Alex Casey chats to a group of 16 year-olds about the pressures of Instagram, weird men in the DMs, and their multiple online identities.
“I’m planning on getting it,” says Neha. “Just my breasts. They’re just too small. It doesn’t look really nice in clothes and stuff.”
Aaliyah would too, but wouldn’t touch her butt. The group of 16 year-olds are chatting during their high school interval, sipping on V and sharing the realities of being a young woman on Instagram. Cosmetic surgery, it turns out, is a big part of it. “I feel like you find the best ways to do it,” says Lara. “Because you see an influencer get it and you’re like, ‘I have the same problem about myself.’” That’s why she wants microblading on her eyebrows, she says.
Armed with a working knowledge of James Charles and a regrettable backwards cap, I had infiltrated an Auckland high school to see the real impact that social media is having on real young women. When I was 16, Paris Hilton was the only influencer around and our time on social media was spent rearranging our Bebo Top 16, free from sponsored posts, filters and the dreaded Facetune. Feeling the negative Instagram effects on my self-image and mental health as a 27 year-old woman, I wanted to find out how teenage girls survived and thrived on the app.
“We’re just living a double life basically,” says Aaliyah. That’s the first lesson of the day – it is standard for teenagers to have at least two Instagram accounts – one public account and one smaller, private account for close friends. “You just post random stuff there,” explains Lara. “Like, about your day, about how you’re feeling. It’s a really nice venting platform, because you know that the only people who are going to see it are your friends, and you know that they’re not going to share it around.”
The public account serves a very different purpose. “You really want to make that main account pretty and neat,” explains Neha. “Like, I don’t post memes on there, I post the things that I’d want to define me and stuff.” Public accounts serve as an often stylised portrayal of your life, says Lara. “It’s like if it’s on a private page, you do a double-chin face,” she explains. “But on your main, you wouldn’t do that. You don’t want to be showing anyone your bad side.”
Aaliyah chips in to walk it back. “I wouldn’t say there’s bad sides of us. There’s just like your true side that your friends see, and then the other side, which is like that expectation of what you want to be or who you want to be.”
Of course, the numbers matter – but not as much as you might think. The group’s followers on their private pages sit in the 20s, their “mains” in the low 100s. I presented them with the ancient relic of Myspace, and the phenomena of “follow for follow” or #f4f. Turns out, it is very much still a thing. “Oh if you follow someone, they should follow you back,” advises Lara. “Some people follow someone and, if they don’t follow them back, they unfollow the person straight away.”
And, as the old Hollywood adage says, you’re only as good as your last Instagram post. The only goal with ‘likes’, Lela tells me, is to get more than your last post. “If it’s the same as the last one, then you’re kind of just like,” she trails off, absolutely crestfallen, “you feel sad.” What if Instagram was to take away visible likes altogether? “It would take away some of the pressure,” says Lara, “especially for people who delete their post if they don’t have enough likes.”
What can drive likes, or at least feel like it drives likes, is doctoring photos to make them more attractive through filters and apps like Facetune. Angella Barnett, who has been working with young women and body image in her Pretty Smart programme, has seen its impact. “It starts off as a fun thing, but even some silly wolf ears or a crazy wig filter still smooths the skin and make your eyes bigger. It still beautifies.”
In a phenomenon that has been coined “Snapchat Dysphoria”, cosmetic clinics around the world are seeing a sharp increase in teenage patients bringing in filtered photos of themselves as reference. Barnett has seen that “insidious” effect of social media first hand. “In the old days you could separate yourself and the media, but now everything feels much more personal and the images you are looking at feel that much closer.
“I look at myself and I’m like, ‘great, I don’t like my freckles,’” says Aaliyah. “That’s why I like using filters, because it just wipes all of that out.”
The young women all use filters to remove pimples, under eye circles and discolouration, but none have gone as far as Facetune. The photo-altering app first popularised by beauty influencers has been Apple’s highest seller for two years in a row. It’s a technology that no other generation has had the same access to, says Barnett. “It’s not even a divide you can rationalise between the modelling industry and yourself now – it’s something you just do to yourself because you think you aren’t okay the way you are.”
For those who are prone to low self-esteem, Barnett has seen the way that editing photos accelerates bad body image. “Particularly for teenagers, there’s this relentless seeking of perfection on Instagram paired with craving social validation, those two coming together creates a perfect storm for negative body image,” she says, citing the fact that less than 20 minutes on Instagram is proven to erode self esteem. Both Neha and Lela admit to me that they find their real appearance “sad”, preferring the versions of themselves they have saved on their phones.
