Every morning, I wake up with a great sense of hope for humanity — but 10 minutes spent scanning Twitter usually cures me of it. Until this week, when I came across a hashtag that made me pause. Twitter users were tagging their tweets #BeautyInAll and posting makeup-less selfies in order to showcase the multiplicity of feminine beauty, express their disapproval of reductionist ideals, and open up a much-needed discourse about self-acceptance and body positivity.
I scrolled down a little further and discovered another viral social media movement, the #DontJudgeMe challenge. Here, users, mostly young women, post often humorous-looking photos and videos of themselves looking “ugly” by scrawling on garish makeup, acne, and unibrows, and making unattractive faces (reminiscent of the “pretty girls making ugly faces” trend from a year ago). These two viral social media trends represent a new style of female empowerment in which women act as critical curators of their own online identities.
The #BeautyInAll and #DontJudgeMe movements are directly juxtaposed against other viral trends, including the thigh gap and bikini bridge, as well as the new(er) belly button challenge, which has been gaining more traction internationally and has now come to the U.S. These types of trends can be dangerous — they limit women by making them feel insecure if they do not possess these traits that mass media and social media deem desirable.
Recently, I conducted a series of focus groups with college-aged women, and the majority of them are aware of the thigh gap and bikini bridge trends. Though they may think the trends are ridiculous, they still pay attention — and for some, these ideals may serve as a source of anxiety or dissatisfaction with their bodies.
It’s no secret that the media has long been a source of discontent for women. Messages about what is attractive in terms of physical appearance are clearly broadcast, and women go to great lengths to alter their appearance to fit within these prescribed norms. In addition, our society’s fascination with the transformative nature of beauty motivates women to “fix” their flaws. We’ve seen it perpetuated in Disney movies in which the homely, plain girl magically becomes a beautiful princess (and in most cases, lands the guy), and in reality TV shows like The Swan and Extreme Makeover in which contestants go to great lengths to alter their physical appearances in the hopes of improving their lives.
Ironically, these remarkable transformations very often have the opposite effect on women — instead of making them feel empowered and in control of their own appearance, these “makeovers” actually make their self-esteem decrease significantly and can cause other mental health issues. When women control their own portrayals, it gives them a feeling of empowerment and allows them to express themselves in a more autonomous way.
The #BeautyInAll and #DontJudgeMe movements both reject this “magical makeover” narrative, but they have still received some criticism from social media users. Some feel that #BeautyInAll is superficial — they are doubtful of the movement’s impact and potential to enact large-scale change. And some claim that the #DontJudgeMe images and videos shame those who do possess the traits that are being lampooned in the photos and videos. For example, how are you supposed to feel if you wear glasses, don’t have flawless skin or teeth, and aren’t fashionable? Are #DontJudgeMe participants inadvertently shaming certain women in the name of empowerment?
Despite this negative backlash, the #BeautyInAll challenge is a body-positive movement. It allows women to show our “true” selves — beyond the mask (both literal and figurative) that we wear in order to conform. It allows us to be in control of how we reveal ourselves online. Similarly, the #DontJudgeMe movement is meant to be light-hearted in nature, and does not appear to be created with the intention to exclude or body-shame others. While criticisms of its strategy are valid and intent does not excuse impact, it is still an important step in a better direction. These two trends relieve the pressure on women to carefully curate their selfies and photos so that only those reflecting high levels of socially acceptable attractiveness are on display.
Despite the criticism of the #DontJudgeMe and #BeautyInAll movements, it’s important to recognize that we are making progress. We should celebrate the milestones we create as a digital society and recognize how powerful it can be when we cross traditional boundaries, bypass stereotypes, and challenge conventional norms that dictate how women should look, behave, dress, and portray themselves. Simply opening up a dialogue about these issues facilitates change and should be encouraged.
Social media is an inherently democratic medium — and as of now, one of the most egalitarian media outlets we have. Online, people are empowered to express themselves in whatever manner they see fit. As women, the #BeautyInAll and #DontJudgeMe movements are social media body image “challenges” we as women can all be more supportive of — rather than perpetuating the potentially unhealthy challenges we’ve seen gain traction on social media in recent years.
Nicki Karimipour is a PhD student and instructor at the University of Florida.