What Instagram Taught Me About Feminism

Reconciling my sexuality and body positivity with my feminist beliefs

Femme Fatale

People tell me that I am two very different people on social media. There’s the Nian on Facebook who posts links to her feminist Crimson articles, starts fights with strangers in the comments section, and yells at misogynists. Then there’s the Nian on Instagram, who posts photos of herself in swimsuits at exotic locales, exchanges sweet pleasantries with strangers in the comments section, and—apparently—perpetuates misogyny by “objectifying herself” and appealing to the male gaze.

For a long time, I knew—or I thought I knew—that the two identities were irreconcilable. I was told that my Instagram account was not only apolitical, but actively anti-feminist. I was “contributing to my own objectification,” I was not “helping the cause,” and I was “giving feminism a bad name.” Articles about feminist Instagram users would showcase women who skateboarded and rode motorbikes and wrote code. These were the “women who lift you up,” as opposed to the Instagram models posing in their swimsuits, who “drag you down.”

And yet, I still considered myself a feminist in my everyday life. I still wrote articles and started fights, both online and in real life, about rape culture or toxic masculinity. There seemed to exist a vast logical disconnect. The same men who argued with me and called me “man-hater” or “feminazi” on Facebook would like my photos on Instagram, write comments about how beautiful I looked, and direct message me to ask me out on dates. People disliked me for what I said, but liked me for how I looked.

And for a while, I was content to keep these two spheres separate. I would receive threatening messages on Facebook in response to my feminist beliefs and I would receive admiring messages on Instagram in response to my appearance. But it was never really that simple. On Instagram, a man who had been expressing his interest in me grew angry when I stopped responding to his messages, and he threatened to “write a blog article about broke attention whores like yourself.” And on Facebook, a man who wrote a scathing blog post in response to my Crimson article found my LinkedIn headshot and expressed his desire to have sex with me.

At the end of the day, there is no escaping the male gaze. Even if I am just writing articles and getting in fights on Facebook, I will still have my appearance scrutinized by strange men. Even if I am fully clothed in all of my photos, even if I don’t post a single bikini photo, even if the only public photo of myself is my LinkedIn headshot, I will still be objectified. My modesty will not protect me from male lechery.

There is also no escaping from misogyny. Even if I am just posting photos of myself in swimsuits, even if I strive to make myself as pleasant and apolitical as possible, even if I refrain from expressing my feminist beliefs, I will still be subjected to misogynistic attacks. My silence will not protect me from male intimidation.

People tell me that I am two very different people on social media, but the reality is that there has only been one person this whole time. It is easier, however, to pretend that there are two people, because women can either be a Madonna or a whore. That’s why so many so-called feminists denigrate Nicki Minaj and Amber Rose, despite all the work that those two women have done for intersectional feminism. It’s hard to respect a woman when she’s not modestly dressed. Feminist role models should wear suits and lab coats, not bikinis and thongs.

And this Madonna-whore complex is what prevents people from reconciling a woman’s sexuality and the important work that she does. People will say things like “you can’t be a hoe and a Black rights activist,” and self-proclaimed feminists will respond to videos of Amber Rose and Blac Chyna twerking by saying that “they’re reducing feminism to sexual liberation.” White men like Piers Morgan will deem it appropriate to lecture women of color like Amber Rose on how “you’re going wrong re feminism.” People are more willing to see Ivanka Trump—who supported her misogynistic father’s run for the presidency and whose fashion line is designed by a contractor that does not offer a single day of paid maternity leave—as a feminist role model. But people are much less eager to bestow that title to Amber Rose, even though she has done so much work to combat slut-shaming and educate the public on consensual sex, simply because she does not dress as conservatively as Ivanka does.

People are wrong to tell Amber Rose that she isn’t a feminist, because “a feminist isn’t going to promote whoreish behavior.” And they are wrong to tell me that I’m not a feminist because I show my body in my Instagram photos. My Instagram account does not make me less of a feminist. My body positivity and my ownership of my own sexuality does not make me anti-feminist—if anything, it makes me the opposite.

I will acknowledge, however, that my thin privilege, my cisgender privilege, and my able-bodied privilege allows me to post swimsuit photos online and receive praise, rather than attacks and criticism, and that my class privilege allows me to travel and buy trendy clothing. My Instagram account should not be held up as the paragon of feminism, because there is nothing revolutionary about my photos nor the lifestyle that I am promoting.

But my sexuality, and the expression thereof on Instagram, should never take away from the work that I do as a feminist. There were never two Nians; there was only one. And it’s not my problem that people can’t come to the terms with the fact that a woman can show her body, express her sexuality, and also make important contributions to society—and yes, be a feminist.

Nian Hu ’18, a former Crimson editor, is a Government concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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