It’s an image everyone has seen: Marilyn Monroe flirtatiously posing over a subway grate, her white dress fluttering in the air. Filmed in Manhattan, this moment from the movie “The Seven Year Itch” is the most enduring depiction of the icon. What we may not have realised is that she is also one of the first fashion influencers that walked the Earth. Monroe’s indelible mark on the fashion and beauty industry had not only created an unforgettable brand but also influenced it with a mix of mystery and provocation — a success recipe for every personal brand.
So how far-reaching was Monroe’s influence half a century ago? A stark example of Monroe’s social influence was evident when women flocked to the stores in massive droves to purchase Chanel No. 5 perfume just because Marilyn wore it. Had she been part of this generation of influencers, she’d be posting selfies everywhere and making reels which would’ve given all her social media followers a peek into her make-up and styling routine.
Insta-obsessed culture & the illusion of perfection
Though we don’t see many Monroe’s popping up in every corner, they are now replaced by a genre of beauty ambassadors all over Instagram who want to make brands flex their online muscle while chasing them for their online popularity. Unfortunately, the explosion of social media has created this constant pursuit for perfection and has led to a culture of yearning for wrinkle-free faces while also setting unrealistic beauty standards in society.
That reminds me of the HBO show, Fake Famous. It demonstrates that being an influencer can make you popular but it is also a tedious kind of labour. This New Yorker article, gives a peek into behind the scenes of a photoshoot in which Dominique and Wylie are shown partaking in super-rich activities such as sipping champagne and eating chocolates poolside at the Four Seasons, relaxing blissfully on an international flight, and receiving a luxurious spa treatment.
As reality has it, all of this is smoke and mirror. “In the pictures, which are shot in quick succession at a single location, a toilet seat held aloft mimics a plane’s window, the champagne is apple juice, the chocolates are pats of butter dipped in cocoa powder, and the rose-petal-infused spa basin is a plastic kiddie pool,” mentions Bilton. Apart from this D.I.Y trick of giving an illusion of luxurious life, most influencers, even extremely successful ones, like Kim Kardashian too — have expedited their climb to the top of the social-media pyramid by purchasing followers, in order to inflate their engagement metrics. What has happened as a result is an incredible rise in influencer marketing spends over the years.
A case in point here is to explore Kim Kardashian’s social media stature. Like her or hate her, she has capitalised on social media by garnering nearly 211 million followers. Kim and her family members have cleverly used the show “Keeping up with the Kardashians” as their ticket to glory. Their experience of the show helped them bag opportunities and diversify themselves.
Take Kylie Jenner for example. At the age of 21, Kylie Jenner was announced as the world’s youngest self-made billionaire. How did that even happen? As the youngest member of the Kardashian-Jenner clan and surrounded by many famous friends and celebrities, Kylie has made it to the very top of the social media influencer ladder. After appearing on “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”, Kylie has remained in the spotlight and is a high-profile figure in the celebrity world. Since the age of 14, Kylie has been collaborating with well-known and even created her own line of clothing with her sister, Kendall. In 2015, Kylie really rose to fame within the beauty industry as she launched her own cosmetics line, the infamous Kylie Lip Kits.
Helping to kickstart the matte liquid lipstick trend, Kylie made her mark on the industry and has continued to play an integral part in its success. Kylie later renamed her brand to Kylie Cosmetics after helping fans create the perfect, signature Kylie pout. Her lip kits sold out within minutes and led to the viral ‘Kylie Jenner Challenge’. Being born into fame and wealth, Kylie grew her business empire through a clever influencer marketing strategy while also remaining one of the most influential people on social media even today.
Pressure to be perfect
I know I’ve maxed out on the references to Netflix’s Black Mirror, but the “Nosedive” episode exactly exposes our social media-obsessed society. It is a clear reflection of how Lacie’s (the protagonist) character is designed in such a way where social media rating determines the job she gets, where she gets to live, who she parties with, who her friends are and her social standing in the society.
It shows you how people superficially see you for your social rating on the profile and not for who you are. And, say, if you are someone who doesn’t like posting pictures that are not cheery or smiling, then you would not succeed in this society. The episode shows how this system is a perfect solution to promote a stable community while it actually works the other way round where people live through lies on social media. And, Lacie is embroiled in this trap where she wants social acceptance while putting her mental health and well-being in jeopardy.
