The purpose of this paper is to explore how Italian digital media users negotiate representations of female beauty when faced with the representational forms they regard as hegemonic on Instagram.
We carried out 13 semi-structured interviews with Italian Instagram users (10 females, three males) aged 21-31, recruited through the snowball technique. Interviews were transcribed and underwent thematic analysis.
Compared to other Western countries, Italy shows a higher persistence of gender stereotypes in popular culture, and the Italian media foster a representation of women as sexualized objects (GMMP, 2015). Instagram constitutes the dominant platform among Italian adolescents and young adults. It provides an ideal opportunity for observing visual representations of women's bodies and self-objectification processes, especially given the importance of women influencers and the controversy around authenticity (Reade, 2020).
Among the main results, respondents show an ambivalent attitude towards image-editing practices and toward the representations of female beauty found in influencers' Instagram accounts. More specifically, a majority of respondents claim they reject image-editing practices in favour of authenticity. Moreover, they express concerns about the potential harm caused by ‘exaggerated’ forms of image-editing because of their contribution to spreading stereotyped representations of women's beauty. On the other hand, respondents also ‘admit’ that they exert some control over the photos they post in their profiles, and so conform to familiar online impression management tactics, which sometimes include photo-editing. In this, they elaborate on what can be defined as ‘legitimate’ forms of editing, while refusing more intrusive forms: in some cases, they find it legitimate to eliminate ‘flaws’, especially on their faces (e.g., dark circles), whilst apparently rejecting what they define as ‘frauds’ (especially perpetrated by influencers, mainly involving their bodies).
Respondents also tend to be skeptical about those Italian influencers who are well-known in the public debate for non-authentic self-representations and for promoting potentially harmful behaviors (sometimes even bordering on anorexia). Alongside critical remarks, some respondents also recognize that these influencers are examples of beauty or models to be aspired to, thus demonstrating how cultural standards of beauty are internalized (Feltman & Szymanski, 2018). Further discourses address the legitimacy of showing body parts and the efficacy of doing so from a business perspective; negotiating the pursuit of a mainstream model of beauty and the health-related issues of being too slim; the extent to which influencers actually exert influence, both from a marketing perspective and in proposing models of female beauty.
In general, these discourses illuminate the negotiations women engage in when reflecting on their self-presentation online and, more broadly, on their status as ‘beautiful’ women.
Feltman, C. E., & Szymanski, D. M. (2018). Instagram use and self-objectification: The roles of internalization, comparison, appearance commentary, and feminism. Sex Roles, 78(5-6), 311-324
Global Media Monitoring Project. (2015). GMMP 2015 reports. Retrieved from http://whomakesthenews.org/gmmp/gmmp-reports/gmmp-2015-reports
Reade, J. (2020). Keeping it raw on the 'gram: Authenticity, relatability and digital intimacy in fitness cultures on Instagram. New Media & Society, doi.org/10.1177/1461444819891699.