Instagram’s influence on teens, promoting toxic femininity

Second Place (tie), Feature Writing

Teenagers live in an era where Instagram inundates them with mixed messages. Some of these messages can be empowering, but others are quite harmful. One of the most harmful messages Instagram reinforces is ideas related to toxic femininity and masculinity.

An article by Psychology Today describes these stereotypical feminine traits as “passivity, empathy, sensuality, patience, and tenderness.” According to Katie Anthony in her article “Is ‘Toxic Femininity’ a thing?” she explains toxic femininity as a “narrow and repressive description of womanhood, defined by cooperation, sexual subservience, status, and passivity; where beauty and ability to make men feel good are yardsticks by which women are measured.”

On the opposite spectrum, toxic masculinity describes the pressure put on men and boys to act stereotypically masculine.

According to Teaching Tolerance and their article “What We Mean When We Say, ‘Toxic Masculinity,’” toxic masculinity is defined as “a narrow and repressive description of manhood, defining manhood by acts of violence, sex, status, and aggression; the cultural idea that strength is everything and emotions are weakness.”

Both of these influences make young adults feel as if  they have to fit a certain mold.

Girls are more likely to experience toxic femininity through Instagram. When scrolling through Instagram, the average teenage girl sees unrealistic women in close to no clothes. Instagram seems to normalize surgery and reinforce that there is a certain way to dress and act. This can affect younger girls by making them feel obligated to become a stereotype.

 “Seeing all the Instagram models made me feel like I  had to dress like that, “said Jessie Deleon, 18-year-old student at Pinole Valley High. “I realized that social media is not healthy for me so I deleted it.”

 Instagram makes girls feel as though they have to fit into unrealistic expectations. Instagram doesn’t really show females doing their own thing that strays away from mainstream expectations.

“As a teenage girl, I have to put on makeup,” said Bella Contreras, a college student at UC Berkeley. “ If I don’t, I feel as if I’m not being feminine enough for society.”

As part of her journalism courses, journalism adviser Maya Kosover intentionally plans units around media literacy to help students make sense of media’s messages. According to her, the average teenager spends somewhere around 8-11 hours a day interacting with media, from listening to music to watching YouTube videos to scrolling on Instagram.

“Teens are constantly absorbing messages from the media, and most of the time it’s done subconsciously,” Kosover said. “It’s important to recognize what messages the media sends us about our identities and whether we wish to accept or challenge those.”

 While the impacts of toxic femininity are strong, young men also experience pressure from Instagram because it promotes toxic masculinity.

“I feel uncomfortable to take off my shirt at pools since I don’t have a six pack,” said Bryan Rodríguez, a high school student at Hayward High.

“In public, I feel like I’m not able to show my emotions, but when I get home and I am alone, I’m able to,” Jesus Arellanes, senior at Richmond High, said.

Since almost everyone has access to phones, it is easier to shape the minds of young adults. Men feel intimidated by social media to become hyper masculine themselves. There is a belief that men and boys cannot show emotions and if they do, their sexuality is questioned.

To Luis Chacon, a history and Ethnic Studies teacher at Richmond High, toxic masculinity is a destructive view of what it means to be a man. He encourages healthy conversations with his students to challenge what they think it means to be a man and where they learned some of these harmful messages.

Some students are starting to catch on.

“Instagram should respect all beauty,” Gerardo Cervantes, a Richmond High student, said. “People should be comfortable in their own body.”

In order to change this type of thinking, people must realize that gender doesn’t define who you are as a person. No woman or man is one body shape and what you see on Instagram isn’t always real.

This story was an honoree in the 2020 Lesher Awards competition.