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.