Women have long been scrutinized and criticized for their physical attributes. Add to the mix the heavily photoshopped images fed to us daily on social media, and you have the perfect recipe for low esteem and self-worth. Ananya Bhardwaj writes about how the women of today, while still fighting the age-long battle of generic beauty standards, need to finetune the way they navigate social media and take everything they see with a pinch of salt.

Owing to the coronavirus pandemic, all of us are inevitably spending more time online now. Consumption of content on social media has seen a sudden upsurge. While the variety of applications found online are quite handy for staying in touch, social media brings with it its own set of pitfalls – some of which have plagued women before its inception itself.

In a society run by patriarchy – one that pits women against each other since childhood – it is a sad reality that women often feel the need to compare themselves to each other much more than men do. Most of us start exhibiting misogyny very early on in our lives simply because it is fed to us by society- something most people don’t realise until they are adults or do not realise at all. An age bracket during which many invest time trying to unlearn the toxicity burdened on them as children, the ages 17-25 also happen to boast the most significant demographic of users of social networking apps like Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook. Add to this the unavoidable comparison that one makes to the lives of others as seen online, and the toll it can take on a person’s mental health is terrifying.

Distortion through the lens

Female Actor Florence Pugh recently uploaded a series of Instagram stories where she talked about how it took her a while to realise that even without choosing to apply a filter, her camera distorted her selfies so as to clear her acne and smoothen her complexion. Her observations are further validated by a 2018 article published in The Atlantic based on a YouTuber’s experiments (Lewis Hilsenteger aka Unbox Therapy). Hilsenteger posted a selfie he took on each of the iPhones (X, XS Max, XS, and 6) and many were taken aback to see the minute yet visible editing that the in-built camera application did to his face.

Activists like Jameela Jamil highlight the importance of transparency by celebrities who post edited pictures of themselves to ensure they do not propagate unachievable standards. Her brainchild, @i_weigh, is a platform meant to highlight that figures on a scale do not determine the worth of a person. Even though the Kardashian-Jenner clan is known to have multiple trainers and nutritionists at their beck and call, they continue to advertise ‘tummy tuck teas’ as a viable option for weight loss. @i_weigh stands its ground against such celebrities who promote eating disorders by endorsing “detox teas” that are notorious for operating under the radar of and without approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Most recently, Jamil urged young, impressionable fans not to compare themselves to Kim Kardashian, who showcased a shockingly tiny waist during a corset trial for the Met Ball 2019, calling the latter out for the responsibility she owed to her younger audience.

There is a very convincing school of thought that slams posting body transformation photos claiming it only promotes fatphobia if not conveyed properly and gives armchair critics a tool to criticize people who do not conform to the thin, slim narrative peddled to us. Very few people who work out and upload transformation pictures ensure to celebrate fitness and not thinness. Singer Lizzo has often spoken about how she is criticized for allegedly promoting obesity simply because she chooses to live her life untethered by the norms of what healthy women are supposed to look like. Even though she posted a breakdown of her workout regime on TikTok – something she owes to nobody – people still find reasons to criticize her body while fully ignoring that her comfort with her body makes thousands of women feel comfortable in their own.

When singer Joe Jonas recruited model Ashley Graham as his love interest in a music video (Toothbrush by DNCE), it was hailed as a new era in the music industry and many heaped praise on Jonas for the creative decision. Despite her visibility and success, models like Graham have spoken out about how alienating it is to be constantly questioned about her body. “What does it mean to be a plus-sized model?” – the question itself reeks of discrimination and lack of normalization of bodies that do not fit the box, thanks to organizations like Victoria’s Secret. Many celebrated the cancellation of the annual Victoria’s Secret Show in 2019, a show infamous for monetizing the sexualization of the female body and celebrating unhealthy body standards, apart from being run by an openly transphobic and fatphobic executive.

