While visual subversion is trending, emotional subversion is not.
Together, the pages I follow on Instagram feed have two sides: emotional excess and visual excess. Everyone follows different content, whether it be food blogs, fitness pages or nature pictures, all of which carry their own trends. Because I tend to follow clothing labels, emotional meme pages, photographers and magazines, my media intake is a narrative that seems to summarize the contrasts between inner and outer feeling. The narrative of sexual liberation in popular personal pages and magazines compared to the shame that seems to pervade more emotional accounts suggests that, in general, the sexually explicit is more socially acceptable than what I might call the emotionally explicit.
Both online and in real life, one can see the trend of visual subversion. This is made clear by trends in New York Fashion Week, where overtly sexual pieces were hashtagged, shared and covered by online media. Some of the various trending looks include Christopher Kane’s SS19 pieces with text that reads “Sex in Nature” and “Sexual Cannibalism.” The Ashish SS19 show was similarly sexual in nature, previewing glittery bikini pieces for the season drop. Lou Dallas, Barragán and Pyer Moss are a few of many brands featuring micro-skirts, mesh dresses and plunging necklines in various colors, shapes and sizes. The prevalence of the sexually risqué during fashion week is a summation or reflection of the overall social acceptance of bodies more generally. With social media trends like #FreeTheNipple and Kanye West’s co-creative direction of the first ever PornHub Awards, it is safe to say that gratuitous sexuality is fairly acceptable in the mainstream. It exists both in high and low culture, with few people batting an eyelash. Subversion by way of bodily exposure and wearing scantily clad clothing is generally perceived as edgy and boundary-pushing.
The popularity of sexual displays on social media picked up speed when Jean-Paul Goude photographed Kim Kardashian in a skin-tight black dress holding a phallic bottle of champagne, with an accompanying version showing much more nudity. Published in Paper Magazine, this created the hashtag #BreakTheInternet. Yes, these images were met with controversy, but the name of the hashtag shows their success in terms of creating hype. Viewers either love it, or love to hate it. Either way, it creates talk, and both the photographer and his subject are not afraid to own up to the content they created.
The same, however, cannot be said for gratuitous displays of emotion. Public personas on Instagram freely post risqué photos of themselves in efforts to break the internet. They proudly attach these images to their name or with their personal website in their Instagram bios. The emotional side of Instagram, however, tends to be anonymous. Wedged in-between Paper Magazine’s risqué shots of almost-nude models walking down the runway or Office Magazine’s shots from parties with barely-there pixels covering chests that appear on the Instagram feed, there are woefully and intentionally pathetic memes by semi-anonymous content creators like @blacksheepmemes. Only going by her first name, “Megha,” one of her memes reads, “me forever shook to another dimension over how hung up I am over a dude I never even dated” above a picture of Taylor Swift. Another meme by @sadpeoplememes reads, “I keep setting myself up to fail and I end up in precarious situations and I’m also dumb and ugly.” Similar to Megha’s semi-anonymity, she only goes by the name “soph.” Another meme by @meme.queen.satan reads, “When he chooses you, makes you a priority, cares about your feelings, and actually wants to be with you — It’s just not realistic.” Run by two content creators, this account is completely anonymous. The above Instagram pages all have 20-30,000 followers — a hefty amount for someone who is not otherwise a celebrity. Parallel to unabashed risqué images, these memes are unabashed displays of emotional honesty. One would think that someone gaining an internet following would gladly claim their fame and tell all of their friends, much like influencers, skaters, and hypebeasts who are otherwise non-celebrities. However, these meme-makers often post on their stories about how they had to block their friends and exes out of embarrassment.
While part of the intention of blocking friends arises from the practical issue of shielding these friends from content that is about them, it is also noteworthy to consider how self-deprecation creates a shame that nudity does not. Physical nudity is sexy, whereas emotional “nudity” does not seem to be. Instead of capturing moments of physical pride, these posts capture moments of emotional vulnerability.
Even celebrity Hope Sandoval of the band Mazzy Star projects a self-deprecation on her Instagram that seems to be alienating. One of her first posts reads, “I’m a superstar in my own private movie.” She has under 2,000 followers, a small number for a singer headlining with popular Cardi B and Mac Demarco at Tropicália. In general, seeing a scantily-clad person on social media is not likely to make someone think too hard beyond “Wow, I wish I looked like that.” On the other hand, dumping one’s insecurities onto an Instagram post might cause uncomfortable self-reflection, forcing the viewer to deal with their own ugly feelings. These posts will not break the internet, but could make one reflect upon one’s broken heart — a type of nudity society does not yet have the courage to embrace.