A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through job applications — something I’ve been doing a lot lately as the token unemployed journalist friend — when I came across a posting to be a social media influencer. I laughed. In my mind, being an influencer feels more like a personality trait than a job, like some inherent predisposition for promo codes and good lighting. I wasn’t aware that influencing was something you could apply for but, sure enough, when you search LinkedIn or Indeed, you can find hundreds of applications to promote anything from the Princeton Review to solar energy.
Influencer marketing long predates the rise of social media. In Ancient Rome, gladiators endorsed products. In the 18th century, royals put their stamp of approval on certain brands. Today, age twenty-something women serve as the harbingers of good taste in our culture.
In the past five years, influencer marketing has grown from a $1.7 billion to $13.8 billion industry. Not only are influencer endorsements less expensive than endorsements from celebrities, a study from 2018 found they’re more effective. Unlike celebrities, who we generally only see through mass media, influencers talk to us directly. They interact with their fans more than celebrities generally do, creating a sense of community with their followers and making us feel like we really know them.
The rise of the social media influencer has turned endorsement marketing on its head. While in the past, endorsements were given by people with pre-existing platforms, now, women are building platforms for the express purpose of landing endorsements.
The shift dates back to the advent of user-friendly internet platforms: blogs. It was the first time that anyone could shout their thoughts into the blank void of the internet and actually have someone hear them. Before long people could track engagement, measuring the validity of your thoughts in a number of page views.
Social media has also given a voice to members of marginalized communities, expanding our idea of who is beautiful (though there is much more work to do). Media and marketing now tell women that every body type, skin tone and hair texture is beautiful, but, as The New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, a graduate of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writing Program, points out in her essay “Always Be Optimizing”, we still don’t tell women that beauty is unimportant. By telling every woman she’s beautiful, we justify basing her value on appearance.
In some ways, social media has made beauty feel more imperative for the average woman. When you’re looking up to half a dozen models in magazines or TV, it’s easy to disassociate or consider their beauty unattainable. But when you look down at your phone and see hundreds of seemingly “normal” women profiting off of their adherence to — or occasional rejection of — the prevailing beauty standard, it’s much harder to draw the line between the real and idealized woman.
Tolentino describes society’s ideal woman as a person who “believes she was made to be looked at” and “showcases herself at leisure,” succumbing not just to the individual people in her life, but to society as a whole. It’s easy for me to transpose this image onto the influencers I see on Instagram, women who make a career out of looking effortlessly beautiful each day.
Society has always defined women, if not as commodities, then by what service they can provide to others — as a caretaker, wife, object of sexual desire, etc. — almost always in the pursuit of social capital, the intangible value of a person’s existence within a society or social group. Women are expected to exist and present themselves for the benefit of others in a way that men are not. And social media is no exception.
Even for women who aren’t influencers, Instagram can feel like a form of social currency. It’s borderline impossible for me to not judge the quality of my pictures by the number of likes they get. It takes every ounce of willpower I have not to compare how many followers I have with people I meet. And I don’t think my male friends feel the same way.
I googled “Do guys care about how many Instagram followers they have” to double check my intuition (although I know search results wouldn’t necessarily be the same for every user). The top three results were reddit pages answering a different question entirely — “Do guys care about a girl’s Instagram popularity?” — each written by a woman worried that she hasn’t amassed enough online social capital to warrant male attention. Even in looking for information on men’s insecurities on social media, it still came back to women’s.
Even though there are almost infinite online spaces housing almost infinitely niche influencer markets — think mommy blogs, fitness influencers, college ambassadors, food accounts, etc. — they all share a certain set of characteristics. In many ways, the sheer practice of social media influencing is reflective of society’s expectations of women.
Society’s perfect woman is always meant to be relaxed. If she’s a college influencer, she will post a picture of a well-lit coffee shop where she’s studying for the afternoon. If she’s a fitness influencer, she’s talking about how she was so invigorated by her last workout. Even if she’s a mother of six, she’s found the time to share her favorite bread recipe with her followers. Regardless of what she’s doing, she’s conquering it with a sense of ease.
Even when influencers talk about mental health challenges they’ve faced, it’s usually phrased as something they’ve overcome. Mickenzie Andrews, a 2020 Michigan graduate and fitness influencer with 34.5k followers, frequently talks about her mental health journey on her account. Still, the nature of social media makes it difficult for her to depict some of these challenges as ongoing.
