The following feature appears in the March 2017 issue of NYLON.
A tight shot of bikini-zone razor burn racked up over a thousand Instagram likes for Sasha Frolova. A toilet bowl brimming with blue antiseptic water serves as the backdrop of a recent selfie. A pale, grainy pic of what apparently is dry Kix cereal (or garbanzo beans?) constitutes an #eeeeeats photo of sorts. People seem to seek out Frolova’s account (@sashafro) for her occasional extreme close-up of a faint lady ’stache, or image of a front tooth cracked clean in half, or collage of plucked raw chicken. But anyone familiar with traditionally popular Instagram fare might wonder why she would post such content—and how it could attract over 12,000 followers to her feed.
Instagram has, of course, shaped our society’s collective sense of reality and make-believe. Most people use social media to present hyper-curated, carefully constructed projections of themselves, in a way that romanticizes their own self-perceptions and the world around them. Never before in our culture have meals, vacations, makeup, and everyday street scenes been made to look so aspirational. But in a climate where people are increasingly wary of the images and ideas “sold” to them online, Frolova joins a new class of women who flout the tropes that Instagram conventionally rewards—from effortlessly flawless selfies to picture-perfect meals to envy-inspiring travel photos—and instead make the very intentional demonstration of the weirdest, grossest, least-glamorous elements of life a defining part of their popular “personal brands.”
In this landscape where “reputation management” is key and “reality” can be controlled, polished, and defied, these women who don’t adhere to the common displays of privilege or excess are making some of the most provocative and important content out there. Because these days, what ends up in the feed matters—especially when the images go against the grain.
~ Selfies R Cute ~Like Facebook and Myspace before it, Instagram was founded by men—even though most of the people posting pictures of themselves on these platforms are women. According to the Pew Research Center, there are notably more female Instagram users than male ones.
But perhaps unsurprisingly, many women who have built a strong following have done so in the mold of (or at least in compliance with) the male gaze, which has ingrained into our society—women included—a gendered perspective on what a “good” or even “acceptable” photo of a woman should look like.
“I personally love putting up bad pictures of myself,” says 23-year-old Rosenberger, whose feed offers images of acne on prominent display and swollen teary eyes to an audience of 126,000 followers. Rosenberger’s paintings—portraits with distorted facial proportions—are a celebration of the body and its many imperfections, an aesthetic that complements her online ethos. “I feel like social media lacks depth, so that’s what I want to bring,” she continues.
“Selfies have also been around for a long time,” adds Soda, reflecting on the historical role of portraiture in art. She, like Rosenberger, has tens of thousands of Instagram followers and is not shy about sharing “unflattering” pictures of herself with them. The average “#nomakeup selfies” these are not: The headshots that populate Soda’s Instagram page are unconcerned with angle or lighting or visible facial hair and instead favor raw humanity. Her body shots also push the boundaries of convention. A recent post, for instance, features a close-up of her own crotch, clad in pad-lined underwear that thinly veils a mass of pubic hair; it is captioned “Pads r cute.” “I think we only talk about [selfies] in the way that we do because it’s more mainstream now—it’s considered a tool,” Soda explains. “When I was a teen, everyone had a Myspace, and it was almost like a second life that we were living online. Now, we don’t really have room for those second lives online anymore, because everyone is online, so it’s more about crafting your persona.” If Instagram is a space where every photo tells a story, even subversive images become part of the narrative.
In the case of models like Ali Michael (@ali_michael), unsexy photos casually commingle with beautiful editorial shots, displayed as part of the same continuum. “Models used to only be seen through another person’s creative vision—[the photographer, the creative director, the brand]—but Instagram has given us the opportunity to have our own voice and identity,” says Michael, reflecting on how the phenomenon of “being looked at” is magnified on the platform. “I like Instagram because it’s a way to curate my own representation of myself without the interference of anyone else’s opinion.” And to Michael, this is crucial in visually rejecting a one-dimensional model label: “I love the access it gives to seeing things that would otherwise go unseen, because I don’t solely identify myself as a model—I’m just a person who happens to model—so I share that whole experience,” she says.
Still, for people whose work exists in the public eye, you have to be aware of being viewed, as Michael explains. In April of last year, the Telegraph interviewed a model whose agency said she needed to “stop sharing these ugly images,” because she “might find it hard to get work” if she continued to post pictures of her acne and eczema. Michael, who is signed to Mega and says she enjoys a certain degree of freedom from this kind of critique, is still conscious of these limitations and tries to strike a balance between curation and impulsiveness, acknowledging that models occupy a unique niche on the platform. “I have to be aware that clients are looking, but I also feel it’s important to be authentic and personal,” she says.
