to become “addicted to this visual stimulation” (The Mask You…). Furthermore, many of these images are violent in nature. A startling 18% of boys have even seen rape online (Newsom). Tony Porter, an educator and activist in the film, elaborates on how this kind of exposure spills over into young males’ everyday lives in interactions with females:
As a young man you’re taught, that men are supposed to always be on the prowl, and men are supposed to always be aggressive. They say things like ‘Who’s that? I’d like to hit that’, ‘I’d like a piece of that’, ‘I’d like to tear that shit up’. So think about it; hit—violence. Tear—violence. It—object. That—object. We’re actually teaching them consciously and subconsciously, on purpose or not, not to see the humanity in girls. (The Mask)
The exposure to this specific brand of sexual aggressiveness plays a massive role in the development of boys’ attitudes towards girls. As they begin to understand women as creatures to be dominated, they develop an ideology of gender that is rooted solely in power. It only makes sense that this would shape how they interact with females in adulthood.
So what does female hyper-sexualization on Instagram have to do with pornography? The answer lies in the immediacy of the imagery, as Instagram provides visual stimulation in the form of a hyper-sexualized photo of a girl. The power of this platform then resides in this offering of visual stimuli that is reminiscent of pornography (e.g. figs. 7 & 8). Now, this is not to say girls should shield their sexuality from the world. Rather, it is an observation that if a selfie echoes a highly sexual pose, it is dangerous ground for both young boys and girls.
The following photos (figs. 6-8) are from a compilation Instagram run by Barstool Sports, a men’s lifestyle blog founded by David Portnoy. The account, Barstool Smokeshows, posts content solely dedicated to “hot” females, otherwise known as “smokeshows” (e.g. fig. 6). Instagram users may send in photos of themselves, and the account’s owners (presumably male) choose which to post. The profile is public, so these photos are meant for public viewership. However, I have still redacted information and obscured faces.
In terms of the harm these photos can cause for young girls, I will focus on one main issue: body image. Living in a girl’s body is incredibly complicated in modern day culture, and because of this, females are desperately searching for ways in which to understand girlhood. In The Body Project, Joan Brumberg explains an “informed commentary on diet and exercise strategies, body sculpting, liposuction, and mammoplasty” that arises among girls, in part because of social media culture (Brumberg 195). The disturbing reality is that girls have internalized the contemporary demand for a perfect body, even while they are separated from and attempting to understand it as a social phenomenon. This then leads to a belief that the power of womanhood is tied to sex appeal rather than, say, their character. They’re learning that certain visual imagery elicits certain reactions, especially among boys. And this feedback reinforces habit; it is a cyclical trap. Adolescents are acutely sensitive to cultural cues, whether it is reinforcement or discouragement. This is the danger in a platform that is dominated by photographs, as the visual rhetoric begins to dictate how young girls self-define and self-present.
Girls are also not getting the proper support they need to navigate this tension in a healthy way. Joan Brumberg emphasizes, “in the effort to be different from staid and sometimes repressive mothers and fathers, many also changed the ways in which [they] parent” (199). Some parents push their children to become autonomous and sophisticated by the time they reach the years of adolescence, and this leads to pseudo-sophistication, which can be just as detrimental as parental oppression (199). Young people are left in the dark when it comes to developing a healthy sexual understanding, so they turn to any outlet that can inform them. Girls are not prepared for the sexual choices of their future, so they turn to media and end up taking direction from popular culture (200). With the intimidating presence of social media in young girls’ lives, is there a realistic chance for advocates to minimize these repercussions? My answer is a resounding yes—through education and relentless support.
What can we do?
A close female friend and I would often joke about Instagram when we first discovered it, terming it “Insta-sham” and laughing at its duplicity. But now it seems that this joke has lost its humor. For me, the deceptive nature that has come to define this medium is no longer a laughing matter. Perhaps this deception is the very quality that makes Instagram so seductive; what gives our young Alices a beguiling shove down the rabbit hole. It is now the responsibility of those who care deepest about our young women to reach our hand down, and pull them out of this dark Wonderland.
Conducting this study through the lens of feminist media criticism has forced me to stay on the path of hopefulness, and I’m glad for that. The nature of the research itself makes the future seem dim, yet this approach has kept me optimistic and motivated. The duty of a feminist media critic is fundamentally about effecting social change, and this study has only fueled that fire for me. Now the next step is to look to fellow advocates, so we may rally around these young girls and work to build them up in a culture so determined to bring them down. The culture of Instagram (and really the culture of social media) does not affirm nor celebrate girls’ sexuality. Rather, its androcentric nature confines and shackles the young female, defining the world of media as one of imprisonment, in which they are refused the right to genuinely navigate their own sexuality. The path to a brighter future begins with redefining the culture of social media, but advocates alone can’t do this. Young girls themselves must be involved in the process of reinventing this culture. In The Lolita Effect, M. Gigi Durham outlines several ways in which we can encourage girls to “use their intelligence, critical capabilities, and courage to forge their own way…” (Durham 224).