“I think sometimes when I do post (about mental health), I do sometimes make it seem like I went through something, and I was able to snap out of it,” Andrews said. “But that’s not necessarily the case. It just seems that way because I’m writing a caption, and you’re reading it in an instant. So the way you’re reading it is like, ‘Oh, this happened. And then she did this. And then she did this,’ like all in a matter of minutes. But that’s not necessarily true.”
People frequently reach out to Andrews about their own mental health challenges. Influencers — just like women generally — are expected to perform unpaid emotional labor online just as they are in the real world. They can get hundreds of DMs per day from followers asking for advice. It may be time consuming or even emotionally taxing to always make oneself available to others, which is why some people like feminist activist Florence Given have publicly stated that they won’t respond to unsolicited requests for advice made though social media.
But connecting with fans is a necessity and oftentimes a privilege for influencers. Eli Rallo, a Michigan 2020 graduate who has gone on to accrue 263.7 thousand TikTok followers, lost some followers last week because she took a small step back from social media while on vacation with her family.
“Of course, it can be arduous looking through 100 DMs of people with very real issues, and very real and prominent and valid struggles that they want me to hear out,” she said. “But also I’m just so grateful that I can be that person. It’s been really wonderful.”
Potentially most complicated is that, oftentimes, influencers are selling us the things we’re told we should want as women under the guise of “self improvement” or “self care.” I’ve seen women selling workout clothes and detox juices and moisturizers and gummy hair vitamins, saying that these products have made them feel amazing without stating the obvious: that they’re intended to make you look amazing.
With the popularity of this narrative, it’s hard to differentiate between what women want to do and what we’re expected to do, whether we’re buying things to make us like our appearance or to make sure others do.
And it doesn’t just have to be physical products because, while in the most literal sense, influencers profit off of brand endorsements, they are also selling the idea of a lifestyle. Fitness influencers like Andrews are selling you on the idea of being strong and in shape much more than they’re selling you a pair of leggings. What influencers really do is build themselves into a lifestyle brand and endorse products that fit that narrative.
Of course, influencers claim they’re completely open and real with their followers, but regardless of how honest you try to be, social media is inevitably deceptive. As long as you can pick and choose which parts of yourself to package and deliver to people through a screen, it will likely be an exaggerated self-portrait rather than a realistic photograph.
Rallo — who posts humor videos that are oftentimes self-deprecating, sometimes cynical and usually relatable to the 23 year old, post-graduate woman — believes everyone becomes a caricature of themselves on social media to some degree.
“I try my best to take away the caricature as much as I can, but of course it’s still gonna be there because people like the character,” Rallo said. “But I can acknowledge that it’s there…The reason you get views is being exaggerated and heightened and funny and 100% energy. Nobody wants to watch somebody at 40% every day.”
It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the implications of treating people as brands — both for the women themselves and for those of us who follow them. Are their appearances and personalities being commodified by the corporations using them as marketers? Or are they taking advantage of a system that has only ever valued them for being pretty? And if they aren’t bearing the cost, then are we, their followers, somehow losers in this deal?
Influencers are beholden both to the companies they advertise for and the followers that make up their fanbase. That means they have to be aware of what their followers are responding to and post content that will get the most traction. For Rallo, that means keeping up with the trends her followers want to see. At one point, it was cheese boards, then it was award shows and now it’s astrology videos. For Andrews, it often means posting pictures at the gym.
“Some of my higher engagement (posts), unfortunately, are me in workout clothes, posing a certain way,” Andrews said. “And I think that’s just how society is. I don’t want those to be my most liked posts. I want people to be able to like any posts of mine, not based on the photo necessarily, but based on the overall context within the photo.”
Still, both women feel empowered by the work rather than commoditized. Rallo believes that women in the influencing industry are taking advantage of the system rather than being used by it.
“I think on the one hand, it probably started as ‘Let’s profit off of these skinny, beautiful, rich, white girls,’ “ Rallo said. “But now I think it’s really opening up, and as much as we see fault, we see steps forward.”
She compares it to the way women have reclaimed promiscuity or the word ‘bitch’. Rallo believes it’s empowering to build a platform and be able to profit off of it. As she so succinctly put it: “Hell yeah, I’m gonna take free shit.”
“I think I could be the ideal person that (companies) could pick to exploit, but I think by reclaiming that, we can take back the power,” she added.
Lindsey said that this represents a very liberal feminist take, the idea being that simply succeeding as a woman in the social media space is a transgressive act. But that doesn’t mean much for the success of women generally in the same way that having a female CEO doesn’t mean that a company will promote women’s needs. All in all, influencers may be doing more harm than good.
