Must Women Always Be Perfect?

The wildly popular photo-sharing programme Instagram (yes, I’m on there) has generated its own kind of language and community norms, along with imitators, as often occurs with popular social media. For those not familiar, Instagram allows users to take pictures with their cell phones (or from anywhere, as long as you can load the image on your phone), crop them to a classic square Polaroid shape, and apply filters (if desired) to change the look and feel of the photograph. Users push images to their feeds, where the people who follow them can see, and now that there’s a web interface, links can be shared with people off the service as well.

A fun, quick, easy way to share images. There’s a reason Facebook bought the company for just over $700 million. And, of course, a site that quickly turns into its own way of being; users can @mention each other just as on Twitter, and they also use hashtags like Twitter users do, two smart moves for organising themes, users, and events on the service. Likewise, Instagram has its own language and trends, from disdain for people who constantly Instagram their meals (guilty) to the massive #catsofinstagram tag, which is fairly self-explanatory.

There’s also the #nofilter trend. When I first saw it cropping up here and there, I naively thought it was informational in nature, designed for photographers who might want to know if a filter had been applied. I used it now and then on images I posted without filters, such as those taken during wildfires, when the light is strange and peculiar and I want my followers to see it—and I want them to know that it’s original to the photograph, rather than being added as an effect.

But there’s a dark side to the #nofilter trend, and it’s tied in with #selfies, self-portraits posted with Instagram. Selfies are all the rage these days (people keep acting like self-portraiture is a new thing when of course artists have been depicting themselves for centuries, those vain things), and in a way, posting pictures of yourself have been turned into a strange competition. You see, if you post a selfie and it’s filtered, and you’re a woman, you’re letting the team down.

Andrea Moore wrote a great piece about this for xoJane, discussing the bizarre trend of what she terms ‘filter shaming’ and the way in which women pick at each other on Instagram:

These are all Instagram hashtag reminders that unless the hormone gods, camera lens, and angle of the sun are in perfect alignment I will continue to boycott up close and personal selfies of myself, while also walking the fine line between hating on and fawning over the “natural beauties” that flood my Instagram timeline with redundant hashtag captions shaming those of us who choose to rely on photo enhancement and distortion known as filters to take our photos from blah to BAM.

She touches on some important ideas in her piece, especially the concept of ‘natural beauty,’ one that’s often harped upon: women have to look ‘natural.’ They need to appear ‘real.’ Thus, women who wear makeup, do their hair, dress up, have any kind of surgery (cosmetic, reconstructive, or other), receive filler injections or other beauty treatments, &c aren’t ‘natural’ and thus don’t count as ‘real women.’ On Instagram, women proudly proclaim their naturalness and camera-friendly faces with tags like #nofilter and #naturalbeauty, but what kinds of messages are they really sending?

There’s a strange backlash here that’s hard to untangle. On the one hand, women have been under pressure for an extremely long time to present themselves perfectly at all times, and there’s an understandable desire to push back against that. To say that no, women don’t need to wear makeup, or apply soft photo filters to their faces, or get cosmetic surgery, in order to be beautiful. But on the other, when that old rhetoric is just replaced with new rhetoric about ‘natural beauty,’ it becomes in its own way equally oppressive.

Some women are comfortable in their bodies and want to celebrate them as they are, which is fantastic, and they should totally do this. Others may be less comfortable, and thus really need the ability to get validation from sharing their selfies when they’re feeling good about themselves. And for those who don’t like looking at themselves at all, what a horrible double standard this sets. If they post a photo without manipulations, they might feel uncomfortable with it, and people may tell them they’re ugly because they don’t meet conventional beauty standards. If they post a photo with filters, makeup, or other changes, people will shame them for not going with the ‘natural beauty’ trend.

How is a woman supposed to win? If she primps, she’s capitulating to the patriarchy and not celebrating her true self. If she goes natural, she’s an ugly hag. If she sometimes wants to add a cool filter to her picture, she’s lying about how she looks and who she is: even though Instagram as a service was designed with the filters as its core, and they’re a huge part of how Instagram works and how the feeds are presented. This idea that women now need to exhibit perfection with a #nofilter tag is just as pointlessly oppressive as insisting that women get made up just to walk down the driveway to the mailbox.

Sharing photographs is supposed to be fun, not a constant battle with yourself and the people around you. When people have to stress out about the judgmental comments they’ll get on their selfies, it doesn’t really create an incentive for them to post them, and it definitely undermines their sense of worth and pride in themselves. Taking selfies can be incredibly empowering, but not when it’s emotionally fraught.