Gender Performance and Instagram

On October 27th, 2015, 18-year-old Essena O’Neill quit Instagram, deleting nearly 2,000 of her pictures and leaving a parting message warning about the ills of social media. This surely isn’t the first time something like this has happened before, but what set Essena and her departure from social media apart from those incidences is the fact that she had gained more than a half a million followers during her time on Instagram. The social media star explained about the layers of makeup, the skinny swimsuit photos, and the need for validation via likes and comments and how it took a toll on her well-being.


In the Keywords for Children’s Literature essay “Gender” by Erica Hateley, it’s pointed out how gender can “allow or disallow certain behaviors or experiences on the basis of biological sex” (86). Hateley goes on to discuss gender performance as well and how gender roles are reinforced through feedback based on adherence to them (90). For example, femininity is often expressed through clothes, makeup, and domestic tasks. The more girls and women comply with these guidelines for femininity, the more accepted they are. On the other hand, girls and women who defy this are often policed for not performing their assigned gender.

Gender, more specifically gender roles and gender performance, is extremely influential in the girlhoods of both Essena O’Neill as well as Meg from Little Women. In Chapter 3, Meg tries to curl her hair and wear her best dress for the New Year’s Eve party she attends. It’s clear she does this not only to fit in with her richer friends, but also to feel more feminine and express her gender. Another similar incident occurs in Chapter 9, when Meg feels the pressure from her girlfriends to wear more makeup and dress up, presumably like a “proper girl” would. This is another instance of the pressure to conform to gender roles and express gender in approved ways. Later that evening, Meg is chastised by Laurie for dressing and acting in a feminine, more flirtatious way. This further shows how femininity is policed.

Essena, as noted before, has also felt the pressure to express her gender in certain ways. Though she focuses a lot on how social media was damaging, it’s good to note that social media was the vehicle through which she was expressing her image of ideal femininity and beauty. Her need to have flawless skin and a curvy yet slim body shows how she tried to gain approval through performing her gender in a way that is deemed appropriate by society.

In both Essena and Meg’s cases, there are clear and appropriate ways to express gender and femininity. However, the societal pressure to conform to these gender roles appears to oftentimes come at a cost.

7 thoughts on “Gender Performance and Instagram”

  1. I think your discussion of gender roles and women’s constant pressure to conform to them is spot on. We see from a young age how girls are taught what a girl should do and act like, the ideal body shape and size, what makeup is, and how to dress. All these expectations from society can like you said take a toll on one’s well being, just like Essena. If one doesn’t fit these expectations then what? I also think that though society has some norms for men, they aren’t punished as much as women. Women seem to stand as a sex symbol in movies, shows, advertisements, music videos and more and I think this becomes problematic, especially for young girls trying to find themselves.

  2. I really like how you tied social media into our conversations about girlhood and gender, because I believe it is so relevant to how girls/women our age, and even younger view themselves as feminine or the degree of femininity they have. Essena had to perform her gender, and in a sense prove to her followers on Instagram that she was indeed feminine and a girl, through curling her hair and putting on lots of makeup. This is so wrong! As females we shouldn’t need to prove ourselves of anything, especially on social media, but be able to express our vision of our own femininity in our own, personal ways.

  3. Anna, I remember when this story came out and I felt proud for this girl. I’m sure that there are many girls that are in the same situation that she was in, as we still see women’s pages like her old one of stunning bikini photos and selfies. I’m glad that Essena brought this issue to our attention. I’m sure that it was hard to give up that “fame” and money. I just think that it is interesting that she uses social media to tell people how bad social media is. Unfortunately, I understand why she has to get her message out via this way, as our society is so consumed in social media and it is the best way to convey her message.

  4. I even used to follow Essena O’Neill on Instagram, and I wasn’t aware of all the things that have happened with her account. It’s so true that in today’s society, especially with the rise in popularity of social media that girls constantly feel the need to be the “perfect girl”: the tan skin, skinny yet curvy body, flawless complexion, flowing hair. But the reality is that most girls aren’t like that, yet society tells them that they should be. Now, even more than ever, girls feel the need to abandon their real personalities to conform to this image in order to feel good about themselves and to get “likes” on their Instagram posts. That feeling and way of thinking is not okay. My hope is that one day girls will be able to get the same amount of likes and reassurance by posting pictures of their true selves not what they think they should be. But in all honestly, it seems doubtful that we are ever going to get there.

  5. I really like this post because I think it is very relevant to all of the girls in the class. Social media has become a way for many girls to show others their ideal image of themselves, but in many ways it is very fake. Girls, especially, have become obsessed with posting pictures to gain attention through likes and comments. Some people have even become famous through their instagram posts. I agree with you that instagram is a very explicit way to display gender roles. Boys are not nearly as interested in their profile on instagram, while many girls think about it constantly. Some girls even edit their pictures in order to display their gender in a more stigmatized way. Social media definitely effects girls self-image and confidence, which is why is has become a somewhat detrimental entity.

  6. Anna, you make a good point about the damaging effects of gender norms. Attempting to live up to gendered expectations of beauty standard can cause great harm, as we see in both of your examples. It is disheartening to realize that the same pressures to live up to a societal expectations of normative femininity that existed in 1868 exist today, just in a different package.

  7. This message is incredibly important for both women and girls in the twenty first century. As social media begins to expand, it is creating a larger audience with younger and younger kids. When we grow up and transition from girls to women on social media, I believe this elicits poor self-esteem habits. Instead of looking for self-validation and acceptance, young girls receive it through social media and do not need to create it for themselves. Learning self-appreciation and acceptance is one of the most important lessons for a girl.

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