Homemaking, Body Image, Consumerism: A Postfeminist Analysis of the Emerging World of Pinterest
By: Carly Spraggins, Fourth Year, Media Studies; Government; Batten Accelarate MPP
No matter how much time individuals and groups spend on the popular website Pinterest, it is consistently difficult to answer the simple question of “what is Pinterest?” In popular discourse, editorial coverage, and academic reviews it has been labeled and categorized in a variety of ways – a visual search engine, social scrapbook, digital moodboard, visual curator, web discovery tool and virtual shopping cart. Part of this confusion and inconsistency is likely attributable to the disconnect between the website’s users and those seeking to classify it. While men dominate the technology and business sectors that typically observe and narrate the stories of new digital platforms, Pinterest’s global user base is 83% female.[i] Nonetheless the multitude of labels alone is evidence of the revolutionary, indeterminate, and evolving space that Pinterest occupies in the contemporary Internet landscape. In connecting the platform with the broader picture of social relations and e-commerce, “one lesson of Pinterest is that female-focused sites don’t have to broaden their appeal to become massively popular and influential.”[ii] Yet this statement begs the informed consumer and interested investor to look further and understand how this influence can be characterized and how it can be fit into the broader discussion of the state of gender equality in a digital world. As the structural design, user base, and popular content of Pinterest have developed, so too has the broader image of femininity that it produces and promotes. Based on this development, Pinterest’s relationship to the feminine image, social class, and empowerment consumerism make it the archetypal postfeminist media platform.
As a platform dominated in use by women, the content of Pinterest will inevitably be characterized as “feminine.” Yet the particular images, messages, and content to which the feminine label becomes attached help to determine the platform’s relationship to the broader movement of feminism. In her guiding work “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility,” Rosalind Gill characterizes the postfeminist sense of femininity as one that is incessantly preoccupied with bodily appeal.[iii] In postfeminist culture, the body becomes a feminine object to be cultivated and displayed. While first and second wave feminism varied in the aspects in which they were successful, they both effectively moved society away from as stringent a definition of feminine personality traits (passive, naïve, demure, submissive, etc). However as the emphasis on these traits was reduced, increased attention was paid to articulating and monitoring the ideal type of a feminine physicality.[iv]
In this notion of postfeminist bodily property, the aforementioned monitoring (referred to by Gill as ‘surveillance’) serves as a central linking activity among both women and greater society. In characterizing Pinterest, many have likened it to the digital remediation of the traditional, glossy women’s magazine.[v] Women’s magazine publications traditionally emphasize the female body as well. However, this emphasis is mediated by accompanying text, which articulates and intermittently questions the process necessary to achieve such a glorifiable body.[vi] Though the interface design of Pinterest allows a viewer to link to such commentary available externally, as a fundamentally image-based network, such reconciling commentary is not as explicitly available or associated with the original image.[vii] Instead the user’s assessment of quality is based on content that is visually intriguing and photogenic, rather than substantively valuable. As applied to the female body, this aesthetic pattern often leads to popularity of images where only the body, not the face of a women is featured, following in the dehumanizing pattern of popular advertising. Rather than existing as an independent identity, the feminine “self has become a project to be evaluated, advised, disciplined, and improved.”[viii]
As the activity of bodily surveillance becomes more prevalent with the growth of postfeminism, a “controlled figure [becomes] normatively essential for portraying success.”[ix] Similarly, a beautiful, well-maintained woman is assumed to have an equally beautiful, stable, and secure lifestyle.[x] However, the factors, which constitute this broadly viewed ‘beautiful’ body, become more removed from natural reality as they are more closely inspected. A central feature of Pinterest is that its content becomes continually greater and continually more connected with the vast scope of the Internet. Correspondingly, this lens more specifically identifies and articulates factors of the body not previously considered in the equation of beauty, in effect declaring, “You thought you were comfortable with your body? Well think again!”[xi]
This intensification of standards of beauty is inherently gendered in assigning value – while the model masculine body is authentic, rugged, and natural, the feminine archetype is assumed to involve management and modification.[xii] Even as Pinterest’s content policy bans posts which explicitly endorse eating disorders, searches for disproportionately specific features like “thigh gap”, “protruding collar bone”, or “bikini bridge” bring up countless photos of zoomed in, defined parts of the woman’s body. In accordance with both Pinterest convention and postfeminist sensibility, these photos are linked to detailed instructions for the diet and exercise regimens recommended by users to achieve these venerated features. These instructions exemplify how the Pinterest ideal of the feminine image fits within the larger postfeminist tenet of the makeover paradigm.[xiii] The broader message of these images and instructions endorses the postfeminist makeover paradigm by simultaneously shaming the women who lack one or all of these idealized features while assigning theoretical bodily control and encouraging them to pursue femininity through the prescribed process.
Beyond the physical attributes that constitute the postfeminist aesthetic, postfeminism is also defined by a number of assumptions that ground its philosophy. To accept the postfeminist depiction of reality, one must also accept the supposition of equal opportunity not only between men and women but also among women. This supposition is reflected across media, in phenomena including the overrepresentation of women in high-powered occupations like doctors and lawyers on television to the integration of enlightened sexism into conventional humor.[xiv] From its roots, Pinterest can be considered analogous in its false parity of prospects for users. Pinterest’s disengagement from, and frequent exacerbation of social class differences, provides further evidence of its postfeminist characterization.
