What is it about being a woman on Instagram that is so joyous, so satisfying – and so annoying to men?
Illustrations by exoticdirtbag
Here was yet another straight man telling me that I Instagram “too much”. The fifth man in the past two years. I squinted and continued eating my stone-cold sushi in stone-cold silence, trying not to let my annoyance show, for this was someone I was beginning to get those dreaded feelings of attachment and fondness for. And, yet, he here he was, almost choking on his wine to convince me that he was right in being “skeptical” of my instagramming. It was bad enough that I posted at least a photo a day, I also put up stories – what sort of a vain monster was I? He claimed he wasn’t going to stop me from being who I am – oh, the benevolence – but he was “curious” about why I needed to share so much of my everyday life with my 500+ followers. “Why do you need so many people telling you you’re awesome…don’t you know that already?” I was confused. Is this a compliment, or a jibe, or a passive-aggressive attack stemming from an insecurity of my awesomeness? Before I could begin to snipe back at the question, he smiled. A dazzling, charming smile that made me feel guilty about my Instagram habits. Yet again.
Strangely enough, that didn’t stop me from instagramming as manically as I have been for about two years now. Sure, I felt bad, but what can I do, I don’t feel bad or good about myself when I Instagram. I do it out of a very manageable need to communicate – a need that I do not want to clamp down on. How do I explain to this skeptical man, I often wondered, that I just like instantly sharing my thoughts, feelings, photographs, jokes, and angst with my small world of friends? Over time, my Instagram habits became the butt of all his jibes at me – in front of his friends, in fights over academic disagreements, in jest, in all seriousness. He called me obsessive – a charge I surrendered to, if only to end the conversation, all the while wondering why he was so obsessed with my obsession. Predictably, we broke up, and I triumphantly put up a selfie to celebrate that moment of liberation. Considering how selfies irked him more than any other posts of mine, I was hardly left with a choice.
A few months after feeling guilty about ruining a fledgling relationship, in part, due to my unstoppable instagramming, it occurred to me that had I not instagrammed at all, there would be a different complaint: you don’t Instagram because you’re insecure. I instagrammed this piece of wisdom promptly. After all, who would consider it breaking news that women are constantly surveilled, evaluated, assessed through the eyes of men who feet authorised to express an opinion no one sought in the first place? But this was hardly the first time I had been shamed about my instagramming. And it certainly won’t be the last.
The first man who thought that I instagrammed too much, told me that I have a tendency to “instaspam”. A genuine lover of a good word-play, I found the term a total riot, and even put it up on my profile. “Instaspammer”, I called myself. Mr. One was taken aback and even admitted, two years later, that he thought I would’ve felt bad. What I did not tell him was that I felt deeply hurt, and deleted Instagram for a week, suddenly very conscious of what I was coming across as. Maybe I was speaking too much, a trait of mine that is often mocked by friends and family alike albeit half-seriously: “Oh, how much she talks! Nobody can shut her up!” Mr. One had reminded me that I should feel guilty about saying too much, speaking too much, having too much of a presence. For a few days after getting Instagram back in my life, I was very self-conscious. Just as self-conscious as when I first wore a spaghetti top at the age of twelve and my friend’s mother asked me why I wanted to show so much of my body. Thankfully, unlike then, I was now able to shrug it off and get back in the Instagram game with as much abandon as before. Women friends that I narrated this story to reminded me that I am a sociologist. Isn’t this annoyance of women “saying too much”, women having “too much” fun, being “too pleased with themselves” – the fears of men who want to define the terms of our engagement with the world?
I conveyed as much to Mr. Two who, a fellow academic, said he thought that was too easy an answer. Mr. Two is a deep thinker, a philosopher, a theorist. As if the academic smirk that emerged as I was trying to explain that I Instagram “for fun” was not enough of a response, he insisted on articulating his thoughts: what about teenagers who are growing up in the age of narcissism? All these selfies, these poses, this obsession with making one’s skin appear brighter…all this points to an obsession with oneself and, by ignoring that, I was being unfair to all those genuinely concerned about an obsession with vanity. (There it was again, the equivalent of “there are children starving in Bangladesh”, the apocalypse that women will bring upon the world, to make you feel guilty about something you did for fun, in which you enjoyed sharing yourself, your body, your thoughts, at will, at random.) I asked him if he had ever talked to teenagers who were posting these selfies about why they did so. He seemed unsure about why that mattered. Their intentions don’t change the detrimental effects of narcissism, he explained patiently to an instaspammer, while I watched him fall deeper in love with how smart he was. I didn’t give up and asked him if he thinks that we should we not let people express themselves in whatever fashion they want. He retorted with a grunt and said, “We all know everyone overcompensates on this app because they want validation… everyone who posts too much is basically just deeply vain, insecure – or probably both!” He seemed pleased with his own analysis. I indulged this too. What I did not tell him then, and I wish I had, was that countless women I knew considered him vain and insecure – for if we could get him to stop loving his own velvety voice at an academic conference, perhaps he would shut up and let others speak. Who said vanity or insecurity was only about one’s appearance?
