Library Dissertation Showcase

What is Instagram’s role in female identity formation?

  • Year of Publication:
  • 2021

Digital technologies are evolving at a rapid rate and social media platforms are adapting all the time. With a focus on Instagram in particular, a social media platform which is heavily visual, for millions of people, Instagram has become integrated into everyday life. It is not only becoming increasingly important to gain an in-depth understanding of how Instagram is aiding identity formation in women, but it is also important to identify how Instagram can hinder identity construction too. Social media enables users to create, manipulate and share content on a mass scale which is simultaneously providing women with new opportunities to express their sexuality, bodies, and identity. A study carried out in 2021, by the website Social Films, found that 57% of Instagram users are female and only 42% of users are male. The biggest age-gender demographic on Instagram is currently “women aged 25-34” (Instagram UK Statistics, 2005) which comprises of 16.3% of all users and shows that young women are dominating the platform. Looking at the website Statista, in October 2020, 70% of twitter audiences were men (Tankovska, 2020) with only 30% of twitter audiences worldwide being women. Different platforms are being dominated by different genders and this research analysis will attempt to delve deeper into why more women than men are using Instagram and what it is that Instagram is offering that is so appealing to female audiences.

Instagram is arguably one of the most popular social media platforms of the twenty first century and it enables users to “present images of themselves, their lives and their interests” (Mahoney, 2020, 2) in multiple ways. Through the process of editing, captioning, and tagging, Instagram can become a curated diary for users to take full control of their identity. Instagram allowances enable users to have control over which parts of their lives they wish to share whilst simultaneously allowing for them to withhold any information they don’t want to share. Generations over the years are becoming more and more tech savvy and Instagram’s platform is perfectly capturing the transformation of technology and photography. Instagram has made photography more accessible to wider audiences and contemporary photography now interrogates the medium which shifts away from documentary and heads towards other conceptually driven art forms like the diary instead.

Where Polaroid’s snapshot aesthetic transformed the mundane and casual into something that had meaning, Instagram is being used as a photographic diary for users to share photos of their everyday lives. Photographs are being used as a form of “live communication” and rather than traditionally storing “pictures of life” (Van Dijck, 2008), users are instead optimising the platform to express their lives through a series of photos. This form of live communication differs from traditional photography and advancements in technology has meant that smartphones are now equipped with high quality cameras which are instantaneous, and these photos can be shared around the world very quickly, and very easily too. In relation to female users, Instagram has become a platform which, through photography, is allowing women to post photos of themselves and in return receive instant gratification from other users through the ‘like’ and ‘comment’ feature. During my research, I will be looking at identity in relation to the selfie as an aesthetic genre and form and how Instagram helps women to use the selfie to empower themselves on the platform.

As technologies continue to change, so does the way people are wanting to connect. Affordances of new media encompass new forms of connectivity and the medium is now inseparable from the ways in which connectivity manifests, rather than these being two parallel phenomena. Social media sites like Instagram are providing users with new ways of connecting with friends, family, and strangers and through posting photos, this research will attempt to foreground how women have become committed to the “endless work on the self” (Gill, 2017, 609) and how this is problematic as it is required for neoliberal subjectivity. Instagram offers users a range of tools which enables them to interact within “more diverse and dispersed networks than previously imaginable” (Merchant, 2006, 235) and these new tools have helped create “a new kind of person” (Thomas, 2004). Sherry Turkle argued in 1999 that identity can be thought of “in terms of multiplicity and flexibility” (Turkle, 1999, 643) and this remains the same twenty-two years later. Identity as ‘multiple’ suggests that individuals are “active in producing and performing an ongoing narrative of the self” (Merchant, 2006, 235) which is why it is crucial to examine how Instagram is allowing users, women in particular, to construct and transform their identities.

Feminism plays an enormous role in female identity formation and Instagram’s platform is the perfect place for feminist discourses to take place. Through Instagram’s powerful hashtag feature, hashtags are being used as a tool for change and they are offering an abundance of support for feminist movements. Looking at movements like #MeToo, which was started by Tarana Burke in 2006, #MeToo is a social movement against sexual violence and sexual assault that advocates for women who have survived sexual violence to speak out about their experience. In 2017, actresses began using the hashtag on social media to highlight the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment and ever since, the power of social media has brought sexual violence against women to the forefront. Looking at the problems that postfeminism poses is also crucial to this research. Although feminism is helping women to actively empower themselves, postfeminism definitions highlight new contradictory cultures operating online and this helps us to understand how female identity formation is being affected.

Gender researcher Rachel Simmons spoke to ‘The Atlantic’ about Instagram being a “great democratizer” (Simmons, 2016) and she explains how everybody wants to be the prettiest girl in the room. Instagram as a platform provides a space “where you can enter that competition everyday” (Simmons, 2016) and it allows for unknowingly damaging practices to take place. Instagram creating a competitive environment in which women compare themselves to one another is toxic and this research will attempt to look at how problems with body image, identity and selfrepresentation can all stem from acts of self-comparison online. Instagram is not all bad though and as a platform it is full of diverse communities which promote healthy identity formation for women, and when following encouraging lifestyle, fitness, and beauty communities, these can benefit women in creating healthy relationships with their body and their ‘self’.

The contents of this research will be split up into three chapters and each chapter will focus on a specific practice which plays a role in female identity construction on Instagram. Chapter 1 will explore the contested concept of post-feminism and will delve deeper into looking at the newfound models of femininity. Identifying feminist discourses on Instagram and how postfeminism contests these notions is crucial in understanding how women are navigating their identities online. Chapter 2 will be focusing on the selfie and it will look at identity in relation to the selfie as an aesthetic genre or form. Looking at the transformation of photography and the advancement of digital technologies, this research will highlight how selfie culture has become an important part of identity formation online. Finally, chapter 3 will be looking at body image and the quantifiable self. This chapter will identify the problematic nature of Instagram’s quantitative platform, the ‘like’ and the power that numerical values have over identity construction in women and self-esteem. In the context of examining identity expression on social media, drawing attention to these individual elements as chapters attempts to support numerous scholars claims that identity construction is tangible and that Instagram both hinders yet supports female identity formation.

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