Women are now more active than men across major social media platforms such as Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook and have a stronger attachment to social networking than do men, but does time spent online and the aspirational messages they’re bombarded with on these sites actually have a negative effect on their psyches? Considered in light of Newsweek’s recent feature on the mounting evidence that intense internet usage contributes to increased anxiety and depression and even psychosis, it’s a fair and timely question to ask.
Take for example, Pinterest, where 82% of traffic comes from women. Pinterest is now a top driver of traffic to the websites of women’s lifestyle, home décor and cooking mags, including Martha Stewart, Elle Décor and House Beautiful. Jezebel defended Pinterest as allowing women to create an image of their ideal life through collected imagery, but their endorsement reads more like vapid and dated marketing copy than a shrewd assessment of the site’s value to members:
“Women use Pinterest to curate their own domestic and aesthetic fantasies. It’s the place to collect their ideas — upholstered headboards; decorating with dress forms; nail art; DIY hopscotch bean bags; rag roil curl tutorial; recipe for brownies that look like burgers; polka dot wrapping paper; elements of a dream wedding — arrange them in a way that’s equally stylish, and store them for possible later use as inspiration for making their lives a little prettier, tastier, easier.”
The fact that there’s such a synchronicity between digital preferences and traditional print content – and Jezebel’s summary of Pinterest is indistinguishable from the description of a new Martha Stewart media property – could also point to the fact that messaging aimed at women in the online space simply replicates the offline gender norms that women’s magazines, tv and movies have been preaching for decades and that female consumers have alternately embraced and struggled against. Pinterest itself has acknowledged the potential for pinned content to be damaging to users’ self-images and deemed this a big enough issue to opt for banning thinspiration or ‘thinspo’ pin boards, where members post aspirational images and links related to dieting and extreme weight loss. The Atlantic weighed in on the repetitive and patronizing nature of women-aimed content by citing nine examples of female-friendly stories that journalists should stop writing. More innocuously, but no less gender-normative, BuzzFeed ran 125 Reasons Why Guys Are Scared Of Pinterest a couple of months ago – a listicle round-up of high school level wisdom in the form of relationship quotes, gifs or placards posted on the popular platform that would be right at home in a quote of the month calendar given to you one Christmas by a well-meaning aunt.
But is this cliched content doing real damage?
“Despite there being a large body of research around self-image, social comparison and media images of women, we haven’t yet seen meaningful research addressing how social media, blogging, or text-based media influence women’s self-perceptions. There has been far more focus on social media behavior, such as behavior of youth on social networks and how this affects self-esteem. But I have not seen any research on social comparison effects of lifestyle blogging,” says San Francisco-based psychologist Dr. Keely Kolmes.
Dr. Kolmes mentions blogs, which, in addition to social media, are another aspect of digital participation in which women outpace men and where the women with the largest audiences are not writing about politics or science, but posting personal anecdotes or marketing their own lifestyle brands. The BlogHer website positions itself as a community for women who blog and boasts over 40 million hits a month. When Heather Armstrong of Dooce fame announced her divorce, it was covered on The Huffington Post among other outlets. Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond has parlayed her blog into a bestseller and a tv show. These women and a handful of other like them rule the corner of the internet devoted to modeling the ideal feminine self in the form of lifestyle blogs.
If you want to know how to wear pastels this season, bake a perfect macaron or co-sleep with your baby, that information is out there. And it’s packaged in sepia-tinted Instagram photos, scrawling font and the language of Oprah style empowerment – You too can live your best life and mirroring mine is a good place to start is the implicit message. But dissent is springing up and detractors are becoming quicker to call out such bloggers on content that they believe is less instructional and more self-aggrandizing and narcissistic. While not created out of an explicit intent to address cultural implications of the digital discourse on feminine self-improvement and self-revelation, Get Off My Internets is a popular site for critiquing the flaws of lifestyle blogging and questioning the authenticity of the would-be gurus that it spawns. According to Alice Wright, the site’s founder, GOMI isn’t specifically focused on female lifestyle bloggers, they just happen to dominate this niche.
“GOMI posts about people who are acting like assholes. It has nothing to do with the configuration of their genitalia. GOMI participants are not all women, and when I have posted about men there is just as much commentary as when I post about women. There just isn’t a lot of man-blogging to report on is all. You can pull whatever ‘women talk, men play basketball’ generalizations out you want, but the fact is there are simply more women emptying their brains over their keyboards than men. GOMI posts about internet celebs, and there are more female celebs than men. It’s not a conscious decision, it’s about what’s available to dissect for discussion,” she says.
While Wright sees lifestyle blogs as an endless source of eye rolling fodder for her site’s members to snark on, Meghan Murphy, Executive Director of feminisms.org and host and producer of The F word radio show sees online aspirational content such as home décor pin boards or make-up review blogs as serving a more nefarious purpose, namely pulling attention away from larger issues and encouraging a focus on bettering yourself over reducing social inequities.