Frolova, who also does some modeling in addition to acting and photography, has a similar relationship with the images she chooses to share on the platform. “[Instagram] gives me a reason to share my work, and I try not to take it too seriously,” she says of her feed. “I’m obviously not doing it instantly, but I try to be true to the original intention of the medium: a sharing space, where I don’t feel the need to have a second account for my ‘personal’ life.” This blend of constructed and offhand images—and the fact that thousands of people find the latter appealing—may be the result of growing public awareness of just how calculated Instagram has become, and reflect people’s yearning to relate honestly with what they see. Engaging with content like this makes followers feel like they are participating in the “joke”—even if their icons are projecting an equally manicured vision of themselves. In this way, it’s possible for both sides to exist in Instagram’s creative space, with users still being able to define that space on their own terms.
\ FOMO /But Frolova and her ilk will still be the first to tell you that even their social media posts can never be totally “real.” “[Instagram] allows you to post a falsified version of yourself, but what is true?” she muses. “What is an ‘accurate’ or ‘honest’ archive of yourself? I don’t know that that really exists.”
“[My Instagram] is definitely curated,” says Soda. “I think that’s what people forget. We live online and we take everything we see at face value, but I’m still choosing what to share.” As users have come to associate “having a following on Instagram” with brand collaborations and a romanticized idea of “lifestyle,” the epically mundane takes on a more consequential role. “Even if people choose to perceive that as more authentic than what other people are sharing, me posting a selfie crying with no makeup is just as curated as someone posting a selfie with tons of makeup,” Soda adds. “I think that a lot of people employ similar modes of acting. Even if we’re posting different types of content, we’re all subconsciously following the same weird, unspoken rules.”
Convention has always been a relative term, including for those who choose to defy it. Even among non-conformist Instagrammers, photo sharing can be just as premeditated, but intended for a different audience. Case in point: accounts like Arvida Byström’s (@arvidabystrom), where more jarring pics still feel aesthetically consistent with Byström’s “prettier” work, like her signature studio photos of cherries wearing underwear. Instagram is, after all, about performance. “My bumpy butt got this huge bruise the other day when I fell into a newsstand!!!” she writes in a caption to a graphic image of her deeply bruised butt cheek in blue panties. “PS I’m okay, just thought it was funny!”
“It’s a timeless voyeurism,” concludes Frolova on why she believes Instagram users are drawn to this kind of image sharing that breaks the fourth wall and adopts an “outsider” demeanor. “I think we’ve always had a curiosity about what was happening behind what we could see directly, and I think that we’ve gotten into both of those things in a way that is both exciting and terrifying,” she says. “It’s funny, because we’ve gotten closer and closer to feeling like we’re understanding lives around the world, but it’s through these constructed lenses—so are we actually getting any closer?”
Hi HaterIf sharing “gross” or “unattractive” photos is a way to subvert expectations—of men, culture writ large, or internet trolls—it’s also an opportunity for endearment. “Happy 2017,” writes Soda on a pic of herself in the bathtub, smiling with her eyes closed, “remember that hot ppl are also ugly.” “Shout out to my bacne,” she comments on another photo of a shoulder full of blemishes. “Sometimes people get weirdly specific about stuff [I post], but it’s always critical of what it is, not how it’s done,” she says. “In a way, a lot of my art has to do with the way we interact with each other on social media. The work can’t exist without the internet—or at least, it’s not as successful without the internet. It’s usually not a complete piece unless I have the reactions of people witnessing it.”
Keepin' It 100So what does it mean to be “radically real” on Instagram? “I think you can do what you want,” says Soda, “but it’s just about what you can handle emotionally. I think a lot of people feel that way—I’m constantly trying to push how much I post and how I post, because I never want to not post something just because I’m self-conscious.”
Frolova concurs: “You see the number of people following you and it often doesn’t register that people are actually paying attention,” she says. “Within that, I just never want to feel like I need to be someone just because I think it’s going to be something that people want to see or identify with.” Pushing boundaries (or creating new ones) is ultimately about understanding the confines of the platform. “I’m limiting the type of things that I choose to put on here, which automatically is saying I’m not totally reflecting in honesty, otherwise I would put everything there,” she says. “But I think that people should be allowed to [experiment]—it doesn’t matter what other people say or think of me, because I think of myself in this way, and I want to explore it. It’s like playing house in kindergarten, only virtually and through pictures.”
When asked about her tendency toward radical vulnerability on Instagram, Rosenberger is direct: “So many people use Instagram to flex on each other, like it’s all a huge competition—but a lot of people have told me I’ve helped them become more comfortable with themselves. It’s wonderful, but it can also be very toxic—you make yourself vulnerable to other people and then people dehumanize you and you become nothing more than the number of your followers,” she says with a sigh. “People will find anything to shit on if they have some predisposed idea about who you are because you post so much about your life on [Instagram], but you can’t let yourself get caught up in it. I am not you, you are not me. We spend all this time sharing beautiful emotions, so why not the bad? I’m trying to normalize that on social media.” Rosenberger does, however, feel the need to share the good, the bad, and the ugly on her own terms. “If you talk about loving yourself, people are irritated with you; if you talk about hating yourself, people are irritated with you,” she says. “You’re not going to win everyone, so the best you can do is be yourself.”