Feminism used to be an abstract, foreign concept to me. Something radical. I felt like I didn’t need feminism, that it didn’t affect me or my life. Turns out I just didn’t know what it was really about and therefore couldn’t recognise sexism, misogyny and the patriarchy in my everyday life. Sure, I knew of the gender pay gap and women’s rights issues across the world and despised those concepts, but in my life it didn’t seem like a factor. Enter Instagram.
I remember lying in bed when I stumbled across Florence Given’s account. Someone had shared one of her posts about self-love on their story. A boy had been mean to me, yet again, and the quote fit the situation perfectly. I suddenly realised that I deserved better and my journey into feminism began.
By following Florence Given a whole new world opened up to me. Her art and quotes made me rethink everything I thought I knew about self-love, confidence, relationships and friendships. It made me feel empowered, independent and worthy. I found other feminist Instagram accounts, started doing my own research and, when it eventually came out this summer, devoured Florence Given’s book Women Don’t Owe You Pretty. Since then, I have re-read it many times and unapologetically tell everyone I know about it constantly.
I discovered that actually, society is inherently patriarchal and misogynistic, but because I had spent my entire life accepting this as ‘normal’, I had internalized these ideas. They impacted every part of my life, including my understanding of myself. The jokes my male friends made? Sexist. Rape culture? Everywhere. Me setting boundaries? Hardly. Conforming to society’s expectations about my appearance, career goals, aspirations, love life? Ouch.
A lot of learning and unlearning later, I still have a long way to go. Which is, actually, completely fine because growth never really stops. There is always something new to learn – and you might just do that on social media.
Most of the time, social media is painted as the devil in disguise. And no doubt, it can be. Seeing the rich and famous (or just your friends) constantly on holiday, partying, working out, posing in bikinis and tight dresses. Posts telling us “How to lose your belly fat”, “How to pose to appear thinner”, “Drink this tea to lose weight”, “Have these lollipops and you won’t ever feel hungry”. The emphasis on likes, comments and followers, how many stories your friends post on your birthday.
We know none of it is good for our mental health and yet we consume it on a daily basis. Over the past year I have tried to make a conscious effort to make Instagram a positive platform for myself. Sometimes I still compare myself to others or fall into a diet culture hole – but most of the time, social media doesn’t impact my self-worth and confidence anymore. It has instead become a catalyst for gaining new knowledge and personal development.
Instagram is filled with feminists speaking openly and honestly about their experiences, values and societal issues they want to change, creating art, summing big topics up in short quotes. This makes their ideas more accessible and relatable. It takes away the stigma around feminism as it becomes so easily understandable and obvious in the world around us.
There is a lot of power in this. Good and bad. On the one hand, this content can be empowering. Women might feel inspired to take control of their lives, stand up for themselves, gain confidence and strength. Toxic behaviours and thoughts may be unlearned as the understanding of how they developed due to the patriarchy grows.
As anyone can have a social media account, minorities can make their voices heard and be recognised. Black women or those who are part of the LGBTQ+ community can speak up about the issues they face and others can learn how to support them better, allowing intersectional feminism to thrive.
At the same time, social media activism runs the risk of causing problems that might be detrimental to progress. During the Black Lives Matter protests last summer for example, a wrath of information appeared on Instagram which was shared through posts and stories. It was vital in grabbing people’s attention and educating them.
But when millions of people posted black squares on their feeds, educational content became difficult to find, limiting the effectiveness of informational posts. Many also thought they had done enough after posting and disengaged without taking the time to properly understand issues or make changes in their behaviours. Performative allyship and toothless activism like this is hardly helpful to movements – apart from attracting brief attention, it achieves nothing.
Realistically, most people who are willing to educate themselves will already have a certain amount of awareness and be doing their best to learn. Seeing a black square on Instagram, maybe with the caption “educate yourself!!” is unlikely to actually motivate people to do so. This shows that online activism can often be ineffective or even have a negative impact, especially when it is done for the wrong reasons.
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Social media also has the ability to alienate and radicalise people. In the same way in which obsession over Instagram workouts and diets can be harmful, extreme immersion in social causes can be problematic and create harmful beliefs or become exclusionary. In the case of feminism this might be that all men are actively and intentionally misogynistic or criticising women who don’t constantly speak up about feminism for not being supportive enough.
The fault for this rarely lies with content creators – most of them frequently remind their audience that different levels of education and growth are normal. More often than not, problems arise due to the dynamics of social media. It encourages group-thinking and often people feel more confident in attacking others as they are hidden behind their screens. This toxicity is alienating to those who are just starting to learn about feminism and can actually hinder people from engaging with the topic and educating themselves.
Social media remains a double-edged sword. It has the power to do a lot of good and provide an education that people might not receive elsewhere. This has the potential of creating a larger shift in society in the long-term and encouraging a more equal, fair system in which discriminatory views are dismantled.
The risks must however also be recognised – we can’t expect everyone to do their own research and critically engage with content they see online, we can’t avoid problematic radicalisation and we can’t avoid performative activism. Social media cannot be seen as a quick fix to all of the world’s problems and we can’t rely on it being a solely positive influence.
I for one will continue to educate myself – on social media and beyond. Discovering feminism through Instagram has made me a better person with a healthier mindset and I can see the same development in some of my friends. I have (finally) found a positive side to social media – but staying aware of its risks is equally important.
Words by Sophie Kiderlin
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