Vulnerability and Authenticity in the Age of Social Media

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I sometimes find myself aimlessly scrolling through Instagram. While doing so, I noticed that many of the pages I follow belong to “influencers.” Influencers, for anyone unfamiliar with the term, are people on various social media platforms with large followings who have the ability to reach thousands, if not millions of people. This makes influencers primary targets for brands looking to grow their following or market their products.

In the interest of growth, both influencers and brands follow trends. They post photos and videos that they believe will garner high engagement. One fairly recent trend has captured my attention: posting vulnerable images and/or writing vulnerable captions in an effort to portray authenticity. Influencers, in particular, have been riding this vulnerability-authenticity wave. I saw one such caption recently; a beauty influencer with millions of followers posted a photo supposedly without any makeup on. The caption began with “I am just like everyone else. I get pimples. I have my bad days…” The rest of the caption, in short, continued to describe how she could relate to the average person because she used to be the average person. At the very end of the caption was an advertisement for some expensive skincare product that supposedly made her skin look absolutely blemish-free without the use of makeup.

Before I make my point about the dangers of monetizing and fabricating authenticity, I would like to clarify one thing. There are influencers who make posts that they perceive as truly vulnerable…there are also influencers who see it as a business metric. How much can they share to make themselves appear relatable to the average follower? I am not pointing fingers at anyone specifically. I am simply spreading awareness that not everything we view on social media can be taken at face value. The decision to criticize, believe in, or empathize with these influencers should be an individual one.

Having said that, I believe there is a very real issue with the vulnerability-authenticity wave sweeping social media, in that it is not realistic for the majority of people around the world. Yes, there are influencers who are brave enough to open up about their struggles with mental health, disease, poverty, and loss. However, there are many more that provide a white-washed image of vulnerability for the likes and product sales. For example, fashion influencers and even celebrities post selfies with minimal makeup and jewelry on their Instagram. These posts are accompanied by captions saying that happiness comes from within, or vanity can only get us so far. The next day they post a photo in an unbelievably expensive outfit and advertise the clothing brands that they are wearing. Fitness influencers who have had plastic surgery on their bodies post workout videos claiming that we can achieve their body type by just following their exercises or purchasing skinny teas (stimulant laxative teas that claim weight loss results). Sometimes they even post before and after pictures with a caption about their former insecurities that have vanished just by following certain workouts. Of course, many neglect to mention the fact that plastic surgery and many other beauty interventions were involved in the making of those bodies.

Am I hating on people who make a living through brand partnerships or who get plastic surgery? No. Absolutely not. I think that every person should have the opportunity to achieve success and do whatever they please with their bodies. Self-improvement is a wonderful thing, be it physical or spiritual. I also think that physical self-improvement is a luxury that many people cannot afford and influencers need to be mindful of that when creating content for their Instagram pages. Put yourself in the shoes of a young person who follows several of these pages. You notice an image of a girl with seemingly perfect skin posting about feeling confident without makeup on Instagram. The end of her caption has a very clear message: purchase this product to look like me. Maybe you suffer from acne and believe this product might help you achieve this ideal--not knowing the amount of smoothing or filtering that has gone into this photo. You know you shouldn’t post a photo without makeup on because this virtual reality has reinforced the idea that only smooth blemishless skin is worthy of posting. You continue scrolling and run into one of those before and after pictures. Maybe you come from a working class or impoverished family. You read the post about how this influencer transformed themselves only through their diet and exercise programs which they encourage you to purchase- not knowing the number of plastic surgeries they had or that they employ a nutritionist and a personal trainer. You falsely believe that you can achieve this ideal by simply working hard.

Promoting false vulnerability and authenticity has become problematic because it creates unrealistic standards of how our lives should look and contributes to a diminishment of self-worth in many people. The line between what is real and what is not has become blurred. The narratives worthy of sharing have been homogenized: makeup-less photos are only acceptable when you have clear radiant skin; your body is only beautiful when you have an hourglass shape with a flat stomach; you are only important if you have money and resources. The result is monetized and inauthentic authenticity that makes many of us feel as though the only way to be real and accepted is to buy ourselves into perfection.

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In closing, I would like to leave you with this: Post what your heart feels is right - influencers and everyone alike. Present your body, with or without surgery or makeup, the way you feel most comfortable. I only ask that you be mindful of the impact your social media posts might have on others. Think about the young people looking for guidance, representation, and belonging. Show up in a way that encourages inclusivity. And if you do choose to use the vulnerability-authenticity card, make sure you mean it.