Pictures Putting You in Your Place

Hello friends! I’m so excited to share with you the paper that I’ve been working on this past weekend. It’s been a pleasure to write and I hope you’ll get a little kick out of it. I was assigned to write about how internet photography has affected communication so please enjoy my stab at it. This is still a rough draft so I would love your feedback if you have any!

“Did you bring your camera?” she says as she whizzes that last bit of hairspray through her hair teased up enough for a bird to lay an egg in. “Yes I did!” her friend replies back as she smacks on her third layer of lip gloss and proceeds to pucker at the mirror. With camera in hand, they are now Facebook ready—the photo shoot is about to commence. It doesn’t matter who will be at wherever they are going; that is of little significance. What does matter is that these girls will be with important people at places where not everyone is invited, all of which can be documented by photography. These girls are special by association and these pictures that will be taken for public display are going to prove it. Pictures are no longer just a marker of time and memory; they serve a new purpose thanks to the expansive visibility of Facebook. Young women, particularly those in sororities, are especially using Facebook photo albums as a way to symbolize their status. Their pictures are an attempt to create, signify, and reinforce their social standing in the hierarchy of feminine power, whether it is through the demonstration of their flirting finesse, their elite posse of posing pals, or their toned physique that they’ve been fine tuning a la photo shop. More than just the message that these photo albums convey of who, what, and where; girls are using Internet pictures, particularly through the use of Facebook, to convey their social power and influence.

A private profile is no longer a plus. Sure, most young adults have their profile on “private” due to recent evidence that 70% of employers have rejected a potential candidate based on inappropriate web content, according to CNN Tech, but once you’ve made it in to the “friend zone,” the sky, and search, is the limit. As I researched potential candidates for this paper out of my 1,224 friends (of which I am actually only close with about 300), I quickly discovered that many, if not all college students have photo albums of some kind. However, I noted that there is one segment of the population that has a particular affinity for photography: sorority women. As a sorority member myself, I was intrigued to step outside of the lens and look on from the outside, or rather computer screen.

If you scanned through any girl’s pictures at first glance, you would immediately know who she was and what sorority she was affiliated with. You may even feel like you know the person in an odd, voyeuristic way. There’s no denying the life of a sorority girl as she poses with Greek letters larger than her body, throws different hand gestures at the camera based on her specific group, and poses with the same sets of people just in a different order for every frame. One picture would be enough, but instead, nearly 50% of the images have Greek letters in them in the one girl’s photo album I studied. This adamant display of certain membership is a marker of status among women. In the hierarchy of Greek life that ranks women on their personality and let’s face it, attractiveness, women use one to three Greek symbols to send a message out to the community: I am in this group, I am accepted here, and I have earned my place. I belong. This is a powerful notion among women, particularly those in college, as they seek social validation. They enhance this message by excessively photographing their allegiance and posting it publicly online. Girls are creating lines of affiliation, opposition, and status with their Greek letters and the proof is in the pudding…or the pictures I should say.

A sorority is a status marker based on its level of popularity. The particular Greek album I studied happened to be in high ranking, thus there were a profuse amount of pictures signifying this esteemed social rank. However, when studying a lower-ranked sorority, there were significantly less pictures. Whether it is the sorority itself that establishes the social network the girl is a part of or as an individual, the number of pictures she has are evidence of a her ranking in a larger social network, such as her university. For example, a girl in a “popular” sorority had nearly 3,500 pictures whereas the girl in the less popular sorority had about 1,000. Even at the lower end, that is still a plethora of pictures. But as these numbers increase, and as the frequency of new pictures increases on a weekly basis, young women are expressing to their peers how popular, preoccupied, and prized they are in their community. The mentality is that more pictures you have, the more prominent and preferred you are. Some girls may believe that you are not special if you are not in the “best” sorority and online pictures only enhance this separation in perceived status. No wonder women are “photo-boming” every shot they can sneak in.

Sadly, these pictures may be much more important than the relationships, experiences, or memories that they represent. If you do not bring a camera, then there is often no point in the encounter because you can no longer publicly affirm your associations. If you thought Myspace was bad when people would take hundreds of pictures of themselves in the classic “mirror shot,” now it is at a whole new level with people taking hundreds of group pictures of themselves in various poses, line-ups, and facial expressions all conveying one simple message: we are friends. Maybe not actual friends by the definition of the word (i.e. “feelings of affection or personal regard” according to Merriman Webster), but rather it is an acquaintance that is quintessential in the Facebook and college community. By publishing these pictures out to the world on a regular basis, young women are publishing their status, especially when they are in a sorority. It is all about social standing for many of these women and a picture is truly worth 1,000 words, especially when you have 1,000 friends.

Yet social standing lost its structure when retouching and adjustment became readily available. Young women can choose to portray themselves in any light and their sorority often shapes this representation: perhaps a beer bottle if you’re a member of the “party” sorority, perhaps a cardigan if you’re a member of the “classy” sorority, or perhaps a band of fraternity brothers no matter what sorority you’re in. The truth is, every girl has a little bit of every sorority in her so to speak—we all have tendencies to study, to be social, and to be a part of both small and large communities. Yet with the ability to delete and detag any picture that doesn’t perfectly portray the role one is attempting to play, young women now have a God-like power when it comes to creating their reputations. Girls can grant themselves as angels with this virtual “halo effect.” Rather than letting their personality play out in real life, the pictures are doing all of the talking. Social standing becomes superficially strong when girls create themselves with a few clicks behind a computer instead of displaying themselves in front of their peer audience. But even with this masked display of a lifestyle, young women still fall for the façade that their peers put up and they feel the pressure to reciprocate if they want to maintain their place in the ranks. It’s a vicious cycle that has spiraled out of control as girls click their lives away instead of actually living them.

