At the age of fourteen, I signed up for my first social media account. Before I knew it, my Instagram, originally created as a fanpage for Leonardo DiCaprio, was pervaded by discourses surrounding feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, and politics. At such a young age, the ideas I picked up from the internet were mostly incomplete and superficial. I believed feminism was about women being able to wear what they liked, and that the legalisation of gay marriage was the most important battle for queer people.
Yet, some of the lessons I learned were so fundamental that they were already sort of ingrained in my psyche. I knew that body shaming of any kind was wrong. On the other hand, I knew that cosmetic surgery was not wrong. I corrected people when they fat-shamed others, but it was also clear that my understanding of beauty was skewed by Western perceptions. These beliefs formed the basis of what later became a more nuanced understanding of social justice. Because the Internet had told me to, I spent day after day trying to break down what I found attractive and why. Fueled by the fiery passion of a teenager and a compulsive need to be right, I started getting into comment wars with trolls, and following feminist pages that promoted body positivity. Even at fourteen, I knew there was much to learn and unlearn.
As time passed, social media began to feel like a more toxic, unwelcoming space. In some ways, I felt the pressure of maintaining a cooler persona—almost a brand—on the internet: wanting to seem the perfect amount of hot, relaxed, funny, social, and intelligent, all at once. Too busy hopping onto trend after trend, suddenly finding myself wanting to look a certain way, I had forgotten that the internet could be a productive, safe space for political discourse and human connections. It was years before I realized how negatively this was affecting me, and began to re-evaluate and reform my relationship with social media.
Influencer Culture & Manufactured Beauty
It was during my early days on Instagram that influencer culture, as we know it today, began to put down roots. YouTubers like Zoella and Tanya Burr had already laid the foundations for this, but the years following 2014 saw the power of social media being cemented. At only seventeen, Kylie Jenner hit the news for getting lip fillers. The publicity she got from this, along with her growing popularity on Snapchat and Instagram, led to the success of Kylie Lip Kit—the first launch of which sold out in under a minute, solely through social media promotions. On other platforms such Vine and YouTube, content creators like Jake Paul, James Charles, and Tana Mongeau began to gain traction, quickly becoming well-known. Soon, Musical.ly would set the stage for TikTok, the app that blasted multiple people to fame.
The rise of influencers has led to the emergence of some discernible patterns: most people who become famous are white, conventionally attractive, and young. They fall in and out of controversies with no real accountability, and are defended fiercely by their fan bases. Unlike the celebrities of days past, influencers do not act, make music, or direct movies—at least not before they are marketable enough to get a Netflix pilot or record a song. Instead, their job is to look beautiful and make their life seem appealing.
Influencers build their brands on unrealistic beauty standards and wealthy lifestyles that are marketed as attainable through hard work and by purchasing certain products. In their video What The Kardashians Reveal About American Values, The Take explains, “This is a departure from the role of glamor in the past, where the point was to hide the work and [make it] look like it was effortless.” Whereas in other eras (like the 1990s), fashion dictated that beauty was “naturally achieved,” beauty is now showcased as something that can be earned with a combination of effort and substantial resources.
The glo up trend places even more pressure on people to fashion themselves according to the internet’s standards. The phrase, a play on the words grow up, “largely attests to changes in one’s physical appearance or style.” We should all be able to glo up because social media tells us how to. Importantly, though, not everyone has the access to money and resources required to look a certain way.
When, on her fifty second birthday, Jennifer Lopez posted pictures of herself posing in a bikini, the photos made rounds on the Internet, with people praising the singer for looking like she hadn’t aged in years. “This is what 52 looks like when you invest time in yourself,” a user commented. I had stared at the photos for some time, unable to believe that Jennifer Lopez was the same age as my father. Caught up in the world of Instagram, it was easy to forget the money, nutritionists, personal trainers and possible plastic surgery that went into making her look like that at 52. It was true: Jennifer Lopez had invested time in herself—because she had the luxury to.
The pandemic seemingly only seemed to further this obsession with beauty. People wanted to emerge from the lockdown looking ‘hotter,’ and because there was nothing else to do, social media stated that there was no excuse left to not exercise: exercising, hence, became synonymous with self-care and productivity in the midst of a globally traumatizing pandemic.
Given my awareness of these issues, I surprisingly learned something about my own investment in surface beauty from one of recent history’s most famous racists. In March 2021, when Prince Philip was discharged after a brief visit to the hospital, young Internet users around the world found a new muse for their memes. Photographs of the prince—face sunken, skin wrinkled, pink circles underneath his eyes—were suddenly everywhere, with jokes about how he had been pulled out of his grave. As someone who disliked Prince Philip—and rightly so, considering his racism, sexism, and more—I saw no issue in making fun of him, and laughed along with these jokes, unremorseful. It was only later that I realized that there was, in fact, an issue here. It wasn’t who the Internet was making fun of, but why we were making fun of him. At the age of 99, how much better could Prince Philip be expected to look? How would I feel if the same jokes were made about my 90 year-old grandfather, who had just as many wrinkles?
In a culture that markets desirability above all else, I had forgotten the very basic rule I used to follow at fourteen: to not comment on anyone’s appearance, ever. It seems like common sense when we think about it. There are many other things to criticize about Prince Philip. On the other end of the spectrum, it is not uncommon to see posts celebrating middle-aged stars like Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried, stating that “This is how you age when you’re unproblematic.” While on the surface, this may seem like just a compliment—albeit slightly ageist—it also interlinks beauty with simply being a good person. Equating youth and good looks with moral superiority is a deceptive and dangerous formula, especially when what is “beautiful” is set by wealthy, Western standards.
