On the Power of Candid Photos in the Age of Instagram

by Kimberly Foster @ KimberlyNFoster Near the end of the summer, images of Rihanna at Crop Over in Barbados took over my social media ti...


by Kimberly Foster @KimberlyNFoster

Near the end of the summer, images of Rihanna at Crop Over in Barbados took over my social media timelines. She and thousands of other festival-goers paraded through the streets of her home country in beautiful, revealing costumes. In typical Rihanna fashion, she did not let the constant surveillance that accompanies her stardom prevent her from enjoying the day. Images of her, barely-clothed, drinking and dancing without care filled me with joy and, frankly, relief.

The sight of her unairbrushed body—supple, dimpled and stretch-marked—reminded me that beauty and desirability do not demand perfection. No contemporary pop culture figure embodies sex as effortlessly as Rih. 

I sought out every photo and video of her from the day. I replayed the short clips, examining closely the familiar jiggle of her thighs and behind. That was a real ass—an “I eat fried foods”  ass. And I rejoiced. Thank God for Rihanna’s cellulite. That’s what liberation looks like. 

Despite her figure momentarily easing my own body anxieties, Rihanna’s “imperfections” place her comfortably at the top of an aesthetic hierarchy. Still, it was comforting to see them. In the age of Instagram, the markers of an average body are taboo, passé even, and we’re suffering for it. Or, at least I am. 

When the boundaries between professional and amateur blur, adjusting our expectations becomes difficult work. 

Dr. Racine Henry, licensed psychotherapist explains, “In the past you would turn on the TV and see the skinny and beautiful people or open a magazine, but we, generally, had the understanding that there was some "movie magic" at play with photoshop and editing.The same things exist on social media, yet because Instagram images and Snapchat videos can happen in real time, people are more likely to take those images as truth.”

As a black woman who rejects white supremacy, the things that cause me to question my body are not usually those that dominate the mainstream. For the most part, I’ve escaped the stranglehold of European beauty ideals. Developing a deep love for my culture put an end to longing for whiteness, but I still find myself coveting a certain aesthetic. Now, it is the perfectly proportioned Black bodies of Instagram that arouse envy. 

Of course these bodies exist outside of the app, but Instagram is the foremost means of proliferating the urban model ideal—the extreme hourglass figure that is almost impossible to attain naturally— and other visual representations of Blackness. This is, perhaps, why it is so popular
among Black social media users. We want to see and be seen. But I am daily wrestling with the unexpected effects of the seeing.

Everything is shiny now. In all that we consume and seek to create we’re looking for perfection. That is not new. But the recently democratized means of distribution allows us all to send meticulously edited images to our followings no matter how big or small. The market for perfection has never been more competitive. The rise of fit teas, waist trainers, and butt enhancement creams are the result.  Peddling these wares is no longer reserved for women who make a living hosting parties on the weekend. Even traditional celebrities (read: folks whose faces we see outside of Instagram) are doing it and further obscuring obsolete boundaries. 

The Bad Bitches of Instagram have, with few exceptions, undergone plastic surgery to achieve their enviable shapes. There is no shame in this; that is just a fact. Plastic surgery has been normalized  with the help of television shows like ABC’s Extreme Makeover, E!’s Botched and Lifetime’s Atlanta Plastic. Surgeons like Dr. Miami and Dr. Ghavami have become social media stars. Now, my unaltered body, while still the norm, feels unfinished. 

As an educated, competent woman, I’m, often, embarrassed when my body insecurity creeps up. I even bought a waist trainer despite everything I know about the efficacy of the torturous contraptions in achieving the look I desire. I did it. “You should know better” is a constant refrain, but, I suppose, I fear being invisible in a sea of Bad Bitches. I’m just a normal girl with a moderately enviable waist-to-hip ratio. I could never aspire to Instagram model fame. Somehow that feels like a loss. 

