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April 12, 2013

Instagram’s #beautycontest Provides “Forum for Self-Exploitation”

Lora is a senior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., and participates in the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs program.

The popular photo-sharing social media site Instagram is being used for “beauty contests” in which teenage girls submit photos so that strangers can rate their looks.

Lora, a high school senior in Virginia, finds this to be a troubling phenomenon. She wrote to NewsHour Extra about what message this sends to young girls, and who is really to blame.

“Does this dress make me look fat?” Uttered in the subconscious of nearly every girl sitting in a poorly lit dressing room in a nondescript department store, this sentiment is no longer something only asked in the confidence of a mother or best friend. The social networking sites Tumblr, Instagram and Facebook have become forums for self-exploration and actualization as young girls ask strangers to “rate them” based on an internet photo posted in an online beauty contest.

Girls as young as 13 are deciding whether or not they will ever be attractive based on a stranger’s 150 word comment, or the number of likes their photo acquires. Privacy, self-reflection and self-esteem are no longer established alone in a dressing room, but rather anywhere WiFi is available.

Society easily criticizes and derides all social media sites for providing a forum for self-exploitation and excessive exposure. This “blame game” has prevented society’s own introspection. Is social media to blame for these young girls’ need for affirmation, or is it society itself for creating a generation of young women where beauty and attractiveness are synonymous with goodness?

Self-judgment is a part of maturation; it facilitates healthy body image and self-respect. However, society has capitalized on this biological inevitability to further its own commercial interests. Push-up bras and make-up are mandatory. Diet pills are sold like aspirin. Being “pretty” continues to be a prerequisite for success, as seen by the popularity of online beauty contests.

Criticizing social media for hosting these “pageants” does nothing but ignore the problem. What compels young women to ask strangers to rate them? Why are middle school girls posting “sultry” pictures of themselves on Facebook instead of their GPA or their prize-winning apple pie recipe? Why are they not Instagram-ing pictures of their volunteer group for judgment? What is it about beauty that has these young girls logging on to ask total strangers to not only rate them, but also dictate their self-confidence?

Society can fine Facebook or shut down Instagram, but not without being labeled a hypocrite. Yes, social media has become a forum for uninhibited assessment from outside, unknown sources. But how is that any different from interacting in today’s society?

We are a judgmental people, and social media is merely facilitating something society is perpetuating. Until young girls are told that who they are as human beings is not decided by facial features or body composition, then how they exploit themselves is irrelevant. Privacy, moderation, online etiquette and even age requirements for social media usage are secondary to the progression towards a society where girls are empowered to think that GPA is just as relevant as shiny hair.

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