How can you be a feminist on Instagram?

University of Amsterdam

Social media are at the heart of feminism’s recent and youthful resurgence. But how do you deal with aesthetic standards and social norms that prevail on Instagram while embracing an intersectional politics of emancipation? Young feminists balance between ‘keeping it real’ and the desire to win recognition. Social media may be feminized, but they are not inherently feminist.

Young women wearing a phone in her jeans pocket with the text 'Girls doing whatever the fuck they want'

Laura Savolainen (University of Helsinki), Justus Uitermark (University of Amsterdam) and John Boy (Leiden University) interviewed young women who identify as feminists to find out how they craft an image of contemporary feminism on social media. The results of their study will be published in New Media & Society.

Social media come with limitations of their own, and not all messages and messengers fit equally well

Instagram recently exceeded one billion monthly active users. Its Stories feature alone is used by 500 million users daily. With high levels of use among younger age groups, Instagram is undeniably part of the cultural moment. Women predominate in digital content creation and form the majority of users.

As a result, social media are also at the heart of feminism’s recent and youthful resurgence, enabling young feminists to spread their (political) message worldwide and go viral. But these media come with limitations of their own, and not all messages and messengers fit equally well. ‘Instagram proves a challenging environment for feminists seeking to criticize competitive individualism and aesthetic norms’, find the authors.

What strategies do feminists use on Instagram?

For most feminist Instagram users, the platform is a site for political communication and socializing as well as a place to advance their careers through professional networking. How do they deal with the gendered norms that prevail on Instagram, while pursuing the desires and social rewards the platform offers? What strategies do they use to combine their feminist identity with their investments in visual social media?

The authors use the metaphor of filtering to understand the strategies of feminist users: removing unwanted material, transforming image data or generating new data to achieve a desired visual effect.

Filtering by holding back and downplaying

Based on interviews with feminist users and an analysis of their Instagram-posts, the authors found that, on the one hand, feminist users filter their social media presentation by holding back and downplaying what otherwise would be an active part of their feminist self-projects. While encouraging girls and women to empower themselves and do ‘whatever the fuck they want’, in practice they censored views, emotions and expressions that they felt could do even minor reputational damage.

Filtering to strengthen feminist projects

But on the other hand, next to leaving something out, the authors found that filtering could also work to strengthen some feminist projects. Users often developed their feminist messaging based on the number of likes and comments they received, and found that posts relating to sex and body positivity resonated widely among audiences. For some users, advocating these feminist ideas on social media had, by time, become a profession.

Moreover, popular understandings of feminism as a celebration of female confidence, assertiveness and achievement aligned very well with Instagram. In these cases, feminist sensibilities made it easier for users to put themselves more boldly on display, and reap the benefits of individualistic, status-seeking self-presentation while also pursuing feminist politics that affirmed the pleasures of visibility.

As a result, branded, confident and person-centered modes of activism thrive. In contrast, more collectively oriented feminist politics struggled to gain recognition on the platform and were, for the most part, filtered out.

Balancing Acts

Feminists using Instagram may reap the benefits of the platform and play according to its rules, but they also want to challenge patriarchal and other oppressive norms. The authors observed that feminist users balance between ‘keeping it real’ and the desire to win recognition in the form of likes and comments. Practices of self-presentation that appear fake are condemned. Featuring an occasional ‘imperfection’ or ‘honest moment’ – like a rare post about overcoming personal challenges – makes the curated profile more credible to both users themselves and audiences.

Social media, though feminized, are not by nature feminist

The authors conclude that the strategies of feminist users on Instagram are often contradictory: they want to express their true selves, but also their best possible selves; they want to disrupt power relations, but also conform to expectations; they want to display status but also ‘candidly’ share; they want to fight structural inequality, but also get individual recognition and build their brand.

These contradictions make maintaining an Instagram account laborious. When balancing these pressures, feminist users typically created content that conformed to most of Instagram’s standards but challenged some of them in small yet conspicuous ways; for example, by displaying armpit hair or cellulite in an otherwise beautiful and aestheticized image. ‘Instagram, though feminized, was experienced as a difficult environment by most feminist users.’

Publication details

Savolainen, L., Uitermark, J. & Boy, J. D. (2020). Filtering feminisms: Emergent feminist visibilities on Instagram. New Media & Society.

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