Last month when the Sex and the City reboot debuted, actor Sarah Jessica Parker took aim at the “misogynist chatter” surrounding how the show’s characters, herself included, have aged.

“I know what I look like”, she told Vogue magazine. “What am I going to do about it? Stop aging? Disappear?”

Amen sister! I mean, considering the alternative to aging is, um, BEING DEAD, shouldn’t we be pleased about those wrinkles and sore backs?

SJP also took aim at social media where women are targeted for having too many wrinkles or none at all, and where brands and influencers encourage us to embrace our bodies exactly as they are, and in the next breath suggest expensive creams, scrubs, balms, lotions, and procedures because #selfcare. 

Surfing Instagram is a lot like shopping at Whole Foods: you’re enticed by the pretty colours and the possibility of living a better life. But in the end you’re left feeling broke, ugly, and strangely violated. Whether it’s with $17 blood oranges and placenta muffins or targeted beauty ads, both companies seem hellbent on making their customers aspire to be as young and hot as possible, which is a bummer for me because I just finalized the title of my forthcoming memoir: Old, Poor and Ugly.  

This week alone Instagram suggested a butt-load of makeup I might like, presumably to cover up the blemishes and barnacles that are an unavoidable reality of being a troll living under a bridge. Next up: Botox, Spanx, and Prevagen (in case I forget how fat and ugly I am). And yet, we don’t have to go far to find uplifting messages of self-love and self-affirmation on this same platform: Age is just a number! Your weight is not your worth!

So which is it?

In October, a Facebook company whistleblower testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee that Instagram (which is owned by Facebook, now Meta) frequently prioritizes profit over the well-being of its users, many of whom are children. According to two leaked studies, 32% of teen girls said Instagram made them feel worse about their bodies, and another 17% said being on the platform made their eating disorders worse. Armed with this knowledge and my own experience, I decided to figure out how this works, exactly.

Turns out, companies use certain parameters and demographics like age, gender, and location, even hobbies and interests, to find an audience that’s most likely to buy their product. Then it’s just a matter of placing said product in front of them, in the form of an ad or sponsored content. Instagram’s algorithm genies also monitor the content we interact with, which means it can ‘suggest’ things each person might enjoy, such as fat cats trying to jump on chairs, and baby squirrels waterskiing. In other words, targeted ads also pop up because Instagram has decided if you liked or commented on this, you might also be interested in that. So anyone who shows any interest in so-called ‘beauty’ products should consider the waters of the Instagram marketplace well and truly chummed.

But here’s the rub: Instagram, like the rest of the world, has not evolved to the point it can recognize and understand the nuances, subjectivity, and individuality of beauty. Just because I want a sexy red lip doesn’t mean I want to blow my crow’s feet to smithereens. Just because I bought a product for dark under-eye circles, doesn’t mean I want a neck lift. And just because I’m still trying to lose the baby weight from the kids I adopted 10 and seven years ago doesn’t mean I want an intermittent fasting program.

And while we’re add it, can we talk about the phrase ‘aging gracefully’? According to dictionary.com, gracefully means in a way characterized by elegance or beauty of form, manner, movement, or speech. And there’s that sneaky word again: beauty. Grace means beauty. ‘Aging gracefully’ means staying beautiful, conforming, and clinging to traditional beauty standards as long as one can. And that’s just not my vibe.

Even the language we use to talk about beauty and aging has direct connotations to conflict: ‘Fight’ those wrinkles; ‘Banish’ signs of aging; ‘Eliminate’ greys; ‘Destroy’ fat cells. Aging is inevitable, this we have our heads around. But many of us, myself included, are determined to do it on our terms. We don’t need Instagram to suggest products that make us feel like we should be waging a war against Father Time (of course he’s a father) 24/7.

The line (if there is one) between beauty and self-care exists in a different place for all women. Taking the time to put on makeup in the morning is, for me, an act of self-care because when I look slightly more beautiful than a turkey vulture, I tend to feel better about myself, and when I feel better about myself everyone around me wins. It may be different for you, and that’s okay. But don’t let Instagram’s ads convince you ‘battling fine lines’ is about self-care if your fine lines aren’t keeping you up at night.

Next time social media tries to sell you a bird poop facial or a $75 vagina candle (really, Gwyneth?) don’t fall for it! Put down your phone and do some yoga. Or go for a walk, just not to Whole Foods.

Author

Jen Millard is a writer who's not afraid to say what everyone else is thinking about parenting and relationships. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram via @jennemillard or at wineandsmarties.com.

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