The Instagram aesthetic of gender

Sophie Harman


Australian female leaves instagram: internet gets in a tizzy about it. And so it happens on the internet. There are worst things happening in the world to get upset about and the response to Essena O’Neill leaving Instagram does bring out the Lukacs need for realism in me (mainly because I have spent the morning reading him, not because philosophers and their arguments easily spring to my mind). However my annoyance at the whole O’Neill affair is much simpler: her expose of the obvious beat me to it. You see like O’Neill, I too have been conducting an instagram experiment. Our methods may have been different but our conclusions are very much the same. While O’Neill posted carefully crafted and filtered pictures of herself to her 612,000 followers, I posted hastily taken and lightly filtered pictures of the books I read to my 43 followers. Her followers are her admirers from around the world, mine are friends that discovered ‘oh that weird book thing is you.’

I started my Instagram account in the New Year first an experiment to see how many books I read in one year (thus far not as many as I thought I did). However after the first few posts, it became blindingly obvious no-one cares about books on social media (or at least the books I read), what people care about is boobs, avocados, sunset and coffee. I am veggie and love avocados, I have boobs, I am fortunate to travel to countries with awesome sunsets, and I live in a part of London that is being rapidly gentrified so good coffee with a pretty pattern is available on every corner. I could have been an instagram sensation! However, the more I posted about books, the more my account became a one-woman mission to promote books-not-boobs-or-avocados on social media. The more I posted, the more I didn’t want likes or followers, so as to prove my theory that people care more about boobs and avocados than books. Of course, as I proved my theory on the one side I was having to grapple with how I would prove the other point – avocados no problem, sucking my cheeks in with a waist-trainer, cleavage and pout more of a problem. Fortunately O’Neill has done that for me. She posted carefully managed pictures of herself and her body and got the followers and the likes. She is the opposite to my book experiment. This, dear readers, is a relief as I don’t think I could manage even one post of putting pictures of just myself on the internet. I rate myself (and so it would seem does the odd pervy male academic – yuck! Will save that vignette for another post) but I have no interest in being liked for anything other than my good company with gin and views on global health politics. So thanks to Essena, I don’t have to. Hypothesis tested!

However, there was one odd thing about my experiment. I have been reading a lot about aesthetics and politics. With each post I added the hashtag #aesthetics. I added hashtags to all my posts to provide a control for my experiment, even though I was not wanting likes, I would still perform the functions necessary to get them so as not to bias the whole thing (clearly I made this up as I went along, I’m going to label it innovative method, because if I don’t no-one will take me seriously). Every time I added #aesthetics I would instantly get a range of likes, all of which came from Instagram users with sculpted male torsos. I won’t post their names as that would be unfair, but looking at their accounts I would suggest they were less interested in Bleiker, Virilio, or Ranciere, but more interested in their own sculpted body aesthetic. And this is when I came to the same blindingly obvious realisation that O’Neill did: instagram is a vacuous look at me space of desperate insecurity. But more than that, instagram is about shaping an aesthetic of gender: to be a woman on instagram you need to be sufficiently Kardashianed – contoured and waist-trained – and to be a man on instagram you need to be a really muscly, protein shake addict (okay I need to work on this phrase).

I am surely not the first person to point this out, and news articles surrounding O’Neill highlight the growing concern this instagram aesthetic of gender is having on teenagers. However this is aesthetic is not limited to the world of social media but of course has implications for the real world. A quick (and it often is quick) visit to my gym often attests the impact such as aesthetic is having on men and their bodies. On a night bus or the last tube many women wear the same make-up styles, and students in my lectures don’t roll in wearing joggers and a beanie but have a full face of contoured make up ready for a night out. Whilst I am appreciative of them making an effort for me (it is about me, right?) and I too wear make-up when lecturing, I am worried about the pressure it puts on them and the need to always be looking like their life is all sunsets and avocados. I don’t want them to worry about what they look like, I want them to worry about the books they read.

Sophiebiblioteca @bibliotecasophie

One thought on “The Instagram aesthetic of gender

  1. Very humourous, thank you. Was interesting that yesterday my 14 year old daughter wanted to discuss that Instagrammer and her flight from social media, so I feel really grateful that in their own realm these kind of discussions are being broached without anything preachy or OTT gender-political from me, i.e. Mum. Something about each generation taking it on anew.

    Liked by 2 people

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