In the Blog
“I Woke Up Like This”: The Beauty Industry, Gaslighting, And The Bravery Of Loving Yourself
Illustration by Marlee Jennings
Hello. Hi. We are still quarantined. And, apparently, very online.
Internet use has skyrocketed during the past nine months, as so much of our work, education, and entertainment is now dependent on whether or not we have Wi-Fi. Honestly, whoever expected me to not be all up in Jason Momoa’s IG in between emails is living in a reality that I don’t yet understand… But, unfortunately, the endless scrolling cycles we’ve found ourselves in have been shown to be TERRIBLE for our mental health. Not because social media is inherently evil, but because it is saturated with unrealistic messages about what our bodies “should” look like, and what kinds of bodies deserve positive attention.
It is no secret that learning to idealize unrealistic bodies — bodies that look nothing like us or anyone we know in real life — takes a toll on our self esteem. According to the 2011 documentary Miss Representation, 53 percent of 13-year-old girls report feeling unhappy with their bodies, and that number rises to a whopping 78 percent by the time they are 17. It is also not a secret that women of colour, specifically, trans women of colour, experience the negative impact of beauty and body standards tenfold because the “ideal” body is pretty much always cis and white. Women of colour are grossly underrepresented throughout social media because what we see we log on is the result of a newsfeed algorithm that simply does not represent the priorities and interests of women of colour.
The importance of representation has been well documented. We know that body positive, racially and culturally diverse images are crucial in our systemically discriminatory society to help create new mindsets relative to beauty, intelligence, and value. We actually need this for our mental health. And when I say body positive images, I don’t mean the type of body positivity that makeup brands and clothing lines appropriate to market their products at the expense of women’s health and self esteem, the type that aggressively excludes trans women of colour. So where is our actual body positive representation? And why do we want it from Instagram?
We are impacted by misrepresentation on social media because we actually create relationships with the content that we look at. We become emotionally invested, partly because we use social media to check in with loved ones, but mostly because social media has been shown to trigger the same receptors in our brain that respond to intense social situations, like being cast out from a community, or needing to react quickly to threats like invasion or war. In a country where 77 percent of the population reported checking social media accounts daily in 2020, and where social media influencers are one of the most used marketing resources, this essentially puts our brains in a position where they don’t actually differentiate between daily, in-person interactions, and what we see in our social media universe. We aren’t just building relationships with our peers online, we are actually building relationships with the accounts we follow — regardless of whether we want to or not — which essentially explains why it is so easy to feel undermined, betrayed, and also personally attacked by pages that post exclusionary and body-shaming content.
It’s not uncommon for brands and accounts to pretend to hop on the inclusivity train, now that it’s a trending topic. It becomes a problem when brands and social media stars market to an emotionally vulnerable audience, but don’t come through. When brands we feel connected to claim to be all about inclusivity, but don’t actually walk the walk, it works like a form of manipulation called gaslighting.
Gaslighting, in a nutshell, is the manipulative practice of deliberately trying to make a person question their perception of reality to the point where they begin to doubt their sanity. While gaslighting is predominantly talked about in the context of abusive intimate relationships, the term has also been applied to some social media behaviours. For example, prank videos on social media often qualify as a form of gaslighting, specifically in cases where the person being pranked did not consent to being the subject of ridicule. This is because the standard practice is to gaslight the person being pranked into thinking that they are “crazy” for being upset, and further humiliating them by taking their reactions out of context on social media.
On a broader scale, the oh-so-common practice of false advertising from influencers and the brands they represent has an alarming amount of things in common with gaslighting. For example, if you follow a super muscular Instagram model who claims she never exercises, that is not necessarily gaslighting. However, if she actually does exercise a lot to look that way, but insists that she doesn’t, you might feel confused and wonder how it’s possible. Worse, you might wonder why your natural body doesn’t look more like the model’s, since you don’t exercise either… Other examples of this include (but are not limited to) self love campaigns that exclusively feature women with a full face of natural-looking makeup, then sport the hashtag #IWokeUpLikeThis. These images are intentionally dishonest; the point is to shame viewers for not being as “effortlessly” flawless as the influencers and models claim to be.
Why do they do this? You guessed it: to sell you something. The beauty industry is worth billions of dollars. The value of the cosmetics market in Canada alone is expected to reach about $15.8 billion (US) by 2021. And while there is nothing wrong with experimenting with makeup — or anything fun and colourful — the statistics for how many women wear makeup because they feel inadequate without it are still staggering in 2020.
