Why the New Instagram It Girl Spends All Her Time Alone

Last Tuesday morning, my first unread email was from Influencer Intelligence, an analytics company that works with  people who want to hire influencers and celebrities to advertise things.

“Authenticity is the most critical attribute to building influence,” the company’s website reads. The email was about, as emails often are, a recently compiled report about the business of selling things on Instagram, which promised to “tackle the concept of what authenticity really means today.” The PDF’s cover was an image of a beautiful white woman wearing pink eye shadow and putting her hand to her mouth—which was, needless to say, open.

Inside, I found advice on how to determine the authenticity of an influencer: Request Google Analytics information from her (to prove that her numbers “add up”), ask for quantitative results of previous “brand campaigns,” map her audience demographics—all told, fairly standard stuff. The report also suggested the use of “soft metrics,” which apparently entails looking at a person’s Instagram profile and taking note of the tone and frequency of her responses to her “audience,” judging how “natural and authentic the content feels,” and deciding whether the influencer really “lives and breathes what they are presenting.”

This is pretty par for the course for a report like this, from a company like this, but the word “authenticity,” has specifically been driving me up the wall lately, especially when it’s applied to people. How can you ask if a person authentically “lives and breathes” what she’s presenting when what she’s presenting is herself? That’s literally how a body works. And at the same time, of course she doesn’t. That’s literally how Instagram works.

Coincidentally, this email arrived the same day as a new essay collection by New York fashion and culture writer Natasha Stagg, Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011-2019, from Semiotext(e). Stagg is best known for her fashion work—particularly as an editor at V magazine—but Sleeveless also touches on her brief tech career. She remembers working on an app that could “recommend all the ways to become beautiful,” then an app that took “mood selfies.”

This background makes Stagg uniquely suited to parse the strange stuff we’ve been doing to women lately in the name of giving them more freedom—typically, in actuality, just making them more marketable. (“Women are so trendy right now,” one woman says to another at the launch of a women-only magazine in Stagg’s essay “Naming Names,” maybe the book’s best and driest punchline.) Most interesting to me, and possibly to the compilers of future influencer authenticity reports, Stagg digs into the question of what a modern “It Girl” is like.  

For the most part, this It Girl spends her time alone and is seen on Instagram.“I just wish … that I didn’t have this fear about very young people trying to stay home so that a bigger audience could appreciate a more constructed image,” Stagg writes in the book’s most sprawling essay, “Out of State,” adapted from a recurring column she wrote for Spike magazine. “I know they must be thinking that what their physical high school classmates think of their physical bodies will never matter.”

In a different era, the It Girl was someone whose photo was taken by onlookers at all the good parties. The new It Girl is someone who takes photos of herself, at home. She spends her time alone and is seen on Instagram, where her “art direction” is what makes her desirable. These young women, Stagg notes, “are, more often than not, self-described homebodies, even antisocial. Today, a cool girl is coaxed from a bedroom iPhone shoot into a professional studio.”

She usually has interesting stuff, like a novelty mirror for outfit-of-the-day photos, a Keanu Reeves throw pillow, a “vintage” MySpace T-shirt, or paintings she made herself. She writes vague, disaffected captions—“tea season,” “you know how it is,” a black heart emoji. The coolest girl I went to college with has “ennui” in her Instagram handle and posts selfies taken in mirrors shaped like waves, with a MacBook or a single red rose in the background; sometimes she’s smoking a cigarette indoors, other times she’s drinking wine out of a coupe glass, typically rolling her eyes. She has amazing hair. Of one such cool girl, named Amina Blue, Stagg observes: “Her image could at once represent her generation’s particular acceptance of overexposure and its acute discomfort with pressure to perform.”

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Scrolling through my own Instagram feed, it’s easy to find examples of women who shine when they are indoors amongst their belongings: Silicon Valley photographer Michele Bisaillon told Dazed in 2016 that she owns “40 or 50” mirrors, which she uses to take visually confusing photos of herself and her cat in elaborate set-ups, typically in the bathroom. Molly Soda, one of the first major Tumblr celebrities, uses the Instagram handle @bloatedandalone4ever1993 and works on digital art—including experimental selfies in which she purposely uses Facetune incorrectly, or edits green flames onto the bottom of her face—primarily at home, where the distance between taking an image and toying with it is shorter.

“I think of my own bedroom as a set in a way,” Soda tells me. “We all sort of accept and agree that photos of our faces will do better than a landscape or a still life or a screenshot or whatever. It’s also something we can control a little bit better than if you’re taking that outside and you’re dealing with a bunch of factors—like lighting, having someone take the photo for you, there being other people around.”