So I continue the work of checking in to understand how the images consumed shape my self concept. This requires careful deconstruction. Instead of turning away, I look closely, and while I’m not seeking out validation in every photograph, I study. 

***

Representation matters, but conversations about the source and function of those images are far more critical. I, as a grown ass woman, am affected, so I worry immensely for the Black girls who have not had an opportunity to develop an understanding of themselves without the constant intervention of social media. 

For those girls, we can start by being honest. R&B star K. Michelle announced in an interview that she plans to reverse the fat transfer procedures she has undergone. This is no small thing. As her star has risen, she has become nearly as well known for her frame as her music. “I want my normal shape back,” she told celebrity blogger B. Scott. Her admission is an important one because she acknowledges the unintended consequences of altering her body.  Certainly many women move through life with no regrets about their cosmetic surgeries, but K. Michelle’s candor about a choice she is no longer happy with provides an alternative script. A nuanced discussion about the whys and the why nots may be more powerful to women coveting the figures than the many stories we see each year of women dying from illegal butt injections. 

The enormous task of navigating these boundaries is made even more difficult when people enter these conversations in ways that feel disingenuous. Nicki Minaj made headlines this summer for calling out the MTV Video Music Awards for overlooking the video for her smash hit “Anaconda” in major categories. The gripe was legitimate. Less so, was Nicki’s use of diversity of body type as a means of addressing systemic inequality. No doubt that Nicki’s Black, shapely body obscures her work ethic and talent in the mainstream, but it is overrepresented in the community from which she originates. She has alluded to undergoing surgery but never made an admission (She does not owe us that, and it’s not necessary.). 

Nicki has a right to do whatever she wants with her body, but it would be impossible to argue that her cosmetic choices have not aided her visibility in the entertainment industry—at least during her rise from struggling mixtape rapper to international pop star.  And her choosing to enhance her figure would be less a point of conversation had the Anaconda video not included a bizarre rant about “skinny bitches in the club” tacked at the end. The derisions are strange considering Nicki, herself, might have been called one before her procedures. 

There are limits to what Nicki, or any other celebrity, can be responsible for. Certainly, she is not at fault for white supremacy. Nor should she be tasked with caring for the self-image of every little Black girl who enjoys her work. But the mixed messages reflect the constant push and pull of body acceptance and the complicated ways we navigate it.

***

Studies show Black women have higher rates of self-esteem and overall body confidence than white women. But our ability to navigate white supremacist beauty ideals should not be mistaken for an imperviousness to external images.  

I pride myself on practicing what bell hooks, calls “radical openness.” No topic is taboo or off-limits, and I do it intentionally to counter the shame that besets so many conversations on Black womanhood. Still, I’ve been hesitant to speak my body image issues because of their seeming frivolity, but living happily in your body is not a trivial desire. Body insecurities are only deemed unserious because they are gendered.

When our bodies are stolen, exploited, and subject to constant scrutiny, this discomfort inhibits your ability to navigate the world fully. For Black women, these are not merely private concerns; the work of building self, family, or community are made difficult. And we’ve learned to suffer silently.

It is imperative to the maintenance of my mental and emotional well-being to remain vigilant about those things that would cause me harm, so I continue to resist the tyranny of an unattainable aesthetic by questioning it.

This can be done without vilifying the women who thrive within it. 

Some women feel empowered by altering their bodies and displaying them on social media. Reducing this desire to a quest for validation through the male gaze misses the power of the app as a tool for Black self-recognition. Moreover, Instagram, in particular, has created careers for models whose shapeliness relegates them to the “urban” category. It has, literally, opened up new economies for thousands of Black women.

But the hypervisibility comes at a price, and I do not to mistake feeling empowered for access to power nor do I conflate resilience with resistance.

So I continue the work with the understanding that its necessity does not make me weak or sensitive or superficial. I do it because MFs never loved us, so I love myself intentionally.

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor-in-chief of For Harriet. Email or

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