Influencer Culture Harms All But a Few
You may have seen a video that circulated a few weeks ago from a prominent Instagram influencer’s stories. The influencer, a white, thin, traditionally attractive woman discussed how she pays someone to clean her toilets, and how she has worked hard for what she has. Ultimately, she said she doesn’t want to be relatable because most people don’t live the life she lives. She works so much harder than everyone else (insert 800 eye rolls here).
I was also recently in a situation where I got sucked into the Instagram account of a different influencer. I won’t name them because I feel they receive a lot more engagement than the everyday person does.
This situation brought up a lot of thoughts and feelings. It has taken me a little time to sort out why I was simultaneously sucked into the account but also felt awful viewing it. I have always felt anger about the ways certain types of bodies and experiences are represented in social media, especially in Instagram. I always have had conflicted feelings about the ways some voices are heard on social media and others aren’t. In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is the case now more than ever.
I am a White, poor, fat woman. I do not fit traditional views of beauty or thinness. I live near the poverty line in the United States, and have for all of my adult life. In our highly family- and partnership-oriented, capitalist society, I do not have children or a partner and the resources and advantages that generates (e.g., the emotional or pragmatic support of a partner, family support networks, tax benefits). I do not own a home and will not be able to for some time (if ever). I’m not always able to afford health care, food, or things I need. I do not have contact with my family of origin and as a result, the support of my immediate and extended family.
In short, I do not lead a privileged Instagram influencer’s life, and I never will.
From my perspective, the explanations for why influencing and the type of social media content it generates is harmful to people boil down to two major reasons:
1. Influencing does not represent the real experiences of the everyday person, and it perpetuates the health, safety, and comfort of privileged people.
2. Influencing is a living symbol of capitalism and is deeply oppressive.
Influencing vs. Reality
By and large, when you look at influencers and their content (see examples below), these individuals are almost always young, female, traditionally attractive, White, straight, and cisgender. We know this is only a narrow cross-section of the intersections of identity and experience people embody throughout their lives. For example, we know from research that since 2010, on average, women are not what society would consider “thin.” This research shows most women are size 16–18 in clothing (Christel & Dunn, 2016). This means most women+ do not look the same as the types of bodies represented by influencers themselves and the people they show in their accounts.
In addition, influencers do not show or represent the types of complex intersections and lived experiences many people have financially. For example, influencers are not usually experiencing financial hardship themselves and do not show people living paycheck to paycheck (for irony, see all of the travel Instagram stories and posts on these accounts). In the United States, the 2018 the Survey of Household Economics and Decision making found that 40% of people could not afford an unexpected $400 expense (see link here). In addition, in this study, 20% of people were not able to pay their bills in full that month, and 25% reported that they skipped necessary medications the year before because they couldn’t pay for it. This is absurd and wrong.
Most folks are not able to travel at all, let alone to exotic locations. They are not being paid or sponsored by large companies to do so. They don’t receive #gifted items. They are literally trying to survive day to day, paycheck to goddamn paycheck. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, things have gotten worse for many people — especially financially and in terms of mental health.
For example, as of this publication (April 21, 2021), 569,000 people have died in the United States, with over 3.01 million deaths worldwide. These effects are even greater for people of color — both in financial impact of the pandemic (e.g., less jobs available, more people that need jobs, people being forced to leave jobs, earning less money per hour) and in actual health outcomes (e.g., higher likelihood of contracting COVID-19, higher mortality rates).
Furthermore, influencers are often young, traditionally attractive, or thin and they produce content that corresponds with those ideals. They are rarely fat themselves and do not show a wide variety of body types in their work. They are typically not queer or gender-expansive. We rarely — if ever — see pictures of friends or family members who are fat, who are people of color, or who are LGBTQ+. They do not show things like experiencing trauma or mental illness or experiencing a lack of resources (e.g., financial, emotional, familial, community). Influencers live in beautiful homes, with happy children and pets. Their clothing is expensive.
How does influencing harm us?
