Beauty tyranny in the age of Instagram

Young women in the age of social media are under ever more intense pressure to look ‘Insta-perfect’ and it’s not making them happy.

PhD student Anna Vasilyeva: "I truly believe that young women today are not silent victims of visual texts."

As the focus of her doctoral thesis, University of Auckland PhD student Anna Vasilyeva has been looking at how women are represented across a range of media and how these idealised images affect their ideas about beauty and themselves.

As part of her qualitative research, Ms Vasilyeva conducted 32 in-depth interviews with sixteen 19 to 24-year-old female University of Auckland students from countries as diverse as China, Germany, Iran and Australia.

The interviews were divided into two parts; one focused on participants’ ideas about beauty, body image and beauty rituals in their home countries, and the other gauged their ‘media literacy’, particularly in relation to celebrity images and which ones they thought had been PhotoShopped.

What was startling, says Ms Vasilyeva, is how many said “skinny” or “thin” was part of their ideal body image and how few realised that virtually all the celebrity images she showed them had been PhotoShopped.

“I asked them to ‘use words as a brush to paint their ideal portrait of themselves’ and words like ‘thin, perfect skin, small nose and perfect make up’ came up so often. I was also really shocked that so many didn’t realise how much manipulation goes into those images they are comparing themselves with.”

She says another question, “Do you think beautiful people are better off in life?”, also got an almost uniform “yes” from participants.

They are all strong, smart and confident, and many of them see social media not just as an insidious way of promoting idealised images, but as a forum for resisting and subverting these ideas as well.

Anna Vasilyeva PhD candidate, Faculty of Education and Social Work

A real change she noted, and which she believes is connected to the explosion of Instagram influencers, is parents literally buying into ideals of beauty.

“One South Korean woman told me some parents are paying for cosmetic surgery as a university graduation present for their daughters. The pressure, in Asian countries in particular, to look a certain way is immense.”

Ironically however, she says she was struck by how ‘beautiful’ in the widest sense of the word, all these young women were.

“They are all strong, smart and confident, and many of them see social media not just as an insidious way of promoting idealised images, but as a forum for resisting and subverting these ideas as well.

“I truly believe that young women today are not silent victims of visuals texts, but very much have minds of their own; something I discovered hearing the strong stories they shared with me, and which inspired me as a researcher.”

She says Evie Kemp, a New Zealand artist and a huge figure on social media, sent her a very positive sentiment during an Instagram chat which she will be using as an opening in one of her chapters. Evie wrote:

I think that's what is so awesome about social media, used right we foster this community and I log in and I'm scrolling positive, realistic, inspirational and motivational images, whether they’re quotes, deeper stuff or just a nice image where everyone is saying nice things. It grows in us and crowds out the fear because in the real world, we're less able to surround ourselves with such an open minded bunch.”

Another aspect of her research is an analysis of the different media stereotypes bombarding girls from a very young age.

“Little girls go from seeing Disney princesses as the ideal of beauty, right through to teen magazines and then the Instagrammers get them, most of whom use various features and filters to manipulate their own images,” she says.

Doing her PhD at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, Ms Vasilyeva is using a feminist cultural studies framework for her research, drawing on the work of British-Jamaican sociologist Stuart Hall and British cultural theorist Angela McRobbie, whose work combines the study of popular culture, contemporary media practices and feminism.

“Cultural studies, viewed through the lenses of feminist theorists, attempts to provide insights into the concept of, and experiences of the body," she says. "What brings all of them together is an attempt to examine how representation influences our ideas of idealised bodies and how people live those ideas (or develop different ones) through their experiences of their own and other’s bodies.”

Originally from Russia, Anna Vasilyeva did her undergraduate degree in English and French linguistics at Moscow State Forest University and completed her masters in global communication at Bangkok University in Thailand. She is hoping to complete her thesis in November and graduate next year.

Media contact

Julianne Evans | Media adviser
Mob: 027 562 5868
Email: julianne.evans@auckland.ac.nz