Physical Appearance: The Negative Consequences Of Self-presentation On Instagram For Young Girls
In the book “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” (1956), sociologist Erving Goffman uses the example of theatre performance in order to explain the significances of face-to-face social interaction. According to Goffman, social interactions are compared to theatre, people in everyday life equal actors on a stage and the audience consists of other individuals who observe and react to the various performances. Like in theatrical performances, there exists a “front stage” in social interaction as well. The actor is standing on stage in front of an audience and is conscious of the fact that he/her is being seen and reacted to. This influences his/her behavior. This equals an individual human being interacting with strangers, colleagues, friends, and family – one is playing a social role and is well aware of one’s own presentation. However, there is also a “backstage”, where these individuals can relax, are not been watched and judged by the audience – maybe being their “true self”. (Goffman, 1956:78) This can, for example, be compared with coming back home alone– no interaction required, only being oneself. Central to the book’s theory is the belief that as people interact socially, they are constantly engaged in the process of “impression management.” (Goffman, 1956:49) Each individual tries to present himself in “the best light” (Boyd, 2014:48) and tries to prevent any inappropriate or embarrassing situation involving them. In other words, to make a good impression, we carefully decide what we will share with others. (Boyd, 2014:48) Even though “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” was written over half a century ago, Goffman’s theory can still be applied to our modern digitalized world.
With the rise of social networks, for a huge number of people, it has become an everyday activity to share personal content online. On many social network sites (SNSs), for example, Facebook or Instagram, users can upload and publish their pictures, links, and thoughts. By doing so, these users make the effort to present themselves in front of an online community and maintain social relations. Taking Goffman’s dramatical approach into account, one can believe that users present themselves in the online world for validation and cognition (front stage). Hence, they act and react for the possibility that they are being seen and judged by others. However, this phenomenon has its detriments as well.
This essay examines the central question of what the consequences of self-presentation on the social network site Instagram are, especially for young women (around the ages of 13-early 20s). This work analyzes how and why self-presentation on the strictly visual based Instagram has so much influence on today’s young females.
Consequences of the Self-Presentation on Young Girls
Adolescence is a crucial phase in everyone’s life to explore their own identity. One factor that influences this time of life and the identity-building is the usage of SNSs. (Yau and Reich, 2018) Here, individuals can connect with others and upload and share their pictures to construct and maintain their self-presentation. Teenagers are struggling to find their own identity which is not defined solely by their families. They want to be recognized as someone other than “son, daughter, sister or brother”. (Boyd, 2014:17) Additional, it is a very important factor for teenagers to develop essential friendships for searching and constructing their own identity. Friendships offer “advice, support, entertainment and a connection that combats loneliness”. (Boyd, 2014:17) By doing so, they gain another influential context beside their family to build their own identity. For many young adults, social media platforms enable to stay connected to people or friends who they cannot otherwise interact with in person. (Boyd, 2014) Danah Boyd compares these social media tools as “[…] direct descendants of the hangouts and other public places” like drive-ins in the 1950s and the mall in the 1980s. (2014:20) Only that Facebook, texting, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media are the new public places for the teenager today. Therefore, if young adults want to talk, share their feeling or thoughts, – they go online. By using SNSs like Facebook or Instagram, users can stay up-to-date with friends and family through regularly updating their feeds.
Besides keeping relations intact, teenagers use these platforms to experiment with their way of self-presentation as well. By creating profiles and sharing content on various SNSs, they allow themselves to explore their broad possibilities for constructing identity. Since Instagram is a visually-based SNS, users will post pictures of themselves (“Selfies”) but also with their friends and family, engaging in different activities like sports, party, etc. These pictures initiate other people following them to leave comments and/or likes. They want to appear “interesting, likeable and attractive in order to present themselves favorably to them” (Yau and Reich, 2018:6) And this kind of validation is portrayed by the numbers of likes and comments teenagers get on their posts and pictures. They feel content and confident because those numbers indicate their popularity among peers.
