Racial identity hidden behind the screen

by Risha Sinha, opinions editor
photo and graphic by Gianna Burgess and Adrienne Lirio

When I first got Instagram in sixth grade, I didn’t download the app — I grammed (so to speak) from Safari on my iPhone 5. My refusal to download the app could have been for a couple reasons: one may have been that I was wise beyond my years and could foresee the detrimental impact Instagram would have on teens’ mental health. 

The other more likely reason: I had created my account without telling my parents and was trying to stealthily check the latest updates from the Shawn Mendes fan pages I followed. Today, I have long unfollowed the likes of ShawnieBoy98, and the Instagram app resides comfortably on my phone. 

My feed is now filled with SNL theory pages and small stand-up comedians, along with random influencers, the occasional ad marketing some God-awful game or product and my peers’ posts. As teenagers are prone to do, I often compare myself to the photos posted by my peers. When I do, I find it helpful to remind myself to take the images I see with a grain of salt.

Inauthentic Instagram pictures from my peers don’t bother me because I know they are fake. I see them in-person every day, so I can always compare their authentic selves to what I see in their posts. Online, we are posed carefully and dressed in our best outfits. In the halls of South, however, I see few jaw-dropping outfits; instead, I see lots of sweats. It is my firm belief that high-schoolers single-handedly finance the booming Hanes conglomerate. 

Day to day, the average high-schooler has the elegance and poise of a baby giraffe learning to walk, with a back curved like a macaroni noodle from carrying a ridiculously heavy backpack. In other words, we are rarely straight (physically or otherwise) and do not hold ourselves with the same grace as we do on Instagram. 

But make no mistake — this does not make us look bad — it just makes us look human — albeit sweatpant-clad, gangly, run-of-the-mill humans. The duality between Instagram and reality is what makes it fun. We can enjoy sharing the best versions of ourselves without the false idea that this version needs to be our constant expectation.

Some people take these expectations of social media too far, leading to my main issue with Instagram: influencers’ overuse of Photoshop and filters. This false reality poses a major threat to the mental health of their followers, particularly young girls. 

There is nothing I could say about this topic that has not already been said in a more serious and eloquent way. Instead of being another voice yelling the same thing into the void of hundreds of videos and articles surrounding this topic (read Twitter activist), I’d like to shift the focus from the people who use filters to the filters themselves. 

Not all filters are harmful. (The worst thing about the Grinch filter, for example, is that I am quite possibly more attractive when using it.) The filters I speak of, some of which are given oxymoronic names like “No Filter” or “Just Baby,” fundamentally shape key features of the user’s face to Eurocentric beauty standards. 

As someone whose 23andMe test would come back 99% Indian, I have many stereotypically Indian features: hooded brown eyes, a bulbous nose that likes to channel its inner potato and skin as dark as the copious amounts of chocolate I dream of consuming. I’m not about to run to modeling agencies, but in my opinion, I have a pretty okay face. 

Based on all of its very questionable filters, Instagram apparently disagrees. My skin lightens, my nose shrinks and sharpens, my lips inflate and my eyes, for some bizarre reason, turn blue or green! My brown, brown features are changed to be Westernized. I look like the Barbie version of myself. I look like the Kardashian version of myself. Yet media and society regard this unrealistic and racist image to be the ideal, as the popularity of the filters in question show.

So, what do we do about this? Do we petition Instagram and members of Congress to remove all subtle, appearance-altering filters? Do we stop using filters altogether? 

In a perfect world, we would all celebrate each other for our unique beauties so that no one would feel the need to don filters and masquerade with another face. If we focus less on becoming “beautiful” and simply accept that we are stunning as we are, we would collectively have no need for such subtle, face-altering filters, and solve this problem. 

The end of such practices, in turn, gives us energy to spend on more important issues, simultaneously preventing Instagram from profiting from cruel, false beauty standards. But before we can focus on our other issues, we all need to take the first step together. We all need to look in the mirror and love what we see.