Why do women feel insecure in bikinis, cover their faces in make-up and force their rectangular feet into triangular heels? Feminists have often blamed the fashion, beauty and advertising industries for projecting unrealistic ideals, which make regular women feel inadequate. Might Instagram be making it worse?
Beautification is pricey and painful
Cosmetic surgery is booming, post-pandemic. Tummy tucks, face lifts, and boob jobs remain the most popular. “BBLs” (Brazilian butt lifts) are also trending. Sliced, diced and stitched up again; bodily parts are extracted and inserted down below.. Under 30s favour lip fillers. Older women get Botox - to mitigate the social penalty for ageing. Step into any fashion store. You’ll see women spending on shoes that will cause physical discomfort. After a few hours in the club, the pain becomes so unbearably excruciating that the heels are finally discarded. Blisters and blood are patched up the next morning. Are they mad or just masochists? Here’s my analysis:
Female beautification is inevitable
Especially under intense sexual competition
Social media amplifies young women’s feelings of relative unattractiveness.
Female beautification is inevitable
Men want pretty partners. This preference persists even as societies become more economically prosperous and gender equal. As long as men are free to choose their sexual partners (rather than being forced into arranged marriages), women will compete via beauty.
Of course, women’s desire to be attractive isn’t just to ‘lock this man down’. Good looks are also culturally esteemed.
Sexual competition heightens beautification
The stronger the intra-sexual competition, the greater the female beautification. In economically unequal US counties and cities, where people are more preoccupied with relative social standing, women are more likely to upload ‘sexy selfies’. Such areas also record higher sales in beauty salons and women’s clothing. Women are also more likely to upload sexy selfies if they live in economically unequal countries. As Sailor J explains in this (hilarious) make-up tutorial, “Since it's simply for the d**k, we have to do it”.
The top-down era - where norms were set by runways and magazine editors - was possibly less noxious than what came next. Supermodels were the ideal, but they were hardly our competition.
Algorithms manufacture unequal approval
I suggest that Instagram has caused a step-change in four ways:
Peer competition on just aesthetics;
Algorithms showcase the hyper-popular;
Pinnacles of female beauty appear like regular peers;
They alone are showered with visible approval.
Instagram’s algorithms recommend reels based on your and your peers’ preferences. Amid 1.3 billion users, users see the most popular 0.01%. Their feeds are a deluge of gorgeous age mates, who appear to be PEERS. No one mentally corrects for the misrepresentations manufactured by AI. Since each woman cares about her relative attractiveness, social media may amplify anxiety.
Social media also turbo-charges popularity contests. Back when I was a teen, the prettiest girls received a dozen carnations on Valentine’s Day. I got a few, but hardly a deluge. Intrasexual inequality was about 12:1. If you think that ratio is huge, now look at instagram.
Girls upload photos, competing for approval based on aesthetics. Pretty girls are showered in THOUSANDS of accolades, while regular girls are left feeling ugly and unattractive. In this domain, where it’s all about appearances, they are nothing.
Sharon (a 20 year old student from New Jersey) feels anxious about 50% of the time and blames social media. Kindly indulging my interest, she shared what she sees on IG. She stressed the magnitude of public approval.
“She has ten thousand likes”. “So it’s not just about the pictures, but what other people say?” “Yes, because external validation is important. I wish I had that”
Sexual competition, social media & algorithms
Instagram enables girls to compete for approval based on their appearance alone. Algorithms then show the prettiest 0.01% (out of a billion), as if they were peers. Further, they are visibly adored by thousands of admirers. Meanwhile, regular women subsist on single digits. Algorithms thus distort girls’ perception of peer competition and manufacture an inequality of adoration.
Almost 60% of US teenage girls report persist sadness. Social media is not necessarily the primary cause of their depression. Kids may even be using their phones more because over-protective, anxious parents don’t want them to roam around. But even if there are other factors, social media still seems bad for our health.
If you accept my argument that algorithms are warping women’s sense of peer competition, you may favour a realistic readjustment.
What steps could be taken?
Stipulate that teens can only use social media if they have parental permission? But this has two limitations. (1) It fails to address the underlying causal mechanisms. Sharon is well over the age of consent, but she remains susceptible to algorithmic distortions. (2) Parents also struggle with social media. “Mom-influencers” project perfect archetypes, which make others feel inadequate. The problem is not age but social media.
Teach teens about algorithmic distortions? Seems naive. No one can do the ginormous mental calibrations to correct for a skewed sample of 1.3 billion. If you see hundreds and hundreds of pretty girls, you cannot simply reassure yourself that millions of others are invisible. See also point (2) above.
Ask Instagram to promote teen mental health. Even more naive. These apps are organised to maximise user engagement Gorgeous girls are mesmerising and enchanting, fuelling addictive scrolling. Instagram will not voluntarily show “ugly” pics that cause users to log off and do something else.
Regulate algorithms. Stop Instagram from showing only the most popular posts. If girls saw both popular and non-popular reels, their sense of peer competition would be more realistic.
Hide likes. Inequality of adoration is inevitable, but Instagram’s 1.3 billion users get a warped sense of the distribution. If likes were not publicly visible then regular girls might feel more content with their dozen.