Influencers — primarily those in the beauty, fashion and fitness spaces — regularly post content perpetuating ideas of what a woman should be: thin, pretty and well put-together. Even if it’s not their intent, that has negative consequences, especially when it goes untalked about.
“A lot of the important work of political education comes from an honest conversation and dialogue between people,” Lindsey said. “And I feel like we’re in an environment where people don’t feel like that’s possible, and it’s because we’re engaged with brands. We’re thinking about how we’re looking to our audience, to our fan base. Not everyone, but I think that’s a general ethos with influencers.”
None of this is to say that all influencers are superficial or self-serving. It would be sexist to assume that influencers never consider their effect on the feminist landscape, but it’s just as reductive to praise all of them as feminist icons. Rallo believes that — just like anything else — there’s a responsible and irresponsible way to be an influencer.
She gives away most of the products she receives from companies and is discerning when choosing her brand partnerships. One of her favorites was a chicken nugget company that paid her to use a chicken nugget as a makeup brush. Another was a menstrual products company that put her in underwear and smeared fake blood all over her.
“Yeah, maybe Clinique isn’t banging down my door like ‘wear our skin cream with your flawless face,’ ” Rallo said. “But they’re rubbing fake period blood on my butt. They want me to be empowered.”
The first time I’d considered any of these ideas, I was reading Tolentino’s essay on a plane to Scottsdale, AZ where my roommates and I were going on a post-finals girls trip. Ironically, we’d chosen the location partially because we’d seen influencers post there so frequently. On our first night, an Uber driver suggested that we get in touch with a club promoter while we were in town to show us the best places to go out, passing along his friend’s number.
I offered to be the one to reach out, taking pleasure in doing something so drastically out of character. I introduced myself and explained that we were 13 21-year-old girls hoping to go out while we were there for the week. We exchanged a few texts about logistics and decided we’d go out on Wednesday.
The promoter asked to follow me on Instagram to “put a face with the name.” Of course, I knew that meant he wanted to see what my friends and I looked like to determine if we were worth taking out. Afterwards, he shot back another text saying he could get us a table at the District but probably not Maya. Translation: We weren’t hot enough to get into the best club, but we warranted a bottle of tequila at the B-rate bar next door.
As soon as we sat down in the first empty nightclub, the promoter immediately turned to his phone, checking in with his contacts to see where we would be wanted next. I thought I’d understood the concept before, but as I sat there sipping the worst tequila soda I’ve ever had, looking around at the empty tables, it felt so much more like an economic exchange than I was expecting. I asked my friends if they felt the same way and they said that, yes, it was a little weird but in the end we were getting free drinks and we didn’t have to pay cover. If it was an economic exchange, then we were benefitting.
At one point, the promoter told us it was time to go and we should down our drinks. He ushered us through packed streets like scantily-clad ducks in a row, ending up at a much more popular nightclub where all the female servers were dressed in lingerie. Absolutely the f*** not, I thought. With Tolentino’s newly acquired vocabulary buzzing around my head, I knew I wasn’t profiting, I was the commodity. One of my friends and I excused ourselves to the bathroom and called our Uber home.
It took a while for me to understand why I felt so wrong in a situation where I was ostensibly benefitting. Maybe I was only a commodity because I felt like I was being used. Maybe just believing that you’ve manipulated the game to your advantage makes you the winner. I thought a lot about Rallo’s idea of reclaiming the narrative. We can reclaim words like bitch because we can reframe their meaning. We can reclaim the idea of promiscuity when we feel we have power over our own sexualities and bodies. But I don’t think we can reclaim things over which we have no control.
I got to drink for free not because of anything I did but because the owner of a nightclub decided that displaying a group of 21-year-old women would draw men in. Influencers are hired based on a company’s evaluation of their brand, regardless of whether or not the influencer feels empowered by the transaction.
It’s a lot easier to feel exploited when you’re being herded around the streets of Scottsdale, trading your presence for physical capital, than it is when you’re dealing in the social capital economy of follows and likes. On social media, exploitation is obscured by the ideas of self expression, community and every other self-actualizing purpose we’re told it’s intended to serve, but in the end, they’re essentially the same thing.
And I don’t know the way out. Tolentino thinks women have to be disloyal to the system that only treats us as market assets. I’m sure influencers like being sent free stuff. I like it when people comment on my appearance or ask if they can buy me a drink, assuming it’s done so respectfully. Do we like our cage too much to burn it down?
Statement Correspondent Lane Kizziah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.