Most of us are now aware that social media is typically a carefully curated reel of one’s life. Despite this, most people are unable to apply this knowledge to their own lives. How many times have you paused when someone uploaded a post-workout picture of themselves and felt bad about your tummy rolls or lack of muscle? Have you envied someone who posted a weight loss transformation picture and tried to consciously cut back on your eating or end up stress eating more for a while after that? Have you desisted from uploading an “unflattering” picture of yourself because it highlights aspects of your body you do not want on your Instagram profile? If the answer to any of these questions was yes, you are still being fed wrong notions about your body because of social media.

Closer home, Instagram influencer Dolly Singh recently shared a video that shed light on skinny shaming, a shockingly prevalent double standard. She spoke about how she has been bullied for being too thin and how her journey towards self-love started far too late. Sadly, this is a story shared by many women across the world. If you are on the curvier side, you are shamed for it and told how “pretty you would look if you lost some weight.” If you are thin, you are made fun of for “not eating enough” and told to not be so bony. Individual growth is belittled and one is stuck in a constant battle believing one side has it better than the other. It would be amusing if it were not so tragic.

How real are the rallies for change?

The murder of George Floyd created a ripple effect in the societal landscape that reached far and wide. The whispers of change found a place in India where the decades-long obsession with fair complexions was rightfully called out and long overdue at that. It generated a much-needed discussion in social circles after Fair and Lovely announced that it would be rebranding itself as Glow and Lovely, dropping the word “fair.” Subsequent opinions reflected the public consensus that a mere cosmetic change in the name did little to instill confidence in consumers that the obsession with a lighter skin tone was truly a thing of the past. The rebranding is also considered a shallow move seeing that the ingredients commonly attributed to skin lightening continue being listed in the composition of the cream.

It has become essential to examine the influence of the content centered on women, both online and offline, in shaping their perception in society. Several dark-skinned women have come forth about the many times they were bullied or made to feel inferior because of their skin color. Back in 2017, Abhay Deol shared a series of tweets where he specifically called out Bollywood celebrities that were promoting skin fairness creams. Fast forward to 2020, and many of these celebrities were rather active in sharing hashtags to mobilize justice for George Floyd. The irony seems to have missed them; a portion of their net worth is generated from the promotion of fairness creams, a product that stems from the discrimination of darker skin and the very reason George Floyd was murdered in cold blood.

The lack of introspection from a majority of Indian celebrities is disheartening, especially when it comes to calling out racism in India – whether it is advertising fairness creams or the silence on the thrashing of Nigerian students in the Rourkee Institute of Technology for allegedly eating in the cafeteria during the lockdown. Sadly, in another instance of how women continue being underrepresented and ignored, there is no action taken against the cops who murdered Breonna Taylor – a black medical worker shot dead in her own home; a woman whose death only caused murmurs instead of a furor.

What can we do?

How, in such a world, are we ensuring the protection of the mental and physical health of young girls and women? Unsurprisingly, we end up participating in a losing struggle in preserving our identity and not losing it by the association to something or someone deemed more valuable. Body dysmorphia, depression, sexual, physical, and emotional violence – women face a daily battle regarding their mental and physical health waged by media. The onus is upon every person to ensure that they do not participate in propagating a message of shaming women for their bodies, sexuality, skin color, dietary decisions, or simply existing.

Unfollow any account that makes you suck in your gut wistfully or hate your body for taking up space. Subscribe to a channel that makes you truly happy regardless of its popularity, and your feed (and consequently your life) will improve one day at a time when their updates make you feel positive. It is crucial to remember that influencers can only ‘influence’ people who want to follow them, and one small act of cleaning up the accounts we follow can greatly improve our lives. Art, therapy, mental health awareness, concrete social activism – these are endeavors that deserve a platform and eyeballs flocking to their sites. Change begins with one step, and in a time when we are forced to stay apart from each other for so long, maybe this could be the thing that brings us together and uplifts women as is long overdue.