She recently posted an image of herself eating a grilled cheese alone in her room, with a screen-grab from a YouTuber she didn’t know, who was eating a whole plate of grilled cheeses. “I’ll eat my meal with someone else eating, but we don’t know each other,” she says. “That was sort of my idea, two people who aren’t aware of each other, sharing this meal together, from their rooms, alone.”

Those are artists consciously playing with the idea of being Instagram famous. But all of the cool girls talk about staying home nowadays, and the look of 2019 was the e-girl aesthetic—Sailor Moon merch, pink hair, septum piercings, pastel mesh—which Vox’s Rebecca Jennings described in August as the first fashion trend to develop solely online, photographed almost entirely in bedrooms. Even the star of Bravo’s biggest reality show chose to shoot her engagement photos on her bed, foregrounded by a pile of her stuff.

“You can become really famous without leaving your house,” Stagg tells me in a phone call. “It’s this facade. I’ve definitely met very young people who create an image of themselves being always at home when they’re really not. It looks better for their personal brand to seem like they have less friends and they’d rather be alone.”

It makes sense as a strategy. These images, absent of friends, invite the idea of internet friends, and attention, and therefore “traction as a brand,” as Stagg puts it. There are big-deal women on Instagram who will tell you they don’t post photos with their boyfriends because it shatters someone’s fantasy, which is terrible for their metrics. It comes full circle, or it goes full galaxy brain—you can only be a hot commodity if onlookers can imagine themselves as the corrective to your loneliness, in reciprocity for the way they’ll use your image to try to combat theirs. Nobody likes a one-sided relationship.

On top of that, these photos have to be good, and it is still rare to see someone taking dozens of pictures of themselves in a row in a public place. Though generalized disdain for the basic idea of a selfie seems to have subsided, we’ve agreed there’s something taboo about needing more than one try. (Sales for American Eagle’s lingerie brand Aerie have spiked over the last three years thanks to its anti-Photoshop #AerieREAL campaign; a poster on a pay-phone skeleton near my apartment reads “#AerieREAL is the first photo vs. the 100th.”)

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It is much easier to photograph yourself at home, where you have props and privacy and nobody is counting.

Stagg isn’t moralizing, but, on the phone, she did speak with a tone of regret. When I think about the paradox she’s outlining—the incentive for women to be both visible and alone—I conjure a mental image of trapdoors all the way down.

Another coincidence: Last week, the International Journal of Communication published a new paper from Cornell researchers Brooke Erin Duffy and Emily Hund on “navigating Instagram’s authenticity bind.” Unsurprisingly, the major finding was that women who build careers on Instagram are stuck between a rock and a hard place—they have to be “real” but not go too far; they need to let people in without grossing them out. And then, it can’t seem as though they’re thinking about that distinction too intentionally either.  

“In their efforts to project themselves as authentic, Instagrammers sought to deflect accusations of being ‘too real’, and, alternatively, as being ‘not real enough’” Duffy and Hund write. “Imaginations of either category were hemmed in by normative gender ideals.”

In an interview, Duffy rattles off examples of the questions people typically ask when they’re judging the “authenticity” of a person on the internet: Did they Photoshop themselves? Are they wearing too much makeup? Did they use Facetune? Can they really afford this product or was it sent to them for free? Do they really do all of the childcare or do they have a nanny? “Accusations of fakery are incredibly gendered,” she summarizes. How often do you look at a man’s Instagram post and suspect it of not being real?

“We all have these concerns about how people project themselves on social media, but there’s a lot of unevenness in how these accusations are waged,” Duffy argues. “It suggests that being fake or duplicitous is for some reason especially offensive if you are a woman.”  

Those concerns about fakery seem pretty obviously to apply to ourselves as well. Stagg says that she doesn’t particularly like any of the big social platforms, but that she still uses Twitter and Instagram for “information and attention.” Presumably, she’s aware that she’s one of the cool people herself. (“They’re all selling themselves, and I am too,” she writes near the end of the book. “And I hate myself for it, but even more I hate that I believe I’ll disappoint people if I quit.”) Everyone is crafting some kind of illusion, and everyone starts to sound like a starter-pack meme if you describe them literally.

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My own Instagram is not very good. But I can make this part of my brand—it gives me the freedom to judge other women who have more talent with curating an interesting image, to act as if I’m principled when really I’m just un-gifted. Once a year, when someone accidentally takes an “authentic” photo that makes me look pretty and relaxed, I post it with a feeling that I’m allowing myself an indulgence—spraying Reddi-wip on a brownie—and I go back over and over to make sure everyone I’ve ever kissed “likes” it. I guess we could choose not to care about these things, but how would we start?

“I remember being alone on my roof in the summer, single, and enjoying it,” Stagg writes in the book’s closer. “Had I enjoyed it, or had I taken photos of myself to feel distracted? I could be alone again, I thought, as long as I didn’t know that’s what I was.”

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