This is pretty par for the course for a report like this, from a company like this, but the word authenticity has specifically been driving me up the wall lately, especially when it’s applied to people. How can you ask if a person authentically “lives and breathes” what she’s presenting when what she’s presenting is herself? That’s literally how a body works. And at the same time, of course she doesn’t. That’s literally how Instagram works.
Coincidentally, this email arrived the same day as a new essay collection by the New York fashion and culture writer Natasha Stagg, Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011-2019, from Semiotext(e). Stagg is best known for her fashion work—particularly as an editor at V magazine—but Sleeveless also touches on her brief tech career. She remembers working on an app that could “recommend all the ways to become beautiful,” then an app that took “mood selfies.”
This background makes Stagg uniquely suited to parse the strange stuff we’ve been doing to women lately in the name of giving them more freedom—typically, in actuality, just making them more marketable. (“Women are so trendy right now,” one woman says to another at the launch of a women-only magazine in Stagg’s essay “Naming Names,” maybe the book’s best and driest punch line.) Most interesting to me, and possibly to the compilers of future influencer-authenticity reports, Stagg digs into the question of what a modern “It Girl” is like.
For the most part, this It Girl spends her time alone and is seen on Instagram.“I just wish ... that I didn’t have this fear about very young people trying to stay home so that a bigger audience could appreciate a more constructed image,” Stagg writes in the book’s most sprawling essay, “Out of State,” adapted from a recurring column she wrote for Spike magazine. “I know they must be thinking that what their physical high school classmates think of their physical bodies will never matter.”
In a different era, the It Girl was someone whose photo was taken by onlookers at all the good parties. The new It Girl is someone who takes photos of herself, at home. She spends her time alone and is seen on Instagram, where her “art direction” is what makes her desirable. These young women, Stagg notes, “are, more often than not, self-described homebodies, even antisocial. Today, a cool girl is coaxed from a bedroom iPhone shoot into a professional studio.”
She usually has interesting stuff, like a novelty mirror for outfit-of-the-day photos, a Keanu Reeves throw pillow, a “vintage” Myspace T-shirt, or paintings she made herself. She writes vague, disaffected captions—“tea season,” “you know how it is,” a black-heart emoji. The coolest girl I went to college with has “ennui” in her Instagram handle and posts selfies taken in mirrors shaped like waves, with a MacBook or a single red rose in the background; sometimes she’s smoking a cigarette indoors, other times she’s drinking wine out of a coupe glass, typically rolling her eyes. She has amazing hair. Of one such cool girl, named Amina Blue, Stagg observes: “Her image could at once represent her generation’s particular acceptance of overexposure and its acute discomfort with pressure to perform.”