But what happens when these young female adults don’t achieve their expected amount of likes? What if the way they present themselves online is not good enough for them? What if, instead of validation they get pressure and discontent?
Hunting for likes and attention
“Likes” provide an essential role on Instagram. When users/ “followers” on Instagram have “liked” a picture, their “likes” are collected and displayed under the image. This way their reaction is instantly presented under that Instagram post. As Feltman and Szymanski (2018:6) have expressed it: “the more [likes] you get, the more popular you are”. This perception is especially shared by young teenagers.
One way to increase “likes” and achieving attention and validation is through the help of friends and peers. It is common amongst friends to comment and click “like” under their friend’s images in order to support their popularity and self-presentation online. The amount of “likes” here serves as a form of peer influence. Young women tend to see their friends as their “closest confidants” (Yau and Reich, 2018:3) and this explains why they seek their help. Triggeman et.al. (2018:91) discovered that the number of likes received by a picture would be taken as a “reflection of the collective opinion of other Instagram users” and rate the worth and attractiveness of that person. In other words, the more “likes” someone gains for their picture, the more desirable they seem – for themselves and other users. Another way for – especially but not exclusively –young women to actively achieve more likes and attention for their pictures is using the affordances supplied by Instagram. By using filters, editing their pictures on other SNSs before uploading and considering the appropriate hashtags( a collection of various pictures under the same notion with help of the symbol “#”, e.g.#fun), they can gain more “likes”. (Tiggeman et al., 2018:95) This validation encourages them in repeating this process in return. Young women view the number of likes that they achieve as a “direct evaluative feedback” (Tiggeman et al., 2018:91), about their appearance and self-worth.
When teenagers don’t receive enough likes from their followers, even though they post regularly, they may begin to feel that they cannot obtain enough attention from others. (Haley et al., 2018:156) These users start to feel isolated if this happens repeatedly. People’s offline and real social contacts are not always the same and cannot be replaced by online friends and followers. Online networks alone cannot fulfill or replace the social needs of a real human being. By not getting enough validation the self-esteem of those young women sinks and their desire to be accepted grows which results in desperate attempts of gaining likes, such as by manipulating and staging pictures. This may lead to some individuals starting to compare themselves to these images and desperately trying to meet these ideal images of other young “perfect” women.
Bringing Goffman’s “frontstage and backstage” theory in, one may say that the audience (here it is the feedback of followers) influences the actor’s being behavior on stage (online self-presentation). The “backstage” can be considered young women’s self-perception. This means some young women can’t differentiate between on- and offstage behavior anymore and they equal their online presentation and validation with their self-worth and self-perception. These adolescent girls are mainly driven by the perception other people have of them and they act and react only for the possibility that they are being seen and judged by others online.
As Feltman and Szymanski (2018:313) discovered, researches indicate that social networking users, especially young females, are stressed and more concerned about the importance of looking attractive in their photographs. Young women feel pressured to follow strict and unattainable ideals of looks. Teenage girls tend to post pictures on SNSs like Instagram that fit the “cultural standard of beauty” (Feltman and Szymanski, 2018:313) they internalized over years. Fardouly et al. (2018) elaborated two pathways that lead young women to be dissatisfied with their appearance. The first reason is the internalization of the societal beauty ideals (Fardouly et al., 2018:1383) which refers to the extent to which young women follow societally and medial defined beauty ideals as “personally meaningful beliefs and goals” (Fardouly et al., 2018:1383). Even though most people are aware of this influence and don’t internalize it to a drastic extent, young and insecure adolescent women are at risk of falling for this societal influence and developing diseases like eating disorders or pathological changes (e.g. bulimia).