Like Lacie in Black Mirror, 17-year-old Zaara (my neighbour) is growing up with the idea of perfection and belongs to a generation that believes in the aesthetics of influencer marketing. From face-tuned selfies that correct one’s complexion, enhance cheek and lips or elevate eyebrows and create a chiselled jawline to making Tik Tok videos with a variety of designer-wear clothes, she strongly believes that the world complements and appreciates internet perfection.
Having grown up around gadgets and social media, the Gen Z folks are obsessed with their public image. A look at the comments section on the photos on Instagram feed has teenage girls asking if they should get lip injections or re-work on their physical appearance. Browsing through the stream of comments and feelings that these youngsters express, I realise that they spend long enough scrolling through filtered-to-perfection influencers, celebrities, and regular people I know who take a damn good picture.
Of course, it is very tempting to start a mental wish list of things one could change when they see Kylie Jenner: a more defined jawline, higher cheekbones, smoother skin, the list goes on. This all-too-familiar spiral has only been amplified in 2020 as everyone’s screen time has gone up dramatically.
Let’s take the Facetune app as an example. They reported that the app’s usage went up by 20% ever since lockdown began. “Plus, people spent 25% more time than usual editing their videos. That’s on top of Facetune’s already outsized influence. It doesn’t end here.
Instagram, on the other hand, reported that it was the second-most-used social platform, with about 50% of U.S. adults active as of March. To stay in the race after gaining immense popularity during the lockdown months, the video-conferencing app, Zoom, also added a “touch up my appearance” option.
A Facebook-conducted survey revealed that two-thirds of Instagrammers fall in the youngest bracket (18–24) use the platform multiple times per day. By the time we get to 35–44, we are still very close to half of the user base (49%) logging these high levels of usage. Nearly a third of the oldest grouping (they stop at 55+) are multiple daily users.
Meanwhile, Global Web Index conducted a similar survey in 2020, the results of which were not far different from those logged by Facebook. Breaking users down by generation, it found that nearly two-thirds of Gen Z Instagram users used the app multiple times per day. Over half of Millennial users did the same, with a stronger downward trend thereafter.
The emphasis on physical appearance is so deep in the current world we live in that the demand for cosmetic surgeries from young men and women is skyrocketing. In line with the increasing trend in social media use, the number of youngsters looking for cosmetic procedures is reportedly rising. It is important to know that cosmetic surgery is performed on normal structures of the body and is usually done to improve appearance and form.
In 2017 alone, the British Association for Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons reported about 30,000 such procedures. For example, the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery reported an increase in requests for surgery as a result of social media photo sharing. Of the procedures most likely to be requested as a result of social media influence were rhinoplasty, botox and facelifts, suggesting that young people may be influenced to undergo cosmetic procedures by what they see online.
Similarly, a study has shown that among cosmetic surgery patients, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram are high in use and engagement for information regarding procedures, such as practice information, before-and-after photographs, and contests. Well, in short, what this means is that those who spend higher time on social media and compare themselves constantly have body dissatisfaction. That means they have higher chances of going for cosmetic surgeries than those who cultivate a positive body image and do not really bother much about their appearance.
Here’s an interesting snippet I discovered: Did you know that of the 50 to 60 per cent of all the photos edited, 12% of them with #nofilter hashtag actually have filtered images? A study on this kind of social media deceit found.
The visual psychology game
You might already be familiar with the concept of visual perception by now. The idea that objects can appear different depending on how you look at them. A classic example of this is the Necker Cube illusion. Notice how the orientation changes depending on which cross-section of the cube you’re looking at.
What we’re talking about here is kind of similar. But rather than focusing on how your mind visually perceives an image, you’re focused on altering the viewer’s emotions to get them to engage with your Instagram post. What this does is help in structuring your Instagram photos, videos and captions in a way that’s more likely to catch the attention of your followers.
Now that you have an idea of what visual psychology is…that’s exactly how brands really play our psychology and drive us to buy their products by tracking our browsing history and doom scrolling patterns too!
A quiet backlash to perfection?
Businesses and brands have understood that today, celebrities aren’t the only preferred method of advertising online. People tend to prefer peer recommendations over celebrity endorsements, which is what’s given rise to the social media influencer and direct to consumer (D2C) brands. In fact, 70% of teens think that YouTubers are more reliable than celebrities and 88% of consumers trust online recommendations as much as face-to-face recommendations.
