The Cohort: Can we be both real and our best on social media?

Hi, everyone! This is Kristen Hare, editor of The Cohort. We’re back for a few more editions without Katie (miss you, friend). I’m so excited to introduce you all to Liz Plank. Liz is a senior correspondent at Vox Media and the co-host of a forthcoming podcast exploring divisions amongst women in America. Liz will guest-write the next few Cohorts for us, and we hope to be back to our normal routine soon. I’m going to get out of the way now, but Liz, meet the Cohort. Cohort, meet Liz!

I began to see her in my social media feeds and on Instagram Stories (the new section of the app where people's posts are ephemeral and less polished). “Mondays, ugh” a caption read over a pristine selfie capturing a perfectly organized corner office. “No days off,” read the text on a video showing a woman in fashionable workout clothes with a carefully placed timestamp to show she had finished her second set of squats before I even wiped the drool off my face that morning.

She was the cool, collected, well-balanced woman. If the “cool girl” only eats pizza and drinks whiskey while maintaining a size 2 body, the “cool woman” manages a team of 45 employees but always seems to be sipping on margs while I’m slaving away on Google Sheets. She was everywhere.

But she also felt familiar. With the exception of the corner office, many of these scenes have played out in my own Instagram stories. Was I ascribing to the very social media mores that I wished women to be free of?

After realizing I would probably hate me if I followed me on social media, I wondered if this problem had become a collective one. Can we be both real and our best on social media?

High heels on the carpet? Oh, please.
High heels on the carpet? Oh, please.

Social media requires its users to be at once authentic and perfectly manicured. And this contradiction isn’t unique to the digital space. It’s a demand that’s doubly challenging since — as Hillary Clinton reminded us at the 2017 Code Conference — success and likability don’t go hand in hand like it does for men. Women are supposed to be successful, but not too successful. So run for president, but like don’t brag about it. Raise money, but don’t put it on display with designer jackets. Talk about that promotion, but package it as a #humblebrag. Even if a woman is woke to these unfair standards, navigating them is remarkably taxing.

The closest analogy that can capture the paradoxical expectations we place on the modern woman is synchronized swimming. Competing in that sport from a young age, I remember the most challenging part was that I was expected to smile through excruciating pain and effort. Although every single muscle in my body was pulsing and throbbing and my tiny lungs were desperately gasping for oxygen, I was required to act as if it were effortless, or else I would get low marks by the judges. At 13, I didn’t write the rules, but I certainly followed them.

Now that I’m an adult and no longer required to spread Vaseline on my teeth and sport waterproof sequin hair gel, why am I still obeying to the same code?

Of course, blaming women for not being authentic online is sort of like blaming individual women for having body image issues. We can’t ignore the social pressures that women have been nudged to ascribe to.

The solution? We have to celebrate and reward authentic behavior. That starts with positive modeling from fierce female leaders who can give women permission to be truly authentic. Samhita Mukhopadhyay, the senior editorial director of Culture and Identities at Mic.com, is one of the few women whom I don’t hate on social media. So, I decided to interview her about what real authenticity looks like. Her response was characteristically honest: ”It just doesn’t exist."

As a senior leader in the news industry, the pressure to be flawless is overwhelming, she said. “We have a notion of traditional model of leadership. If you’re a role model, you’re perfect, when we all know that’s not the reality: The strongest leaders are the ones who are the most authentic.”

But she notes this pressure is not equally placed on men.

"Male media professionals are never given that pressure,” she explained. "They are seen at face value, as a serious person, with an opinion that is respected. They can post a hundred pics of hiking or their children but it’s never seen as inauthentic. It’s really women’s lives that are dissected in that way.”

As Samhita’s gone up the corporate ladder, she says she has changed the way she engages online. Given her managerial role, she thinks more thoughtfully about what she posts.

"It’s an authentic version of myself, but it’s curated,” she notes. “And it’s become more curated as I go into more senior leadership. Ten years ago, I probably would have written something on social that I was wasted, and now I would never do something like that. It’s not me being inauthentic, it’s me being like... I need job security.”

Of course, it’s normal to want to project a well-balanced version of ourselves. The solution to this problem is not for women to purposely blast unattractive photos of themselves online or censor the posting of positive moments in their life. Insecurity is also in the eye of the beholder.

It’s up to every woman to reflect on her usage of social media. Ask yourself:

How much time are you spending on social media? While most of the women I spoke to while researching this piece told me Instagram was their preferred platform, many also reported it was the app that made them feel the worst about themselves. Why are women spending so much time on a platform that makes them feel like shit?

Remember to have some fun with it. The Instagram Stories feature gives us the opportunity to relearn what social media platforms are for. When the genre of reality TV came out, we had to admit that The Hills was definitely not reality, and there were producers behind the camera. We have to learn to laugh at ourselves and the demands social media puts on all of us.

Be stingy with your time. “Really be protective of yourself about how these messages make you feel,” Samhita advised. She compared spending a lot of time on Instagram to spending a lot of time reading the comments or engaging in other activities that impact women’s ability to work.

Unfollow! Samhita recommends opting out of following people whose posts make you feel like bad. “...You can curate your community so well and create micro-communities of people who are supportive and will be there for you. That’s the future of online spaces anyways.”

Among Samhita's group of friends, unadulterated selfies get the most likes and words of encouragement.

“What I notice is that optimistic self-empowerment content does better than self-deprecating content. People root for each other. It’s part of female community building.”

The Cohort was founded by Katie Hawkins-Gaar, who’s currently on leave. In the meantime, you can revisit the archives. And don’t forget to be kind to yourselves.

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