Social media has become a performative space. It presents a platform that allows us to display a photogenic version of our lives to the world. This perpetuates in the summer as our news feeds become crammed with everyone’s holiday shots, rather than the grim summer jobs that help us afford them. But should we be ashamed of this? Or is it just a natural human desire to gain approval from others?
It is a well-known truth that social media has a negative influence on our mental health as it is so easy to compare ourselves to others on the internet, taking social cues on the ideals we should aspire to. However, we shouldn’t feel ashamed for buying into these ideals and wanting to pull forward, collect, and display our best bits as this can be a nice feeling. Additionally, the photos we upload on social media are not necessarily fake; the smile in the image may have been genuine at that point in time. Humans are multi-dimensional by nature and we all have different moods, it is understandable we wouldn’t want to share the times when we’re experiencing low moods as they are more intimate and personal to us. That does not mean that those moments are “more authentic” than the ones we choose to display to the rest of the world.
I would argue that this performative display only becomes a real problem when we start actively changing our lives in order to construct an image of ourselves on social media platforms. While the phrase “do it for the gram” may be a fun joke, it has a more sinister side to it whereby we are changing our behaviours and doing activities we may not normally have done just so they can be posted. When social media begins to dominate our lives in this way, and we start to base our self-worth primarily on how many people took a second of their time to double-tap their approval on us, we can say this has probably gone too far.
Now, big fashion brands have started selling items that are specifically designed for Instagram opportunities. For example, Pretty Little Thing sell ‘swimming’ costumes that they market as ‘pool-side posing’ because they are not made of the appropriate water-tolerant material for actually swimming in. This demonstrates how in the modern market there is more demand for costumes that are designed for the aesthetic alone, rather than the practicality of using the item. Additionally, Missguided recently began selling a bikini for £1 as a publicity stunt; it was billed as the bikini that “won’t break your bank balance but might break the internet”. It certainly had the desired effect as customers flocked to get their hands on one of these. This is incredibly problematic not only when considering the ethical repercussions of sourcing this item, but also, as Zoe Wood argues in her Guardian article on this topic, it draws attention to how online shopping has permanently altered the way we consume fashion. Wood discusses what has now been labelled “fast fashion”, where retailers are required to bring out new clothing a lot more often than seasonally. She comments on how Missguided know their market, and adhere to consumers’ growing need to showcase new looks on Instagram by bringing out 1,000 new products every week. As a result of our increasing tendency to favour eye-catching aesthetics on social media, there has been an escalation in fashion culture, resulting in British shoppers throwing away a million tonnes of clothing each year.
Social media has also perpetuated a toxic dieting culture as now plenty of people, women especially due to the misogynistic nature of social media, try to change their bodies in order to look like a certain ideal. Products helping us lose weight fast, such as detox teas or gummy sweets, are relentlessly advertised on our news feeds as companies seek to capitalize upon the common desire to achieve the perfectly toned figure that is constantly displayed to us on social media platforms. Jameela Jamil, a well-known social activist, has set up a project called ‘iweigh’ in order to counteract the growing impact of fad-diets like these; she draws attention to the falsity of the before and after photos of many of the beauty products on the online market. Beauty companies also often pay social influencers on Instagram to market their product for them, and you will often find them falsely gushing over the amazing results of their “new favourite product”. Here, the falsity may be rightly scolded as they are actively taking part in encouraging people to spend their money in order to change the way they look. Additionally, many Instagram-celebrities use apps such as ‘FaceTune’ to digitally edit themselves. This element of fakeness has detrimental effects on the way we view ourselves as it means we are bombarded with images that may be infinitely desirable, but ultimately, not real, and thus, unattainable.
Having said this, although there is a lot of stigma surrounding this “fakeness” of images on social media, and it has been argued time and again that this is a damaging trend, we shouldn’t necessarily blame individual consumers for it. Wanting to present a certain image of ourselves to others is by no means a new phenomenon; this can be seen throughout history from Ancient Greek sculptures of “idyllic” athletic physiques to 18th century portraits of picture-perfect families surrounded by their wealth. Additionally, we already present a certain version of ourselves throughout our social interactions of everyday life in the way we prepare a face (that may be slightly false) to meet the faces that we meet. So, we, as individuals, shouldn’t necessarily feel guilty for wanting to do this online too; it has merely been perpetuated by the ability to display our lives to more of the public than ever before.
In an ideal world, every user would be able to appreciate the images of a perfect summer lifestyle as what they are, which is just one version of a person’s life, instead of blaming them for being fake. Perhaps, the issue is not the falseness of the images represented online, but instead, how that filters into people’s lives offline.
– Jess White