With the pandemic increasing our social media consumption and screen-time, we have begun witnessing how numerous influencers and celebrities are embracing body positivity and promoting it. From posting about their uneven skin tones to having an open discussion about the constant pressure of looking perfect, many are now giving up the need for “Insta-perfect” selfies and wearing their flaws proudly.
So, rather than perfectly clean white rugs and couches, we’re seeing messy houses and people in their pyjamas. We’re seeing dirty dishes in the sink and piles of laundry on the furniture. The idea that we can only post “perfect” pictures online has been turned on its head. Rather than only sharing smiling pics of happy, well-coiffed kids in matching flannels, influencers are posting real images of their kids melting down, refusing to wear what their parents say, and ripping out their pony tails or playing with the pets.
That’s also the line that many brands have taken, jumping quickly onto the “realism” bandwagon. From experimenting with ugly filters to face-fattening ones, a quiet opposition to the idea of “Internet Perfection” is brewing among social media influencers. While Instagram museums and walls were built to allow normal people to take influencer-quality photographs and they worked so well, those quirky, colourful photos became so common that they don’t resonate now like they used to, anymore! In the beginning, you had everyone posting these normal photos, and so that rainbow-food photo stood out. But because so many people adopted that aesthetic, that has become passé. Beyond the vanity metrics, many have begun realising that we are living in influencer overload and hence, the trend reversing towards unfiltered realities has taken over.
The rise of inclusive influencers
One cannot miss Elsa Majimbo who became 2020’s biggest sensation for keeping it real and cracking us up with her sarcasm and humour. In a period marred with anxiety and expectations, her reels provide a sense of relief while also paying an ode to the constant snacking culture of the pandemic.
The Kenya-based social media sensation’s satirical style of comedy (punctuated by her low-quality video technique) has struck a chord with a global audience for being real. It has also shown the world which was clearly craving humor and a dose of optimism in otherwise trying times. By leaning into her voice and relatable content, Majimbo has become a breakout star with a positive impact.
Take Deepica Mutyala for example. An Indian-American who started off as a YouTuber and took an authentic approach to beauty by keeping it real. Catering to the brown-skinned people across the globe, she gradually created her influence on her followers. From 2015-2018, Deepica dedicated her efforts as an on-air beauty expert, YouTuber, and activist collaborating with brands on panels and campaign efforts geared toward minority representation. That’s how Deepica also became an entrepreneur by creating her own brand of cosmetics and starting “Live Tinted” for women of every complexion.
Staying on the message of keeping inclusivity and diversity among beauty brands, Live Tinted explores diverse beauty and creates products for “every shade in-between”. The brand gives a voice and tells the stories of underrepresented individuals and features their personal journeys with beauty, culture and identity. With her beauty brand, Deepica not only broke society’s unrealistic beauty standards tilted towards perfection but also made it to Forbes’ list of “Disruptive beauty brands of 2019.
Govts Penalising misleading beauty brands?
Responding to the damaging effects of “Instagram filters,” UK-based Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has recently come up with a rule that says social media influencers, brands, and bloggers are restricted from using misleading beauty filters in their promotional posts from now onwards. It further explained that if a filter exaggerates the effect of a cosmetic or a skin-related product; it is not to be used in the product promotional ads.
This means that celebrities and all other related individuals and firms would not be able to use filters that change the color, and texture of the product and make it look more unrealistic. To enhance the importance of the new policy, a new campaign has been initiated with the hashtag: #filterdrop. The influencers and brands are requested to be truthful in revealing whether they had used filters to enhance the beauty of the sponsored product.
Joining the saddle, India’s The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) has drafted a set of guidelines for influencer-advertising on social media. The guidelines aim to protect consumer interest by enabling easy recognition of promotional content online.
This kind of regulation definitely helps keep the illusion of perfection under check. But, as we begin to change our ways to use Instagram profiles to show realistic and authentic aspects of our lives, is the whole influencer industry on the verge of a clean-up? Well, at least it began with some platforms/influencers deleting fake followers and now, as we look for more transparency, the “bare-all” era of being authentic seems to have started off with influencers giving us a tour of their daily routines and tips to be happy or lead a stress-free life, focussing on mental health.
While influencers are now striving hard to sell the mantra of “adding value to their work and following their passion” where they believe “everything is not about business or bucks”, it also deems us to question whether this breed of social media stars are again creating a make-believe image of appearing to be authentic (because it’s in vogue) or whether they are really being their true selves?
For now, let’s hope that this is a genuine change that’s taking over the influencer industry!