This piece was originally published in our #BeautyMeans zine, an editorial project that explores beauty standards and encourages self-love. Click here to read the rest of the issue for free, right now.
In her new book, “(not) getting paid to do what you love “ Cornell researcher Brooke Duffy dispels the myth that ‘anyone’ can build an empire on social media. The story so often goes that, armed with nothing but your iPhone and something to say, you too can achieve Instagram fame and get paid to post photos and lead a glamorous life. Likewise, when I talk to mentors about my fashion journalism career, I am often advised to work on raising my profile on social media; it is again suggested that doing so is a natural step for any budding creative and that it is not loaded with existing power structures and biases of its own. So often, we consider social media to be democratic territory, free of the institutionalized sexism, racism, and other “isms” that hold us back in other domains.
Yet, as Duffy points out, almost all of the most successful social media influencers – especially in the fashion industry – start off with some sort of “existing capital.” And this is where we see the common thread, because the famous starlets of social media, fashion blogging, and street style are overwhelmingly wealthy, white, skinny, and conventionally beautiful, begging the question – has social media’s “democratic” impetus actually diversified beauty standards, or has it doubled down on them? For me, social media acts primarily as a tool for my career; sharing images from outfit photos to behind-the-scenes snaps and my styling or photography work is something like building a portfolio. But it is also like building a brand, and now more than ever, society places a particular demand on us to brand ourselves, and in doing so, become more commercially salient, more like one another, and, for women, more beautiful.
Certainly, however, there are many sides to the story, and we have seen virtual communities coalescing around plus-size fashion bloggers, makeup accounts for women of colour, petite models - you name it, all emerge from the Instagram scene. But even if you argue that the visibility of these communities prove that Instagram is expanding our definitions of female beauty, it is still demanding that women be beautiful, even if it is in some other way, shape, or form than what we are used to. Instead of removing the pressure for women to be attractive 24/7, we have arguably enhanced this demand, thanks to the intense attention that we give to beautiful women online, rewarding them not for their thoughts or creations, but for their appearance.
Main image by the author for Couturesque