How women are hacking Instagram’s limitations on femininity through finstas — real self, fake account
Ana Maria Caicedo, Community Relations Manager
Lily Elliott*, 23, sits on the floor of her living room, dressed in what looks like a sheep costume (she says it’s actually a pug onesie). The white light of her phone illuminates her face, and her eyes hungrily search the screen. “I have @swaggittyanne which is me, and then I have @watsherface, and she’s a selflessly shameless Instagram of selfies, and it’s an art installation,” she boasted, brimming with contained energy. The chirping of her canary birds cut through her voice as she speaks. She’s referring to her finsta of 33 selfies and counting, which consists of artfully composed mirror snapshots and awkward close-up selfies among other photos, all cloaked in the everyday aesthetic of an iPhone camera. I ask her what makes this Instagram an art installation. It takes her a while to draw out her words between cautious pauses. “Well, it’s all selfies,” she said. “The photo itself has to literally be like how I see myself – just some articulation of being, maybe confident and also insecure.”
A finsta (also known as a spam account) is a ‘fake’ secret Instagram account meant for only close friends or for a niche audience, where people can supposedly post whatever they want without fear of ridicule or backlash. Finstas are a somewhat recent trend, emerging in about 2015, when the first entries defining them on Urban Dictionary popped up. Since then, various outlets have covered them extensively, with pieces in The New York Times and Dazed and Confused. Many articles embrace a cynical take on the trend — one headline in i-D reads, “The Rise of Finstas Shows We’re All Being Fake Online”. Recently, rapper Iggy Azalea, known to some as the Australian blonde who puts on a southern ‘blaccent’ when she raps, tweeted that “the finsta account thing is so lame. Are you that uncomfortable being your own self online? Are you really that embarrassed about what you secretly want to post, like, or watch? Yes? Can’t relate.” A few days later, after thousands of comments, she deleted the tweet.
Katie Warfield is a professor at the Department of Journalism and Communication Studies at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Warfield, who has spent her career in research exploring how young Canadian women produce and curate selfies, suggests that the restrictions on self-presentation imposed by Instagram’s established visual vernacular became so limiting to people’s sense of identity. So much so that users found a way to “hack” these limitations by maintaining dual accounts.
Elliott’s @watsherface account has 66 followers, while her main account @swagityanne has 547. The two accounts don’t look that different, but for Elliott, they’re totally distinct spaces. What started as a joke became an art project as she started to take her posts on @watsherface more seriously, creating and curating selfies that electrified her creativity and expanded her sense of identity. For Elliott, an Anthropology student at the UBC, it’s freeing having @watsherface as a space to view herself without the vigilance she practices on her main account.
“I’m allowing myself to be confident,” she says. “To me, that’s kind of radical. To be like, ‘as you can see I kind of hate myself but I also kind of love myself.” She points to one of the posts, a blurry close up of her face, her eyes widened and raw, her face puffy. “This is me – I think I was on acid, and that’s <i>not<i> a nice photo. But it’s <i>me<i>, and I’m in a pierced state.” She points out another photo, where she’s smiling coyly, her dark ringlets framing her face as her arm extends to flaunt a long patch of armpit hair. The caption reads, “Hairy-don’t care-y”. “I look a little bit like I have a stache, my armpit hair has a couple curls in it,” she said. “But I think it’s about you digging yourself as you would want someone else to dig you. I think, by putting it on here, it’s forcing myself to love myself, you know?”
It might seem strange, calling an Instagram of selfies “radical”, because of a few “not nice” photos, but when you consider the airtight visual conventions and posting standards for women typical on Instagram, a photo flaunting your armpit hair is just that. Instagram, as a platform, reflects a tired age-old norm where women can’t exist (online or offline) without being attractive.
“With the case of Instagram, you kind of have this toggling of the tensions between your sense of authentic self versus what the platform determines is an authentic presentation of femininity,” said Warfield. These tensions, Warfield said, arise from what Instagram defines as authentic. “Beautiful, off on adventures, or like, pensive and reflective, wearing beautiful outfits, very curated, hair looks great – that’s the notion of authenticity on Instagram. But your felt sense of authenticity is maybe very different.”
Mahi Kaur, a 20-year-old photographer and student at Capilano University, created her finsta of 80 followers, @mahithecreator, when she was 18 years old, living in Surrey and isolated from her friends in the suburbs. “It’s like a personal diary,” she said. “It’s a record of things. When I want to remember what I did that day, it gives [me] a timeline, so [I] can go back to a moment, or what a person said, and jog [my] memory.” One selfie on Kaur’s finsta features her with her head tilted up, her lips pursed and her hand cradling her wrinkled chin. The caption reads “shoutout to everyone getting laid on campus recently and the pimple on my chin for being one of the many things that keep me humble.” To contrast, her main account, @mahi.raani, has 657 followers and is flooded with stunning photos of Kaur looking like a goddess, often bathed in golden light and wearing edgy outfits. When you compare the two, her finsta seems like an alternative space where she can exist in a range of expression and being outside the confines of beauty and coolness.