Gaslighting is unfortunately everywhere in advertising, to the extent that many of us wouldn’t recognize it if we saw it. Most of us just know that, after scrolling for a while, we feel a little more like something is wrong with us.
I’m in desperate need of a more diverse Instagram feed, where gymming and putting on makeup are supported, but are just a single option in an ocean of possibilities. I want a feed where women who choose to gym and rock the latest makeup and fashion trends are gassed up with the same enthusiasm as women who choose to go into earth goddess mode and never shave their body hair again, where you’re met with a wave of support if you decide to start hormone therapy or choose a new name that fits your identity more — basically, where literally any expression of femininity is met with maximum hype. The way women have been taught to tear each other down does not actually benefit us. If we want to create supportive spaces, our only option is sisterhood — and unfollowing accounts that don’t support our mental health.
One of the best things we can do to improve our body image is to curate our Instagram feeds. How? Repurpose the “search” feature on your social media accounts! Social media can be a great tool to educate and express yourself, if you make your feed a safe space — whatever that means to you. Start by making a list of the types of pages that you might find inspiring and then search for that type of content, instead of letting the algorithm dictate what you see. Be as specific as you can, and edit your list as much as you want to as you search. Narrow down your search as much as possible, then pay attention to your recommended pages. You will need to do a lot of sorting, but trust me, it’s worth it.
As you refine your search, pay attention to social media red flags. The first time I looked up #selflove on IG, I was looking for accounts that had a specific type of ride or die femme-positive vibe. As a Puerto Rican woman who lived in the diaspora for seven years, I was growing really tired of how aggressive white feminism can feel towards women of colour, and how pages that exclude trans women’s stories and realities (often referred to as TERF’s, or “trans exclusionary radical feminist”) can often feel like the norm. The creepily homogeneous wave of posts I encountered as I scrolled through the sea of brand promotions and cishet white faces definitely summoned the rage of my ancestors. What I eventually realized, as an emotional abuse survivor, is that I felt gaslit. By freaking social media.
This is a big deal. For women of colour, be you BIPOC and/or QTPOC, this assault on our mental health is particularly dangerous when we live in societies where hospitals let us die at disproportionate rates, and where our communities are also disproportionately targeted by police. It is well documented that when women with Black-sounding or Spanish names apply for jobs, they are less likely to be considered for hire, which is only one of the reasons that our communities tend to have lower incomes than predominantly white communities. In short: BIPOC/QTPOC women need 0 extra attacks on our mental health.
So as you search, make sure to look out for the following red flags: - Pages that claim to represent BIPOC pride, but only represent light skinned or white-passing women of colour on their feed. Not showing the diversity in our communities contributes to a divisive narrative that gives people other than us the right to define what we look like and how we deserve to be represented. - Pages that don’t show trans, and/or queer women of colour in content about beauty. This literally sends the message that QTPOC cannot represent beauty. - Pages that only show certain body types, but claim BIPOC pride (e.g. only ever seeing one type of Black body on the page’s feed). - Pages that only show beauty and sex appeal in contexts that aren’t actually pleasurable for the model. - Pages that never show Black women in a bonnet, with their natural hair out, or without makeup on. - Pages that promote the idea that BIPOC/QTPOC women can totally just drop their stress levels and focus their energy on becoming a more conventionally acceptable type of beautiful. This is a form of shaming.
Let’s be real: misrepresenting or not representing BIPOC/QTPOC reality, and failing to acknowledge our value and beauty is not just about 2020 social media influencers — our communities have been fighting for the right to exist authentically for centuries. For us, erasure has 500 years of intergenerational baggage, and, in a modern context, makes us feel like our existence in and of itself is revolutionary. While this may sound like a noble concept, it is one of the most exhausting realities in which to exist.
Being a woman of colour in 2020 requires bravery. We are statistically more likely to be on the receiving end of violence, especially if we are trans. We are statistically more likely to be failed by the systems that we live in, because they were not designed for our wellbeing. We are not brave, “spicy” or “sassy” because it’s cute — our survival depends on it.
In this context, learning to love ourselves is also an act of bravery. It takes a lot to get to the point where you can say, “I don’t care what people will think of me tomorrow, I cannot keep apologizing for who I am, or for this body.” But if you are starting a self love journey, you will inspire others to do the same. And yes, curating which pages show up on your Instagram feed is 100 percent an important step forward.
About the Author: Victoria Sagardía Calderón (she/her/hers) is a writer, yoga instructor and trauma specialist from Puerto Rico. Her work focuses on decolonizing self care and conversations about bodies, community, and mental health. She is also a professional dancer and cat mom.