Darker skin colors, different body types and features are almost entirely left out of dominant social media trends, except for when white people benefit from the labor and culture of black and POC communities. Ariana Grande and Kim Kardashian have been accused repeatedly of blackfishing and Asian-fishing, harming marginalized communities by fetishizing their appearances. When these trends are over, they are discarded by those in power, while black, Latinx, and Asian communities still have to cope with the oppression that comes with how they present themselves. Unfortunately, the fashion industry is infamous for pirating Blackness for profit while excluding Black people and preventing them from monetizing their talents.
Further, trans and genderqueer identities are nearly invisible on mainstream social media (although increasingly, public figures like Alok V Menon, Elliot Page and Ericka Hart inspire BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities). Kylie Jenner can do a photoshoot in a gold-plated wheelchair, but models living with disabilities are nearly nonexistent in the public sphere.
While pretty privilege has always existed, today social media encourages a near-worshiping of those who are attractive, with little questioning of the way dominant groups benefit from conventional beauty standards.
Engaging with the Internet’s Beauty Standards
In the last couple of years, I realized that I had subconsciously begun to use filters that made my skin look lighter in photos. The epiphany unnerved me; without realizing it, I had adjusted to seeing public figures like Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana and Kate Moss being glorified as beauty icons on the nostalgia accounts I had grown to love. I couldn’t fathom being as beautiful as them with my darker skin tone and eyes. On my Instagram stories—which a few years ago had been filled with funny photos and life updates—I suddenly found myself wasting time looking for the perfect filter.
At first, I found it strange that so many of these filters altered my face structure, making my jawbone sharper, and my lips fuller. But in no time, this artificial face began to feel normal, too. I no longer felt the harm of using a few filters that tweaked my face a little. But soon, when I looked into a mirror, I felt irritated by the sight of my face. My cheeks always seemed too round, my lips too small, the circles under my eyes too dark. I wondered if the celebrities I saw on my phone screen—be it Gigi Hadid or Victoria Beckham—ever felt like their nose was too big, or their skin too oily. Even if they did, I knew that was not what the internet would show me. I would see only the best of them, but I had to see the “worst” of myself. Eventually it hit me that if I wanted to have a chance at liking how I looked, I would have to change the way I engaged with social media and the glamorous ideas of beauty it threw at me every day.
Given my own experience, it is surprising that much of the criticism of influencer culture comes less from the people who claim to be progressive, and more from conservative men. They spam comment sections, comparing women to plastic and using phrases like, “They don’t make them like that anymore.” This is, of course, problematic and sexist for several reasons. The men who criticize families like the Kardashians are the same men who believe that women are ‘tricking’ them by wearing too much makeup or not identifying as the gender assigned to them at birth, who believe women are becoming shallow by getting work done on their bodies. These men still want women to fit into beauty standards, but they also want them to conform to the norms of femininity.
Cosmetic surgery is, ultimately, not bad in itself. One of its benefits for women, in fact, is that it allows them to take control of their own bodies and sexualities, thus moving away from the demure, submissive figures they are expected to be. This is what makes men uncomfortable with the influencer movement. Yet, while they argue about what a “real woman” constitutes, they sidestep the more troubling issue: why we’re placing so much emphasis on beauty anyway. There are bigger problems with influencer culture, and to solve these, we require a deeper and more complex critique of social media and all the ways in which it normalizes placing physical beauty over all else.
Healing Our Relationship with Beauty and Media
The era of influencers has normalized celebrity worship more than ever before, with people being worshiped not for what they do, but simply for living glamorous lives. Eventually, constant exposure to the same ideals of beauty leads to complacency. Instead of working on deconstructing our ideas of beauty, we begin to slack, and succumb to what society finds attractive in the moment. Social media is saturated with ideas of beauty, seeming to leave no space for the learning and unlearning I set out to do at fourteen.
While some choose to quit social media apps for these negative reasons, it is also important to remember that the internet is, still, in fact, full of progressive political and social discourses that are seeking to create real change. It gives young people, and those from marginalized groups, a sense of community from around the world. Despite what is mainstream and trending, social media gives us a chance to curate our own experiences by choosing the content that we engage with.
In the last few months, I have begun to be more careful with the pages I follow on Instagram, limiting them to friends, activists I admire, and of course, trashy memes. As a result, I have once again been able to focus on the things and people that I care about—from social causes and current events, to silly jokes, and how my friends are doing. When most of the content I engage with is personality-related, I have found it easier to worry less about what I look like, and how the world perceives me based on it.
There are ways to engage with social media healthily, in a way that the idea of beauty is not intrinsically linked to it, and we can find in it more things, such as the ache for connection and learning that brought us to the internet in the first place. On Instagram now, I get a chance to marvel over how my school friends are doing in a college cities away, and how the girl I met in the bathroom of a club has started a small business. I use social media as a way to stay connected to people and creators I admire, such as Ericka Hart, Alok Vaid Menon, and Priyanka Paul. With this, I have once again begun the process of learning and unlearning my ideas and perceptions of beauty, using social media as a tool to better myself.Become a Patron!