1. Influencing monetizes and quantifies everything. The influencing model monetizes and quantifies everything to the point of exploitation. Social interaction becomes quantified in influencing. Through influencing, basic interactions between people become monetized to generate resources (e.g., money, profile engagement, brand deals or collaborations). In addition, individual access to resources is also quantified and exploited. Those with more followers and financial, emotional, family, and community resources are given more access to resources and as a result, more opportunities to generate more money and resources in the future. Influencing also exploits our desire for social acceptance, safety, and inclusion. Influencer content exploits those desires, making us feel as if we will be “enough” if we have X item/ relationship/vacation/job/home/followers. This is wrong. Being a human is a deeply complex, messy experience. Your experience is enough, and it deserves to be seen, celebrated, and validated. You do not need all the fancy things to be important, even if we are made to feel this way.
2. Influencing highlights and perpetuates the gross inequities inherent in our capitalist society. Individuals with more resources and access to goods and services do get richer — literally and figuratively. The everyday person does not have access to brand deals, collaborations, and partnerships that generate income, and even if they did, it would not generate the type of income influencers receive.
For example, I could present the same type of content on my Instagram account (to my 15 followers, thank you very much) as an influencer might — and the outcome in financial output, engagement, validation, comments, and likes would be entirely different. The rich — in resources, access to goods/services, and in community tangibly do get richer, not only financially, but also in terms of social capital and access to future goods and services. People will come to their aid when they need support. They will be on the receiving end of positive feedback, validation, and support. They will have the ability to make more money.
3. Influencing inhibits our ability to experience the simplicity and beauty of our individual surroundings. Influencing makes it significantly more difficult to be validated and seen in our unique intersections of identity and experience. When I see an influencer’s account that so clearly does not represent my experience garnering so many different types of valued resources, it feels like shit. Someone could make the argument that you can choose to unfollow or mute the account and should choose accounts that feel good to you.
Those types of strategies can be helpful, but it doesn’t change the fact that influencing is a deeply inequitable, harmful, and living representation of our capitalist society that should ultimately be removed. People can remove these types of account from their feed, but the accounts are still there. Influencing is still going on. Capitalism is still living.
This speaks to the larger conversation about social media overall and how it impacts our lives. If I was a wealthy, thin, traditionally attractive woman, I would probably experience social media and influencing differently. It would probably feel pretty good to see my fellow wealthy, thin, traditionally attractive counterparts going on their most current vacation to Italy or doing their latest Instagram Live about their new book.
But I’m not those things. I don’t have those resources. And it is important to me that I recognize and nurture the feeling that it is those differences which make my individual life meaningful to me. I’m not a thin, traditionally attractive, wealthy woman. I have had to work on my “things” very hard — my trauma situation, negotiating life as a fat woman in a fat phobic world, learning to manage economic hardship and underemployment. I deserve compassion and to be seen in all my glory. I’m grateful for who I am and the life I’ve built for myself.
One of the things I’m most proud of that I have done in my life is I saved in really financially lean times to travel to Russia to visit my best friend, Aaron. It is the only “fancy” trip I’ve been on as an adult. I’ve written about it before here on Name It. It was one of the loveliest moments of my life when I stood in Red Square all alone and took a few moments to revel in the fact that I had quite literally brought myself there and made that experience happen.
I wasn’t there with my perfect partner and children in tow, all of us smiling and perfectly dressed in clothes I could never afford. It wasn’t my third or fourth or fifth trip (or more) that year. I wasn’t traveling completely unconscious of the money I was spending. I wasn’t benefitting financially from that trip — selling some kind of item, service, or business in multiple curated posts when I got back, maybe selling some kind of baggage or clothing I carefully tagged in the posts. I didn’t have a stories feed afterward tagging all of the clothes I wore so that others can “swipe up” and buy for themselves. Since I’m sure everybody is wondering, I primarily wore my favorite black Lane Bryant leggings, an Eddie Bauer parka, Asics black tennies, and my favorite soft Target beanie.
I am fully aware my words won’t make influencing go away, and it sure as shit won’t make capitalism and our love for social hierarchy go away. But it is important to me to know for myself where my power comes from, and I hope to be that voice of inclusion and kindness for others, too.
These are the things I tell myself when I feel triggered about what is being represented in these accounts by influencers:
1. All experiences, ways of being, and intersections of identity are legitimate.
2. You are not the goods you own, the services you access, or the things you are told you need.
3. Your power does not come from your influence over and with others, period.
4. Your experience is legitimate and valid. It is no less than anyone else’s experience. It deserves to be seen, validated, and treated with compassion and kindness.
5. Your body is valuable. However you present yourself physically to the world, you are important and good.
I hope all of us receive the resources, compassion, and support we deserve.