“Please, no, not on social media. I *heart emoji* you so much and really no. Savor it for the personal and unique, not the masses,” read the comment my aunt had left on a photo I posted on Instagram last week. The photo was of me, with my back to the camera, wearing a bra and a thong. Before I posted the photo, I had texted it to my group chat with friends from high school.
“Do y’all think this is too scandalous to post on my Instagram?” I asked them. They all replied with a resounding “No,” which was followed by compliments on the photograph and questions about where I had gotten the lingerie.
Excited, I uploaded the picture. My phone began notifying me of countless likes and comments surrounding the picture. I got the typical rush of dopamine that comes with posting anything on social media and receiving positive feedback. The photo had been up for a couple of days and I was happy with it. I thought it looked nice with the rest of my feed and it seemed like most other people did too.
After day three of the photo being posted, my aunt left her comment. In consequence, almost as quickly as the photo was uploaded, I archived it. Immediately after, I deleted the entire Instagram app from my phone. I didn’t want a reminder of her comment or of the photo. I sat on the floor of my room, my cheeks hot with embarrassment.
“I probably looked like such a slut to other people who weren’t bold enough to comment as my aunt did!” I thought to myself. I thought about the fact that the first man I had ever had sex with, who I hadn’t talked to in five years and who never usually likes my Instagram posts, had liked the image. “God…” I thought. “He only ever wanted me for my body anyway.”
My head filled with thoughts of self-hatred and anxiety. I questioned my intentions behind posting the photograph. Did I post it so the men on my page would see it and find me attractive? Did I post it because I felt good? Did I post it because I wanted to contribute to an Instagram environment where scandalous photos like the one I posted are normalized? Did I post it because I wanted to celebrate the female figure?
All these questions didn’t seem to have an answer. Maybe these rationalizations were all true, maybe none of them were. I felt put into a bind: I didn’t know if my post was self-empowering or if my post contributed to patriarchal exploitation and sexualization. Why did my photograph have to contribute to that? I certainly didn’t intend for it to — but it seemed that my aunt’s notions of its appropriateness lent itself to unsolicited sexualization of my body. Or … was it solicited because I had posted it on my Instagram? Why did a photo of me in lingerie have to be sexual anyway?
My relationship with my own sexuality has never been something I’m ashamed of. Before entering a monogamous relationship, I regularly participated in hook-up culture. I enjoy sex — like, a lot. I’ve always been excited to explore different areas of my sexuality, and quite frankly, my relationship to sex is something I take a lot of pride in. I felt comfortable with sex and wearing lingerie, and I felt comfortable enough to post that photo on my Instagram.
So why was I so incredibly embarrassed when my aunt commented on my post? Perhaps because in the generation she grew up in, anything related to sex was seen as a more private activity than it is now. To my aunt, the photo of me in lingerie was inherently sexual. I did see it as a rather sexy post, but that didn’t make it bad. Why did my aunt think that exposing myself sexually on social media was something I shouldn’t do?
At first, I saw my aunt’s comment as a reflection of myself: Because I posted a sexy photo on my Instagram, I was asking to be sexualized, which meant I was a slut. Yet, I started to think about why posting a sexual photo on Instagram made me think of myself as a slut? When I saw other people post “scandalous” photos on their Instagram, I’ve never thought that of them. I think it’s because oftentimes, women are made to feel ashamed for expressing themselves in a sexual light. I had control over my Instagram and what photos I posted. This made posting the photo an act of sexual empowerment. However, I don’t have control over how other people will react. Nor do I think I need to.
I realize now that my aunt’s comment was a reflection of her and her own relationship to sex. From her comment, I could see that my aunt thought photos that were more sexual should be personal and unique, whereas my approach to sexual photos and sex overall is that if it makes you feel good, do it! While I see her perception of sex as valid, it isn’t the same as mine.
Everyone else who liked the photo or saw it on their Instagram feed has their own unique relationship to sex. Perhaps they wouldn’t feel comfortable posting a photo in lingerie on their Instagram feed. That’s perfectly fine with me and I understand their viewpoint, but it doesn’t mean I should feel bad or guilty for posting it on my own.
Especially from the heteronormative male perspective, women can be sexy privately, but not publicly. They can be sexy for their partner, but the minute they recognize their own sexual identity and develop a desire to showcase that to the world, they are subject to ridicule and slut-shaming. Why is a woman taking ownership of her own sexuality deemed something to be ashamed of?
I’ll never truly understand why my aunt commented on my post. She said “I *heart emoji* you so much,” which makes me think she did it out of love. Maybe she sees the way women are viewed and sexualized in society, and she doesn’t want that for me. I don’t want that for me either. Which is why rather than deleting my post entirely, I decided to delete her comment. If my aunt or anyone has a problem with my Instagram photo, that’s something they can investigate on their own time. Because it truly has nothing to do with me.
When women are modest, they are seen as boring. When women are sexual, they are seen as easy. If we, as women, are going to be continuously placed into boxes, I suggest that rather than trying to adhere to societal standards of what we should and shouldn’t be, we do what feels good to us. Whether that’s posting a scandalous photo on your Instagram or having a feed that’s only kittens and food porn. No matter what women do, someone will always have something to say about it, so as long as we’re not harming anyone else in the process, let’s embrace what we’ve got and forget about the rest.