One such way is through media literacy education, which Durham explains can help create a “critical distance from the media’s constructions of the world” (224). Girls should be taught how to withdraw themselves from these ideologies that dictate their lives. Ideally this would happen in two major settings: home and school. However, media literacy can occur most easily in the home, through discussions that “plant the seeds of analysis and critique” (225). This dialogue should occur throughout adolescence. If parents/guardians are media literate themselves, they can then help adolescents in understanding complex messages. These efforts would inevitably initiate new perspectives in these adolescent minds, and that is certainly a step in the right direction.
We must also encourage multidimensionality in our young women. In other words, we must help them see the value of their abilities in facets of life other than sex and sex appeal. Sex is a major part of life; this cannot and should not be ignored. But girls need to be taught that they are more than their bodies, more than their sexy selfies. Durham recognizes that the culture of Instagram “overemphasizes the need for girls to be sexy, but it doesn’t take sex seriously enough to provide good information about handling it in real life. By overemphasizing sex, it also undervalues all the other aspects of human existence that matter” (226). We must teach girls to reject the notion that they are defined by their sexiness. Rather, we should urge them to pride themselves on achievements in other areas of life—leadership, scholarly curiosity, artistic achievement, etc.—as well as seeing themselves as strong, sexual beings. The lesson must be that they can flourish without stifling their sexuality. In this way, they will recognize a cohesive reality to womanhood that is empowering.
At the close of our interview, I asked Jane who she thought was a strong advocate for female empowerment on Instagram. She responded, “…I would have to say someone like Blake Lively [because] she’s expressed through Instagram that someone’s ‘voice’ and ‘power’ can create a better future for girls” (Personal interview). After thumbing through Lively’s account myself, I’d have to agree with Jane. Lively continuously encourages female strength in her posts, cultivating a sense of humor while she’s at it. By doing both, she demonstrates how we can embrace the multidimensional beauty that defines womanhood—and how this can be done in social media environments. As she aptly sums up in one of her Instagram captions: “‘Because I’m worth it’ is an iconic belief that resonates with so many, for good reason. Now more than ever that simple phrase is a powerful reminder to us all, as woman are coming together, rising up, and standing for their value. We are worth it. We are different shapes and sizes. We are different colors. We are beautiful inside and out… We are worth it” (Lively).
Indeed we are.
Young girls deserve more. They deserve more than to be left to navigate the paradox of womanhood on their own. They deserve more than the androcentric nature of Instagram culture—and social media culture as a whole—dictating how they self-define. I am a young woman in the twenty-first century with a keen awareness of these realities. And this just makes me one of the lucky ones. But, through relentless advocacy and education, this could change. It must change. Young girls must be empowered to abandon the role that is expected, and go beyond it. We must push until I am no longer “one of the lucky ones,” until girls’ well-being isn’t a matter of luck.
1. “Sally” is a pseudonym.
2. “Jane” is a pseudonym.
3. “James” is a pseudonym.
Adams, Carol, and Rae Laurikietis. The Gender Trap: A Closer Look at Sex Roles. Academy Press, 1977.
Attwood, Feona. “Sluts and Riot Grrrls: Female Identity and Sexual Agency.” Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 16, no.3, pp. 233-247, DOI: 10.1080/09589230701562921. Accessed 9 May 2016.
Beg, Sami A., and Anne Loveless. “Media and the Adolescent Mind: From Studies to Action.” Medscape, 31 Jan. 2008, http://www.medscape.org/viewarticle/569353. Accessed 10 May 2016.
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Danielle Grimaldi is a post-baccalaureate writing fellow at Worcester State University, where she recently earned her BA in English with a concentration in Women’s Studies. This essay began as a senior thesis project, and ended as a much-needed bout of self-examination. Like much of Danielle’s work, it is informed by feminist critical theory in an effort to bring about social reform through feminist advocacy. This desire has also inspired her love for writing. She feels that the world is changing faster than any of us are prepared for, and this change has a way of wounding us. For Danielle, writing is a means of healing—both for writer and reader. It is her hope that her pieces may help others make sense of our world, and at the very minimum, encourage conversation. Each time she writes, she walks away with a newfound sense of how to make the world a kinder, more compassionate place—and to her, there’s nothing more valuable or worthy of her time.