These pictures often validate the “sorority stereotype” just by the sheer vanity of taking hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures. And even though many sorority women may adamantly strive to disprove the “sorority girl” image that Elle Woods so graciously, or rather obnoxiously, bestowed on college women of today,  the hand on the hip and the tilted head still happens in just about every snapshot. These pictures regularly reinforce a highly feminized gender role that women should be collected and cute at all times. Heaven forbid we post a picture without make-up on. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for getting dressed up and documenting a fun night, but when every picture has a “sorority squat” (where girls bend over with their hands on their knees) or they hold a perfect pose with the hair falling just so—we have got a problem. Let me explain further.

Rather than battling the online book, girls are embracing this posed photography as much as they embrace each other in all of their pictures. They post these pictures because it is their most powerful weapon for earning the social validation that most college girls so desperately desire. The interpersonal imperative is strong for these women and if it means lining up together in perfect order like cans of green beans on a conveyer belt, they will do it. Some of them even mock the trademark poses as they take their pictures, laughing, “It’s time for sorority squat!” but nonetheless, squat they will. Even though they may be aware of the rigidity and perhaps ridiculousness of it all, they will put on their smiles and stand still because it is proof that they are a part of a social culture that not everyone is privileged to be included in. Their pictures make them proud because it is the marker or social validation that they have been yearning for. Sure, they may be succumbing to a stereotype, but they are earning a social rank in return for their modeling and that is something to surely “like” by today’s standards of social hierarchy.

Pictures have exploded online because there is an obsession with perception in our culture. Women worry more about what others will think of them based on their profile picture rather than their personality. These thousands of pictures reinforce the looking glass theory on a daily basis in two ways, both of them detrimental. First, Facebook users can anonymously monitor hundreds of people’s profiles, most often by “stalking” their “friends’” pictures, rather than having a real conversation with the person. Secondly, users can spend hours looking at their own pictures, analyzing how others will perceive them based on the people they are with, the clothes they are wearing, and what they are doing. Both patterns are not only a massive waste of time—they also create personal and public judgments that are long-lasting. Pictures are defining our sense of self. Girls in particular determine their self-image and self-esteem based on how they appear on the Internet. It’s a Catch-22; they want the attention and reaffirmation of having the “world” glorify their image, yet the more they share, the more they offer themselves up for social scrutiny. Except they have no idea what is actually being said because of the anonymity of the web. Either way, it is impossible to please hundreds of people but that is what a Facebook photo album strive to do. By posting these pictures, girls are asking for attention that will create and confirm their social status. They want to be loved with excessive “likes” and comments so that they can finally love themselves. Somehow, it’s still never enough.

Girls specifically have two purposes with posting pictures (perhaps subconsciously): to prove to other females that they can hold their own and to prove to males that they are worth attention. Let’s tackle the girl side first. Weight: it matters to women. Girls make note of every pound gained or lost and Facebook is the starting point for this check-up that girls give each other on a constant basis. Young women can use it as a comparison for themselves—is she prettier, skinnier, or better dressed than me? No matter what the answer, girls can keep an eye on all of these details on a daily basis with no one having the slightest clue. Yet somehow, this invisible social rank that girls create became standardized as Facebook has become the marker for social superiority or stagnation amongst women. The pictures put you in your place, along with every pound, purse, and pose you put online. That is a lot of pressure for a girl to take. It is no longer just a first impression in person, it is a web impression that lasts longer much longer than two seconds.

On to the gentleman, who are not as avid about Facebook as their female counterparts, but who still use it on a daily basis. Facebook is online flirting at its best. In fact, many of these sorority and fraternity members will not date each other until they have seen each other’s Facebook pictures—and preferably more than just one because that profile picture can be deceiving, as they often say. There is no more “great” personality to help you out, you have to pass the Facebook photo test to get a first date and even after, you may have just been “Facebook hot.” These pictures girls post are the perfect way to win yourself attention and affection if that is what you’re after—show a little midriff here, a flash of a bra there, and you are golden in the guy’s online radar—if you can pull it off. These pictures emphasize social standing by blatantly showcasing one’s level of attractiveness and physical suitability for a potential partner. Studies show that couples have a similar level in their looks and Facebook takes care of that step with its prolific offering of pictures. Who needs to meet at a coffee shop when you can meet in a Facebook chat after analyzing every one of their pictures the previous hour? Young women may or not be aware of this, but the attention they receive from males based on the pictures they put online is a sign of their social standing. Their symmetry and smile that they show in their albums ranks them in a way that deems them worthy or unworthy of certain male attention. The in-person compliments can come later I suppose.

To be certain, pictures are priceless. They represent our relationships, important periods in our life, and our treasured memories. The problem is that pictures are being used as a form of power amongst young women. Girls are using their pictures as proof of their pounds lost, exclusive popularity, and special privilege. Sorority women are especially using Facebook to their advantage to establish a social standing that strives to keep lesser women out of an elite social network. Whether it is attention from males or to threaten other females, these pictures are an attempt to prove one’s worth on both a physical and psychological level. With the anonymity of Facebook, girls are losing their identity as people of character and instead they perceive themselves and their “friends” based on the pictures that attempt, but fail, to portray them realistically. It is time that young women stop sucking up to the stereotype of the “sorority girl” and instead live up to a life of good experiences, great people, and a grand journey worth documenting, but not dispersing, through photography.

 Keep shining,

The Sunny Girl, Lauren Cook

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The Sunny Girl, Lauren Cook

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