Girl, Unfiltered

My sister is 17 years old, and like most of her friends, she has two Instagram accounts. Each serves a distinct function: one is for public consumption and the other only for her inner circle. The existence of the private account is partly due to the fact that parents and other relatives are invading social networks, and teenagers have come up with a way of posting photos of them doing illegal teenage things without consequences. The other reason for the private account is much more complex.

For my sister, her public account is not just snapshots of her life, but rather, a representation of her identity. The images she posts maintain a constant balancing act between perfection and ‘authenticity’. Social expectations dictate that the teenage girl on Instagram must be the most refined, fun, happy and cool version of herself. Unlike those of us who experienced our awkward phases before the boom of social media platforms founded on the sharing of photography, today’s teenagers are expected to be fully formed humans – with a great sense of style and perfect teeth – as soon as they hit puberty. There is no space for goofy selfies or rainy days if you’re a kid online today. The teenage girl knows this, but at the same time she wants to be unfiltered once in a while. She wants to be honest with herself and actually connect with her friends; she wants to use this technology in ways that represent her real inner self.

In my experience, a second account can be a tool that allows girls to opt out of the competition they never signed up for.

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The relationship between Instagram and femininity is a complex one. Women and girls have wholeheartedly embraced the photo-sharing platform. In a piece for The Atlantic earlier this year, Hannah Seligson hypothesised that Instagram’s singular focus on appearance and conventional beauty standards, as well as users’ ability to edit and enhance their photos, makes it an irresistible platform for women and girls. This, she explained, is because girls are taught that appearance is a competition. In general, social media demands that the teenage girl and her life be both desirable and unavailable. The sexual connotations of this contradiction are clear, and much has been written about the way social media negatively affects girls through sexualisation and the constant quest for validation. “Sexting and sharing nudes have replaced other forms of intimacy,” wrote Nancy Jo Sales for TIME. “If building a social-media presence is similar to building a brand,” she posited, “then it makes a twisted kind of sense that girls … are promoting their online selves with sex.”

Thus arises a contradictory compulsion to use the platform as a way to validate feminine “success”, and simultaneously protect oneself from its destructive elements. The rise of feminism among young women certainly contributes to their desire to rebel and manipulate the medium, but the basic unavoidability of technology in contemporary society means they must do so from within.

In this carefully curated version of Instagram, the teenage girl has agency and power that she doesn’t have in any other social space – online or offline.

There has been much less discussion about the positive impacts of these new technologies, and the way girls are learning to make them their own. For example, there is a plethora of Instagram accounts that promote intersectional feminism run by teenage girls, giving a voice to those who may feel ignored or dismissed offline. In my experience, a second account can be a tool that allows girls to opt out of the competition they never signed up for.

My sister doesn’t use any version of her real name for her second account, and she changes the username every couple of weeks. The names are mostly personal jokes, or an ephemeral pop culture reference. Scrolling through her feed is like rifling through her bedside drawer, where all the specialness, stupidity and banality of teenage life is kept. The art she makes and the art she loves. The boys she kisses and the cigarettes she smokes. The parties she dances at and the drugs she takes. The friends she does all these things with. Images of her naked, imperfect body as a statement of self-love, rather than an object for judgement. On her public account, she has over 1000 followers, and each post gets over 100 likes. The private one has 91 followers and gets around 20 likes per photo. But she doesn’t care. In this carefully curated version of Instagram, the teenage girl has agency and power that she doesn’t have in any other social space – online or offline.

Of course, Instagram is still a minefield of potential social faux pas even for a digital native like my sister. It is notoriously complicated to navigate, with myriad unwritten laws that dictate what a like or comment means in terms of social status and sexual desirability. In an episode of This American Life titled ‘Status Update’, Ira Glass talked to three teenage girls about the strange phenomenon of repetitively commenting on other girls photos with physical compliments like “OMG pretty” and the obligation to return these comments. The constant reestablishment of social hierarchy amongst teenagers necessitates that they be in contact at all times, and that they act out their assigned roles online as well as in real life. Girls cultivate and flaunt friends through likes and comments on Instagram in order to increase their own social currency. However, on the private accounts of girls I’ve talked to, these performative social constructs seem to become less pervasive.

I asked my sister why she started the second account in the first place. “I started it to have somewhere where I felt like I didn’t have to filter myself”, she wrote to me in a Facebook message. “On your main account it’s sort of like you have to keep up an image. On my second account I say what I want and I can get my thoughts and feelings about things down in a way that feels constructive because you’re having a voice in telling others.” Lately, it seems like her public account is featuring images that are more and more similar to the ones she shares on her private one. These photos are more real and beautiful than anything a filter could provide. She will be 18 in two months, so I guess this is what growing up on and with social media looks like.