Social media influencers are framing objectification as empowerment, and it hurts women

Image: Flickr/Trey Ratcliff

I’m scrolling through endless photos of a woman’s barely covered backside. Peppered throughout are a few shots of cute toddlers, which is somewhat jarring in this context. But one image stands out entirely… The woman — whose arse I’m now well acquainted with — is suddenly wearing clothes, apparently to champion the cause of mental health for youth.

This is the world of being insta-famous. That is, famous for having an arse, which is big business and the mainstay of an entire career path we refer to as, “Social media influencer.” Countless big brands will sponsor influencer posts, which essentially means encouraging those with substantial Instagram followings to compel their followers to buy shit (usually fashion or beauty related) that you post about online.

There are thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of accounts full of images exactly like this. While I still find this trend shocking and bizarre, I am reassured that this is the new normal when it comes to the ‘gram. Welcome to the digital world created by the Kardashians.

Call me old-fashioned, but at 31 I’m already sick to death of seeing women build their “economic success” upon the body image insecurities of their younger sisters, daughters, and peers. Make no mistake, these “influencers” are lining their pockets by inculcating eating disorders and paralyzingly painful insecurities into girls half their age. Yet, in a cruel twist, they then have the audacity to pick up the torch for “mental health awareness,” pairing endless hedonistic images inspiring body-hatred and entirely unnatural body image with quotes about mindfulness and inner beauty. As if they themselves are not a catalyst for the very mental health concerns they claim to care about.

In years gone by, it was, arguably, morally devoid men like Hugh Hefner who turned the objectification of women into a lucrative industry. Today, it’s wealthy, middle-class mothers who are wallpapering young people’s lives with the kind of imagery that belongs in dingy strip clubs and petrol station lads mags. In a way, this new norm gives greater credibility and legitimacy to the moronic notion that self-objectification is “empowering.” It was easy to call out perverted men like Hefner, but today it is women who are sending the message that turning your sexualized body parts into a profitable business makes it a positive thing. This makes it more difficult to name the trend as bad for women.

Empirically speaking, sexual objectification is psychologically harmful to both the objectified individual and their audience. Even if women are choosing or profiting from the objectification, the practice is still damaging. But, by throwing in a quick, “Let’s talk about youth and mental health!” post amongst their nudes, the harm is all apparently neutralized. Moreover, this new norm bestows the same warped thinking onto boys, who come to believe that “supporting” or “appreciating” girls means liking photos of their arses on Instagram. Girls and women are frequently — often ubiquitously — represented as little more than mindless wank aids in young people’s developmental environments, but when this imagery is not only normalized, but celebrated, in contexts like Instagram, it becomes practically impossible to challenge.

The worsening of boys attitudes towards women and girls is sadly less of a working theory than fact. Recent surveys of Australian teens indicate a slow turning back of the clock on equality — today’s young men hold less egalitarian attitudes about women than their grandfathers did in a variety of measures around sexism. Today, girls increasingly rate body image as one of their biggest stressors; undoubtedly this increasing pressure underlies the ever-increasing rates of body image and eating disorders — the most deadly type of any mental illness in terms of morbidity rate.

These changing attitudes are worrying. Eighty six per cent of young Australian people now report that they aspire to have careers as social media influencers. If you’re female, this means posting photos of your body on the internet for the entire world to ogle, for perpetuity (or until you age out of the objectification market, leaving you with few saleable skills, and very low self-esteem). Who would have predicted that the exponential increases in technological connection in today’s modern age, rather than opening up new pathways for human advancement, would instead lead to young women seeing the posting of arse photos as the peak of their life’s professional opportunities?

While “social media influencer” is an apparently innovative modern “profession,” borne of the visual social media world, it does not represent a broadening of career choices for young people. Rather, it hallmarks a digitalized version of a return to the era where a woman’s career choices were primarily predicated upon her appearance alone.

In 1792, Mary Wollestonecraft famously wrote, “Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.” Where women were once imprisoned by the shape of their bodies, now, women can feel the added pressure of needing to shape their online identity into ever-narrowing confines.

Laura McNally is a registered psychologist, author, PhD and professional shit-stirrer. Her commentary has been featured in The ABC, The Guardian, The Australian, The Ethics Centre, and more. Slide into her DMs on Instagram @laura_mcnally.

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