A few months ago, I asked my husband why he wasn’t on Instagram. I didn’t inquire because he’s some kind of social media maven—the man has 83 Twitter followers—but because I had noticed my feed, albeit a highly unrepresentative sample of the universe, was skewing predominately female.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I have no interest.”
“Then how is everyone going to know what a great life you are leading?” I asked, half joking, referring to the fact that Instagram is a popular tool for constructing an eye-candy confection of “look-at-how-awesome-my-existence-is.”
As it turns out, our household is a microcosm of the gender gap and demographics on the photo-sharing site—and popular photo-heavy social media sites in general. According to April 2016 data from comScore, a company that measures Internet traffic, 42 percent of Instagram’s 108 million unique visitors were male, while 58 percent were female. ComScore says that double-digit disparity has held pretty consistent over the last year.
To be sure, Instagram, a community of over a half a billion users, has many pockets and diverse communities that focus on everything from promoting healthy body image to punk rock. But as Alice Marwick, a social media researcher at Fordham University, points out, pockets of diversity don’t prevent the majority of users from finding—and reinforcing—generic ideas of how people should look. “With the most mainstream Instagram users, we see very conventional beauty standards and aesthetics,” she says. And it’s that singular focus on appearance that seems to be luring women to the site.
As any user of the site knows, Instagram is a magnet for fashion, design, and beauty brands, which are often trying to target women to buy their products and clothes. And the site, whose main social function is to share photos—which are often enhanced through flattering built-in filters that do everything from intensifying shadows to making colors pop—places extreme emphasis on how things look.
“Young women dominate Instagram and visual platforms in general. Instagram gives you the power to modify your appearance in a way that’s practically on par with makeup and other beauty products,” said Rachel Simmons, a gender researcher who has written extensively on teen girls, referring to the flattering tools that make photos look flawless.
One is Perfect365, whose tagline is “create a world of beauty.” (Kim Kardashian West is reported to have that app to alter some of the photos she posts to her 72.6 million followers.) There’s also FaceTune, Modiface, and VisageLab, all of which can whiten teeth, remove zits, red eye, and airbrush with the click of a button. Men, of course, use these apps as well, but girls, Simmons says, grow up being told that they will be valued for appearance and that appearance is competition.
“Everyone wants to be the most beautiful girl in the room. Instagram provides a platform where you can enter that competition every day,” she said. “The Internet has been called a great democratizer, and perhaps what Instagram has done is let anyone enter the beauty pageant.”
It’s no surprise then that teen girls spend a lot of time and effort on reputation management on the site trying to keep up with the requisite stream of flattering commentary (too gorgeous! so cute! beyond!) on other girls’ selfies, said one young woman interviewed in Nancy Jo Sales’s new book, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. According to a 2012 study of college students use of Facebook, women spent 2.08 hours a day social networking while men spend 1.81 hours a day.
Katrin Tiidenberg, sociologist and Internet scholar at Tallinn University, says more women may use Instagram because mothers, in particular, have historically been responsible for family photos in many cultures. “I consider family photos to be a part of what can be called ‘snapshot photography.’ What we see on Instagram also seems to fall into this realm. We could ask if Instagram is particularly suitable for the type of a practice that women have historically been responsible for,” she said. In this way, Instagram is part of a tradition, or just a modern incarnation, that Tiidenberg says dates back to the 19th century, when upper class women took pictures of their family and friends and made elaborate albums that included paintings, drawings, and cutouts from photos.
Rosilena Coppala, 22, a recent Fordham graduate and former student of Marwick’s, says in her experience she has observed that slightly more women than men have an Instagram account but that men are just as engaged on the site. In fact, they are active in a way, she observes, that reinforces the currency of female beauty on social media. “[Men] are more adamant about liking posts of things they like or women they find attractive.”
Because of these gender dynamics on Instagram—wanting to be recognized for your beautiful photos, either of yourself or your experience—many women put a lot of time and effort into capturing the ideal shot, something that was recently parodied in a viral video Instagram Husband, which has been viewed over 5.4 million times since it launched in December. The video pokes fun at women’s relentless pursuit of the Instagram-worthy photo. (And who could blame them if your Instagram feed is the new social capital, the new way to be the prom queen?) In the video, one woman admonishes her husband for sipping his artisanal foamed coffee before she had a chance to snap a picture. “No you can’t do that. We have to show everyone how much we enjoy our lives together,” she implores. “Yeah, it’s really enjoyable,” the husband deadpans.
This is where Instagram can veer into the territory of envy baiting and plays into the trap of chasing “effortless perfection”—a term coined by Duke University researchers in 2003 to capture the pressure women feel to be beautiful, in shape, popular, intelligent, and accomplished without any visible effort to put forth. In reality, of course, maintaining an enviable Instagram feed—perfectly staged vacation photos with the sun hitting you just so, or the ultimate flattering selfie that showcases your best side—does take a lot of work. Read: many snaps of the camera from different angles and then running them through the right filter.
Perhaps for many men, the pursuit of magazine-worthy images—even messiness looks aspirational on Instagram—just isn’t worth the pressure that comes with it. “There are a lot of guys and dads on Instagram, but for me personally, trying to showcase some kind of perfection in my hectic life personally feels daunting,” said Simon Isaacs, 35, co-founder of the parenting site Fatherly, who does not have a personal Instagram account. “When my coffee comes, I’m just shoving it down my throat.”
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