Pouty self portraits have turned boy-girl relations into a cut-throat sexual rat race.
If social media only caused narcissism, it wouldn’t be the worst thing. Instagram and Facebook are social networks that not only breed narcissistic tendencies but transform relations into a sexual rat race.
On these ubiquitous portals, the popularity of girls is hotly contested over one big deal: how sexy can I appear and bring it off with everyone’s admiration?
That’s the reason we see mirror shots, pouting self-portraits of teenagers (typically female) and sexually suggestively posed girls in a mini-dress ”before a party last night”. They’re showing how much they like themselves and hoping that you’ll hit ”like” to reinforce the claim.
This isn’t just an interest in vanity but vainglory, being high up on a scale of ”likes” . There isn’t anything inherently wrong with uploading self-portraits.
Everyone likes receiving compliments and it makes us feel awesome that our own appearance can provide us with an ego boost. But what kind of photos produce an epidemic of ”likes?” Nothing with too much creativity but hip, titty and kiss. It’s the true scourge of the selfie.
Why are we girls competing to be the Queen of Pouts? Why do we scour through photos of celebrities and all our ambitious friends to find out who is the new princess of prurient poses? Even demure girls are tempted to strike sexually suggestive poses. But they must be careful, not because parents are looking but because they might not score any ”likes” and might then feel a failure, unworthy among their peers.
How confident can you appear at being lascivious? How credible is your air of lewdness? A girl who is just a try-hard will lose credibility and become an outcast. So a lot depends on how much support you can get from other girls.
Girls zealously scroll down their Instagram or Facebook feeds. In Instagram, they might cleverly hashtag the most popular tags, such as #me, #selfie, #instacute to get an influx of ”likes” while they are on the most-recently tagged photos, then delete all the tags as though nothing’s happened.
They’re manipulating their image into popularity. Girls spray their ”likes”. They comment: ”Wow, you’re a model”; ”Oh my god you babe”; ”F–k you’re hot”; ”You’re perfect”; ”Best body”. Occasionally it’s genuine and supportive but it can also be very calculating. Girls fake flattery to get higher on the food chain. In my mind a comment such as, ”Oh my god, you’re so beautiful!” really means: she has to ”like” and comment on my photo! Then behind her back: ”What the f—! She is such a slut … I heard she hooked up with heaps of guys and got really drunk at a party and in every photo she poses with her tits out and a push-up bra.”
It’s tense because it’s duplicitous. We’re faking it, so that we get to be among the most popular, get to be ”liked” by the most popular and thereby gain popularity.
Seeing some of these images can feel too intimate. It’s almost as though we’re peering through a window. Some photos may be of girls showing skin, or girls lying on a bed. Just about all are seeking some sort of approval from their friends. The aim is not to communicate joy but to score a position.
It’s a neurotic impulse, not a happy one. I’m anxious that girls are higher up on the ladder than I am: boys are looking at her, not me. I have to look like her to be worthy of boys’ attention. Boys’ tastes are not always sophisticated. The aesthetic yardstick is what they see in pornography. So girls have to conform to what boys see in pornography. And then girls post photos to ”out-hot” the other girls by porn star criteria.
Who do we blame for this moral mess? As feminists, we correctly blame patriarchy because boys are securely at the top of the status game. Boys end up with the authority. They have their cake and eat it.
From the moral high ground, they can damn a girl for visual promiscuity, yet enjoy the spectacle at the same time, both with the same misogynistic motives: I like your form but I’m able to scorn you. You’re what I want but you’re less than me. Girls try to conform to this ”ideal” stereotype in their photos and these boys sarcastically comment, ”Nice personality” – really implying that the cleavage is their only attribute. Yet they also click the ”like” button. The boy who mocks a girl showing her cleavage is in fact the same boy who craves sexual opportunities with her.
A common adult reaction to social media is to restrict things, as if that could ever be possible. You can’t force kids to be nice. The real problem isn’t something tangible like sexting or bullying, which adults focus on in patronising and unimaginative ways. The real problem relates to conformity. Kids are compelled to act the stereotype, because those who opt out commit themselves to social leprosy. Social media doesn’t need adult control. What we need is some good taste.
Olympia Nelson is a year 11 schoolgirl.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald and reprinted with permission of Olympia Nelson.