Some women pay a premium to have our pubic hair ripped out from the root by professionals. Some women get eyelash perms or have our eyebrows tattooed. I once cheerfully accepted an acne drug that my doctor informed me could lead to permanent physical damage and leave me suicidal.
The premium that is placed on women's appearance is unspeakably high.
So, if some women put up pictures of themselves asking for validation—as many women did this week, with the viral #ChallengeAccepted trend, a good response is not “You aren't a real activist.” If those pictures don’t sit well with you, the response should be: What can we do to make women feel valid and worthy so that they have opportunities for praise outside of their appearance? How can I, personally, make the women in my life feel seen?
#ChallengeAccepted, a kind of chain-email-style Instagram trend, encouraged women to post black-and-white pictures of themselves with the hashtag #WomenSupportingWomen. It is, of course, not a “challenge” at all, but an opportunity to post a flattering picture on the internet. The trend inspired fast, fierce backlash—a critical piece in the New York Times, an eye roll from Chrissy Teigen, a line drawn on your timeline between the friends who participated and the ones who didn't.
Some of that criticism was good, exciting even, inspiring an honest dialogue between women about what online feminism and activism should look like. “Influencers and celebrities love these types of ‘challenges’ because they don’t require actual advocacy, which might alienate certain factions of their fan base,” Taylor Lorenz wrote, accurately, in the Times. On KQED's site, Rae Alexandra laid out a damning argument that #ChallengeAccepted is a “sea of whiteness” that obscures the origins of the social media campaign, a movement in Turkey to bring attention to skyrocketing rates of violence against women.
Yes, I think this is a good tweet and I think #ChallengeAccepted is fine. We exist, okay?
The “challenge” irked people—women especially—because it revealed so transparently how badly most women want to be seen as desirable. With “Challenge Accepted,” the obligation to hide this fact slipped. Women, like men, prefer women be carelessly hot and run photos of themselves through whatever filter best obscures their uneven skin texture. Imagining that you could look conventionally perfect without becoming broke, exhausted, and labeled a narcissist is an intoxicating fantasy. Women are employed to promote and consume that idea. It's the backbone of social media. It should be obvious at this point that all social media is performance. A lot of the criticisms of “challenge accepted” boil down to “This performance isn't cool.”
That's funny, because thirst traps, tasteful nudes, and self-aware selfies ("felt cute might delete" in all lowercase on snaps of women in formfitting evening wear) have huge cachet on Instagram. We praise women who proudly flaunt their looks for the sake of it, who stand proudly in the power of their own appearances. Why is it that Martha Stewart's swimming pool thirst trap or Chrissy Teigen's shower snap is cool, but your mom's sorority sister's favorite black-and-white picture of herself is fake and desperate? To me, the challenge wasn't empowering (though I agree that everyone looks spookier and sexier in black-and-white). But I'm not really in a position to say to other women, “And it isn't empowering for you, either."
The charge against the second group of women—the “challenge” women—is that they were duplicitous, posting self-promoting pictures under the auspices of activism. It's also that they’re hypocrites, because they said they were promoting a good cause, but they were just promoting themselves. That's confusing, because mainstream feminism has asserted for the past few years that promoting yourself is a perfectly good cause. The accusation that the posts were purely vanity also feels oversimplified, and tinged with sexism—in many cases, women paired their pictures with revealing, reflective vignettes about their life, often touching on taboo topics—fertility, weight loss, indignity, and parenting assertive girls. It would have been chicer to post a hot picture and caption it “Late capitalism blows but enjoy these tiddies,” but it would not have been morally superior to a #ChallengeAccepted post.
Most women who participated in the “challenge” used the hashtag #WomenSupportingWomen on their pictures. The wildly generalizing idea that (4 billion) women should support (4 billion) women isn't very meaningful—it's often, ironically, used to suppress women and flatten feminist discourse. A lot of the thoughtful criticism of “challenge accepted” comes from a place of real agony. As women are murdered, raped, underpaid, harassed, subjected to life under majority-male control, and generally treated less human, the movement for women's rights has become feeble, flat, and corporate.
One of the great problems of feminism is that women are an oppressed group comprising half of all living people. We’re unwieldy—difficult to wrangle into a cohesive movement or action, even in pursuit of our own rights. So when a gigantic group of women decide to do something that is “empowering,” perhaps there is a way to invite them to reckon with what that means that doesn't boil down to telling them, “NO, NOT LIKE THAT, STUPID."
Also if anyone is interested in doing the next challenge in sepia tone, I will #supportyou.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
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