Digital alteration isn’t, unfortunately, as far as the problem goes. Barnett has witnessed an increased awareness in plastic surgery in girls as young as 12. “There used to be a sensitivity around those sorts of procedures, whereas now it’s very easy to watch an influencer getting a procedure done, talking about how it felt and showing off the result.” With it becoming as common to see a Brazilian Butt Lift on Instagram as it is to see someone’s brunch, there’s no denying that young women are recognising more and more cosmetic options.
I ask the group what they think the ideal body for a woman is and they respond almost in unison: slim thick. “Big bum, big boobs, and a tiny waist,” explains Aaliyah. “But small thighs,” elaborates Lara, “and a thigh gap.” The Kardashians, of course, are an evergreen reference point. “Sometimes I think it is bad to follow them, because they look really great,” says Aaliyah. “Because you find you’re, like, comparing yourself. I don’t have a big bum. I don’t have big boobs so, like, that’s sad.”
Aaliyah also worries that the Kardashian standard has changed what young men expect from a woman’s appearance. “I think there’s also a lot of guys who follow them and think ‘oh, that’s what a girl should look like.’” It’s a sentiment that leaves her feeling lacking. “What don’t we have that they have, you know what I mean? Because we could have the same qualities, but they [young men] don’t want to get to know us, because we might look a different way from what they like.”
Unwanted male attention is something that many of the young women have experienced through Instagram. “Randoms in the DMs,” Lela calls it, referencing a stranger who began replying to her Instagram story one day. “Some guy replied with something that had nothing to do with it, saying ‘oh, you should send me nudes.’” Aaliyah has a similar story. “This guy liked a picture that I posted of me feeling confident with my body, and he was like, ‘you’re looking so hot,’ and I was like, ‘thank you’ taking as a compliment.”
His next message? “Please send nudes.”
Receiving messages soliciting nude pictures, often from much older men, is normal for many in the group. “It’s so common now to get random messages that you just kind of write it off like it doesn’t matter,” says Lara. “You just have to block the person and move on.” Reporting doesn’t do anything and sometimes it doesn’t even feel worth commenting on. “We don’t feel like it’s our place to be like, ‘they were harassing me,’” says Lara. “Because they weren’t. They were just asking.” Although common, they still feel disgusted and uncomfortable when it happens.
Barnett has some simple advice to begin dealing with the random messages: “If you don’t know them, don’t start a conversation with them.” In her line of work, she has talked to girls as young as 11 and 12 who have had worrying DMs on social media from men. “We don’t have any other generation to look to for this stuff, we’re forging new ground here so it’s easy to be alarmist,” she says, “but most girls would have been asked for a nude by the time they have finished high school.”
According to Netsafe, nearly a quarter (24%) of New Zealand girls aged 14-17 have been asked for nude images online, compared to 14% of boys. Depending on the situation, they advise letting the person know that it makes you uncomfortable, blocking them and reporting them to the platform. If you or someone you know is experiencing harassment, you can contact Netsafe seven days a week on 0508 Netsafe, by texting ‘Netsafe’ to 4282 or using the online reporting form.
In terms of combating creeps as well as negative body image on Instagram, Barnett has three words: “unfollow, unfollow, unfollow.” She recommends curating a feed full of positive influences, and resisting the urge to look at your phone first thing in the morning. “There is no other time in your life where you feel as watched as you do in high school, so the least you can do is try and postpone all that extra noise and comparisons about what you may or may not look like,” she pauses. “God, it’s a lot to manage isn’t it?”
Away from the creepy men and plastic surgery pressures, the young women I spoke to still had a huge amount of positive things to say about Instagram’s impact on their lives. “Across the whole platform, there are so many people who advocate for so many positive things and issues that need to be addressed,” says Lara. “I think Instagram showcases a lot of the other ways that people can be – so you see men doing makeup, men wearing female clothes. You find out about so many different ideas and people that you probably wouldn’t find anywhere else.”
Despite all the pressures and influence(r)s bearing down on them through their phones, these were also some of the most assured, intelligent and self-aware young women I’ve met. I came away with the impression that they have had to plant their identity roots stronger and deeper than I ever did, fortifying themselves to lean into an endless barrage of things telling them to be someone else. “You just have to be confident within yourself,” says Aaliyah.
“That’s why we were created, to be different, to be who we are.”
Another Instagram-borne platitude for sure, but one that hopefully prevails.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us continue our work and cover the stories that matter. Get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.