Secondly, an innate drive of social comparison is another reason why adolescent women tend to be discontent with their bodies. (Fourdaly et. al, 2018:1383). By comparing oneself to another person’s physical attractiveness, success or lifestyle, one can consider being “better off” (upward comparison) or “worse off” (downward comparison). (Fourdaly et al., 2018:1381) Comparing oneself with someone who seems to have a better appearance can lead to the negative consequence that oneself feels inferior. Comparing oneself to someone who is not as appealing or successful as oneself may let one feel superior. Furthermore, Fourdaly et al. (2018) found that young women tend to compare especially their physical appearance to the appearance of others. That means peers are the main source of comparison on the social network. They provide a more important role in a teenager’s life than models or celebrities. (Triggeman, et.al., 2018:91)
Feltman and Szymanski (2018:313) pointed out that after viewing attractive profiles on SNSs, young women reported lower levels of satisfaction with their physical appearance. They evaluate their own appearance by comparing themselves with “sociocultural thin ideals of beauty presented in the media” (Tiggeman et.al., 2018: 91). Hence, this attempt of comparing themselves leads to a higher and more unrealistic ideal of self-image and self-presentation since these girls try to overtrump each other in their appearances (using editing programs and manipulating their bodies and faces) or in their lifestyle (staging pictures).
It appears that young women don’t realize that some pictures on Instagram or on other SNSs sometimes are just edited to generate a “beautiful and fun” person’s life. They compare their realistic and flawed selves to those manipulated and staged images. They are not able to assess if and how often their peers are actually engaging in – as Goffman indicated- impression management by choosing to post only the most attractive and edited picture of themselves. This can result in lower self-esteem and lower satisfaction with one’s own appearance. (Feltman and Szymanski, 2018:313) They are seeking recognition and acceptance for their physical attractiveness and appearance. (Feltman and Szymanski, 2018:313) This kind of mindset gets supported when young females observe “conventionally attractive” users on Instagram and they start comparing their own physical appearance in order to identify which physical features will meet the ideal.
By easily connecting to their Instagram account on daily basis, at any time of the day, the chances for very fast and numerous comparisons based on outer looks rises. This way, teenage girls are subconsciously influenced every time, the look at their Instagram feed.
One of the biggest impact and consequences Instagram has on young women is losing the ability to differentiate between what is real and what is not. Young influenceable women assume that the validation and perception they achieve on SNSs like Instagram fulfill their social needs in the “real” world. This is why some individuals desperately attempt to create a “perfect” self- so they can gain approval and affirmation in a way they might not gain in their offline life.
It is necessary for young influenceable women to recognize that the world of social networks does not necessarily reflect the real world, especially to the extent of social and physical acceptance. What they may perceive as the reality is often just manipulated and staged images of other young people with the same insecurities they have. By playing this “game” of out trumping each other they nurture this cycle of false self-presentation and contribute to this false perception that one has to be part of this standardized beauty and live the lifestyle which popular peers live (partying, traveling or excessively spending money). One can assume that if they use various computer and smartphone programs before sharing with the online world in order to create a more desirable self, other peers are most likely to do the same. There are high chances that these young women who are trying to impress each other in order to create a superior and most positive “frontstage” presentation, in turn, obtain a negative impact on their own self-perception, self-worth and self-esteem.
As Goffman (1956:113) argued the awareness of expectations of settings are important for self-presentation. Applied on SNSs this means that while presenting themselves online to a huge audience or followers, one has to be aware that one is only acting, and the acting is influenced by the audience/ followers and their feedback. This “stage” is only a virtual platform where reality “lacks”. As long one is aware that is only an “illusion” where a “like” should not equal an authentic and real approval, one can have a “healthy” relation to these kinds of SNSs to the extent that one doesn’t assume that one’s “Instagram life” is the real one.
Young women need to learn – preferable from the beginning of using SNSs- how to cope with negative outcomes and the pressure of societal beauty ideals. It can be the parents, older siblings or friends who encourage awareness for side effects of using SNSs and creating online selves. Due to their emotional closeness, one may assume that adolescents are more likely to listen and trust these people’s advice and experiences.
As Harley et al. (2018:41) said, “We should remember that risk is not the same as harm and learning to deal with risk is part of becoming a resilient human being.” This is why young people, but especially young women should be encouraged to be aware of this negative and very influential side of SNSs like Instagram.