Why the Instagram Body Is So Seductive — and So Dangerous
Last December The New Yorker published a piece heralding the age of the “Instagram face.” Writer Jia Tolentino mused over the sameness of what she pegged as a “cyborgian” look notable for high cheekbones, full lips, sharp cat-like eyes, and a small, unobtrusive nose. If you’ve ever been targeted for beauty, celebrity, or fast fashion content on Instagram you’ve definitely seen it. Tolentino connected the advent of Snapchat’s popular filters (which were later adopted by Instagram), the surge in cosmetic procedures like Botox and hyaluronic-acid fillers, and the increased use of apps like Facetune to tweak photos for our stories and grid. Noting that the Instagram face is not only inspired by computer generated tweaks, but also “distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic,” she was troubled by the popularity of a facial aesthetic with no bodily connections, and the possibility that it’s being used to set the standard for a generation of young women, herself included.
It was a fascinating take that sent my mind wandering below the neck. Because anyone who has seen the Instagram face has certainly also seen the Instagram body, and while its notoriety has also sent hoards of women to surgeons and editing suites, its origins can be traced back to not one person but an entire group of them: Black women.
The Instagram body helps non-Black influencers—who are already considered the standard of beauty—bolster their appearance and, most likely, get paid more for it.
Some might be tempted to call it an hourglass figure, but the Instagram body is actually a spoon. Scanning from top to bottom, dainty shoulders and arms connect to perky, but not always big, boobs. Titties are actually an optional part of the aesthetic when the main attraction starts at the waistline. Defined (or snatched, as the kids say), the waist is always the narrowest part of the package. Dozens of waist-shaper companies push products that promise they can help customers master this. The waist snakes, and in some cases juts right out, into wide, round hips — just like the head of a spoon emerges from its handle. In ideal cases, hips form the shape of parenthesis. Behind them sits a round, fleshy butt. The proportions of said hips and butt are dictated by things like profession and audience, but, the Instagram body is born from this general template.
The person that probably first comes to mind when thinking about this frame: Kim Kardashian West. Arguably the biggest influencer in the world, there is no one who has marketed and benefited more from both the Instagram body and face than she has. While she hasn’t acknowledged any major surgeries that have contributed to her now iconic derriere, she certainly didn’t always carry those proportions. Still, her ability to market and capitalize off of her body helped make it a commodity that boosts the profile of everyone from fitness gurus to athlete’s wives. It didn’t trickle down, it trickled out.
Initially reserved for women who were comfortable with the extra pounds required to be called thick, the spoon shape slowly grew in popularity among the “slim thick” women, as well. Now, fitness gurus take belfies (butt selfies) to show off their curves and supermodels with thigh gaps are suddenly “hippy” (as in being wide-hipped, not a member of the ‘60s counterculture). At least they appear that way in pictures. If you weren’t blessed with those proportions or a surgeon’s skilled touch, poses and a few minutes in a photo editing app can do the trick.
Because Kardashian evolved alongside advancing technology and trends in the plastic surgery industry, and ushered in mainstream obsession with bottom halves, it’s easy to credit her for the Instagram body’s origin. But no matter how much the look is honed and adapted to align with the non-Black women who covet it, that honor goes to Black women, who have always had wider hips and bigger butts. This history is important because as the Instagram body continues to dominate the visual lexicon, it’s helping non-Black influencers—who are already considered the standard of beauty—bolster their appearance and, most likely, get paid more for it.
As the Instagram body continues to become thinner and lighter, the more it's read as ghetto and extra for those who aren’t willing to shrink themselves with it.
Because influencers work on a project by project basis, often negotiating their own rates, industry pay standards are a huge grey area. The waters get even murkier when trying to break it down in terms of race and ethnicity. But white supremacy operates at every level, and there are signs pointing to pay disparities in the influencer space. In January, Bitch Media reported on Black influencers who were pushing back on discrimination and shortchanging they experienced working with brands like Revolve. While Black Twitter has become the subject of many op eds and inquiries, it’s worth noting that a similar dynamic exists in Instagram marketing. While the Instagram body is essentially available to all, the money it tends to bring in is less equally distributed.
As the Instagram body continues to become thinner and lighter, the more it's read as ghetto and extra for those who aren’t willing to shrink themselves with it. Black women are often shamed for pursuing cosmetic options to get the bodies of their dreams. Meanwhile, writing about the Instagram face, Tolentino said that the stigma around facial cosmetic procedures was evaporating. She noted that Facetuning pictures is “the Instagram equivalent of checking your eyeliner in the bathroom of the bar.” Exaggerated bottom proportions still carry an air of excessiveness. That could be because it’s associated with Black women, or the self-indulgence of the woman who popularized it after modeling her entire look from Black woman.
Still, the urge to acclimate to the look is strong. I don’t have an Instagram face and I certainly don’t have the body, but I’m acutely aware of how the aesthetic has shaped my own body image. I uploaded a YouTube video telling viewers how I pose for my Instagram photos. Some of my favorite looks involved me elongating or manipulating my side so that my waist looked more defined. As I did so, I couldn’t help but feel annoyed and inconvenienced. If I had about 10 grand to spare, I wouldn’t have to work nearly as hard to pull the looks off.