Enter Mr. Three. Heart at first sight. A self-hating academic (I had decided to stay away from the intellectual bros), and a lover of visual art. An instagrammer. Whew, I thought to myself. Mr. Three instagrammed pictures of what he considered scenes worth capturing. Sunsets. Skylines. An obscure street. A sculpture. Strangers. Candles. Sunsets. Sunsets, Sunsets. No captions, no people – for captions are tacky and nobody was as interesting as he. My face certainly was not worth capturing. My posts were not worth liking (one had to earn his Instagram affection). My photography skills were not sophisticated enough to capture his fantastic self. He was the authority, after all, on what is a good click. I couldn’t just demand validation because we were together. How could I be so precocious? All this thought about who should like what on Instagram, by the way, from someone who claimed to “not care” about any of this. For eight months, I felt real pressure to aspire to a standard that would befit His Highness. I bent over backwards to take pictures with “the right frame”, I willed myself to hate filters, I put myself in his shoes and took care to strive for symmetry, I ditched captions to my photos, and I shunned selfies (the horror!). No matter what I did, I was told “Surely, you can do better.” Ironically enough, the moment we ended our toxic intimacy, I instantly took better pictures. I was no longer afraid of being judged. Sometimes, his crisp voice haunts me:
Women are being fooled by these tech companies; The revolution will not occur if women keep taking selfies; Why does this woman post so many photos of herself – and why do you encourage that by liking her every post; If you like all of everyone’s pictures, your ‘like’ doesn’t mean anything; Why do you post so often; Why, why, why…
And whenever this voice pervades my insides with its seductive tenor, I tell myself: If you don’t account for everything you do and prove it is worthwhile by some standards, then whatever you do is deemed worthless.
With these experiences in mind, Mr. Four was a lovely surprise. He said he loved my Instagram account. It’s so full of life, he said. In four weeks, however, he was condescendingly amused. So amused that it bordered on disbelief. Surely, I was slacking off at work; surely, I was doing nothing else but Instagramming; surely, I was not reading enough; surely, I was not writing enough; surely, I had no hobbies. Words, I realised, would hardly allay amusement. I added one task to my ever-expanding daily activity list: getting rid of this naysayer. If nothing, he would be impressed with my ability to do multiple things at once: to be able to dump him while posting a selfie of myself looking relieved. I was officially tired of being viewed with suspicion: how are you a PhD student if you’re not slaving at away at your research, feeling the pathos of the entire world, shouldering the responsibility of being a “critical thinker”? Why, dear aspiring sociologist with an entire dissertation to write, are you Instaspamming?
If anyone cared enough to ask me, I would tell them that I think it’s great fun to share moments of my life that I think are worth sharing with a set of people. Do I think that there’s a lot in my life that’s worth sharing? Yes, probably. Why? I’ve always been like this – eager to tell you about my life. My writing, too, has always been derivative of my personal experiences, and I’ve never quite shied away from thinking through my own experiences and finding moments that might resonate with more than just me. Beyond this, I haven’t had felt the need to excavate my own behaviour. Why can’t I have my own compulsions, my own compulsiveness? Why do I have to lay bare my “behaviour” and make sense of my actions as if I was obliged to the Ghosts of Boyfriends Past?
That a very satisfying answer to my existential non-woes was waiting around the corner was a good surprise to me. About a month ago, a male friend of mine commented that his Instagram stories are too obviously gendered: most of them are by women. It irked him that here too, men watched women. Women perform, like belly dancers, and men gaze at them; women feel the pressure of being watched, and go about pleasing the male gaze, he lamented. Of course, I, too, have noticed the skewed nature of Instagram posting, especially with selfies (which is why it gives me unbridled joy when I see a man post a selfie).
But his observation made me realise that I like Instagram for exactly the reason he was feeling ‘troubled’ by : I love the fact that most of my content and newsfeed is by women. I like the fact that women take up space on Instagram. I like that women share their outfits, their thoughts, their feelings, their faces, their coffee, their dogs, their cats, their shoes, their hair, their heartbreak, their mimosas, their sunrises, their sunsets, their nights, and their gaze. I like that women post about their heartbreak, that women post screenshots of men being shitty to them, that women can follow other women who inspire them – or just make them laugh. I like that I can like all this. That it’s a world defined by what pleases these women – their amusements, their pastimes, their insecurities, their desire to be admired or their wish for community.
And it breaks my heart when I see number of women on my newsfeed apologise when they post “too much”, apologise for selfies, apologise for wanting to share moments of their life, apologise for having a presence. Every time I see a woman add a little apologetic disclaimer about how she is seeking validation “because she is having a bad day”, that little Instagram heart seems a bit broken. Perhaps mending that broken heart requires us to own up to our desires. Most women are told that “wanting to be looked at” is wrong. We have been told from our childhood that we must hunch our backs, cower our heads, walk quickly, and not garner attention. It’s not safe, it’s not right, it’s not something “good women” do. In the virtual streets, we are still figuring out our presence, our participation, on our own terms. But once we are walking these virtual streets, let’s not shy away and skulk away from being what we want to be, from being seen the way we want to be seen, from loitering, or shouting from the rooftops.
Sneha is as Sneha does…while she roams around the streets of Hyderabad supposedly doing research while actually just InstaSpamming.