“I don’t think anyone posts anything actually ugly of themselves,” she said. “If it is, it’s not because it’s ugly, it’s because you’re trying to — like I try to push myself, to be more comfortable with it. So I’ll post an ugly photo just for the fucking sake of it.”
These ugly selfies, according to Warfield, are a form of activism that challenges the notion of “femininity as perfection.” They function like pretty selfies — women produce them to validate an image they want to see themselves in. Like ‘pretty’ selfies, posting ‘ugly’ selfies authenticates an underrepresented way-of-being into existence. Or, to put it simply, for women posting photos of themselves that aren’t pretty is a way of acknowledging their own humanity.
Warfield is quick to point out that this kind of photographic activism is difficult to sustain on Instagram. “There is very much embedded within the platform culture and the platform mechanics, this ideology of self as brand that I think is super hard to push against on Instagram,” she explained. “Brand isn’t identity, its motive is to sell something. It’s not to be, it’s to sell, to profit from. When you have the platform itself pushing for this idea that identity is brand, or identity is for profit, then the identity that you feel you have to present inadvertently starts to adopt these qualities.” Kaur seems to agree. “You’re still thinking about, like, is this [post] annoying? Do people want to go through this?” she said.
*Kim Mugisha, a 23-year-old Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice student at UBC, became so exasperated with the endless feed of others’ perfect lives, and she was so preoccupied with who was seeing her posts, that she created a finsta and eventually decided to delete her main Instagram altogether. “I don’t miss it,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m done.” Mugisha’s finsta, @cattleherdermaiden, is flooded with selfies, images of dogs, nature and weird pictures from the depths of the internet. She often writes detailed captions expressing her experiences with heartbreak, abuse and mental illness among other things. Mugisha can’t afford a regular therapist anymore, and since then her finsta’s become her pseudo-therapist, with friends regularly chiming in and commenting on her posts for support. “I’ve had friends reach out to me and be like, ‘Hey, are you doing well? How are you? I’ve seen your post.’ I appreciate it for sure. No one has to do that, but it’s very kind.” I ask her if she ever she ever feels bad after sharing the darker posts. “It’s a weird dichotomy,” she replied, “where your like, ‘I wanna share everything,’ but like, even the bad stuff? And it’s like, why do I wanna tell people that I’m not doing well right now?”
After discussing her Instagram accounts for a while, Elliott became bothered. “Oh my God,” she sighed, putting her phone face down on the coffee table. “I can’t look at this anymore.” It’s exhausting as women to constantly be questioning the honesty of our online presence. If we embody normative femininity, we lose. If we deviate from it, we lose. Maintaining your Instagram account can often feel like a betrayal of your sense of self. When I explain this to Warfield, she offers a take on authenticity I hadn’t considered.
“Authenticity is not so much about someone else telling you what is right or wrong,” she said, “but your ability… to write yourself or visually present yourself as you feel is true to yourself or true to your feelings or true to your bodily lived reality. Once you reposition it that way, and you put in the body of whomever, then you have this endless multiplicity of authenticities. Authenticity is defined by the person who inhabits the body.”
I was just coming to the end of writing this piece, when I saw a post from Elliott’s @watsherface account. “We flood the feed so we can see ourselves, to make space to be, and to construct an identity,” she wrote. “[@watsherface] may be back, but for now, she will rest in her innate selfish/selfishness.” I felt my heart drop a bit, and immediately reached for my phone to message Elliott and ask her why she decided to end the account. “I realize I don’t identify with it anymore,” she answered. Instead, she wants to create another finsta, @swampmama.
“I feel like @watsherface allowed me to be unapologetic, it really made me explore who I was more abstractly. Now I feel it’s more of a job to keep her alive, and I’m thinking for @swampmama [of] opening up discourse on mental health, physical health and just taking care of yourself and seeing beauty in people and the world,” she said.
And so, with the tap of a finger, one identity is shed in favour of another. The days of finstas could be numbered if Instagram continues to roll out features that give users greater control over audiences, like the new “Close Friends” whitelist feature, which enables users to share Instagram stories to a select group of followers. For now though, maintaining an online presence remains a constant balancing act. Maybe there’s some comfort to be found in simply acknowledging that identity is not singular and static, but multidimensional and ever-changing. Warfield likens ‘self’ to a floodlight: glaring, bright, and impossible to contain. If you were to cover the light with a black piece of paper, and cut a small slit through it, only a tiny beam would pour out and be visible— that tiny beam is your finsta. “It’s this one little sliver of the totality of you. The only way to know the totality of you would be to rip off that paper and see you all together with all of these different ways of being over a long period of time,” Warfield says. “But that’s really difficult, and that’s not how media works, right? Any medium is always representational, it’s always going to be snapshots and snapshots, it’s never going to be able to show you in your totality and the whole way you are.”