Regardless of the content that would eventually come to fill the pages of Pinterest, the platform’s launch and early structure laid the groundwork for a socially isolating and postfeminist user base. Launched in March 2010, Pinterest began as a closed Beta, as is typical of most software releases. In December 2010, the Beta site was opened but was still accessible by invite only – users in this period could each extend five invitations. Despite the invite-only barrier to entry, Pinterest became the fastest growing website in history when it grew its user base by 429% between September and December 2011. The platform did not open to the public completely until August 2012.[xv]
By controlling entry into a network so tightly and allowing access almost entirely through personal association, Pinterest inevitably became a network of a specific “taste culture.”[xvi] This is seen in the emergence of a distinctly ‘Pinterest’ aesthetic – one could describe a woman who wears clothes with chevron stripes, completes crafts with mason jars, and has ombre hair as very ‘Pinterest-y.’ Serving such a specific culture not only concentrates cultural capital by income level but also “encourages polarization, especially between male and female audiences.”[xvii] Such a strong early association by any platform with a particular social class sets the standard for its future usage. Even after opening to the public, data analysis has shown a homophily of interest and product-based communities within Pinterest such that there is little interaction (via ‘following’, ‘repinning’, or ‘liking) between taste groups on the site and cultural capital remains within traditional hierarchies.[xviii]
Beyond structure, the dominant patterns of content on Pinterest favor privileged social classes and therefore maintain the false sense of equal opportunity inherent to postfeminism. In the same way that Pinterest contributes to the rise in standards of bodily beauty, its content also contributes to increases in standards of daily living and household products. Through the “aestheticization of everyday life and investment in the art of lifestyle,” Pinterest’s content further induces consumerism by making visual pleasure and art of the typically mundane facets of daily life and households. The postfeminist aesthetic collapses work life into personal life, as a way of demeaning women’s professional life as a hobby, with consumption as the preferred alternative form of feminine labor.[xix] Such a physically and visually dominant characterization of feminine lifestyle is inextricably linked to upper-class norms. From the expense of physical upkeep (everything from plastic surgery to expensive cosmetic products) to the affirmation of lifestyle (a well furnished home and frequent foreign travel), the brand of femininity endorsed by Pinterest assumes available leisure time and resources not widely available across social classes.[xx] The mere articulation of “having it all”, not as a stroke of luck, but as a choice and a skill set to be mastered, assumes middle class status and opportunity as a prerequisite.[xxi]
Such a starkly isolating and inequitable aesthetic comes in conflict with reaching a public who can generally trace the progress and history of feminism – the process by which Pinterest negotiates this disparity is characteristically postfeminist. The widespread popularity of Pinterest plays to a model termed the “no but…” feminist or the “qualifying” feminist.[xxii] Those ascribing to these labels do not publically identify as feminist but when pressed, identify with the majority of the tenets of traditional feminist ideology. The Pinterest postfeminist inverts this model and could straightforwardly be called the “no but…” homemaker. This inversion typifies ‘typical’ female Pinterest users in that they are culturally and historically literate enough to recognize public condemnation of the term homemaker and thus would not identify as aspiring to such a label. Yet their curatorial choices on Pinterest evoke a sense of association with the expectations, aspirations, and attitudes most closely associated with the traditional homemaker. These labeling patterns are important for their standard-setting capacity.[xxiii]
The re-valuation of homemaking through Pinterest is represented on both a broad and narrow scale. Pinterest forms a digital collection of crowd-sourced, feminine information and succeeds in “celebrating female-centered knowledge,” not as trivial but as useful and valuable.[xxiv] Within Pinterest’s self-imposed categorization schema, the top categories of content are Home Décor, DIY & Crafts, Women’s Fashion, Food & Drink, Hair & Beauty, Education, and Holiday & Events. Of those, the first four account for over 50% of all Pinterest content.[xxv] Many of these categories are also considered statistically ‘clustered’ in that there is a significant percentage of overlap in content. While male Pinterest users traditionally maintain profiles with content across clustered content groups, women show greater specialization in the cluster most rationally associated with homemaking (Food & Drink, Home Décor, and DIY & Crafts).[xxvi] In this way Pinterest is able to rebrand and promote the value of homemaking without opening itself up to more direct feminist critiques. Additionally, in its function as a linked site and launching pad to finding other sites, Pinterest is interdependent with the content of other feminine, personal expression sites. The active sub-genres of marriage blogs and mom blogs present a significant amplification to Pinterest’s existing status as a magnet and collection agency for postfeminist new media.[xxvii]
By combining an emphasis on visual feminine imagery with class-based social assumptions, Pinterest creates a landscape that distorts the female contribution and role in political economy. In an approach designated herein as empowerment consumerism, Pinterest uses traditionally postfeminist strategies (like the portrayal of objectification as empowerment) to encourage traditional consumerist behaviors. An oft-satirized notion about Pinterest within public discussion is the way in which, psychologically, Pinterest is able to present a total non-activity as a productive capacity (ie the notion of feeling accomplished after hours of doing nothing more than clicking on pictures – the intellectual equivalent of having ‘read a book’ after completing a picture book with absolutely no words). This is in fact the plight of all social curation sites – they lower standards such that there is no expectation of new content creation.[xxviii] Rather, they provide forums for continual reorganization and shifting of existing material. Regardless of the content explored, organization has been found to be a central motivation and gratification of the use of Pinterest.[xxix]
This is not to say that these reorganizations and shifts do not have substantive effects. As previously discussed, the collective imagery of Pinterest regarding the female body and its reformatting and repromotion has brought attention to ‘problem’ aspects of the female body never before highlighted. In highlighting or essentially creating these problems, platforms like Pinterest also create space for ‘solutions’ and products to be sold.[xxx] Empowerment as it exists in postfeminist digital media rebrands traditional rules and expectations of femininity as empowering choices – i.e. the postfeminist woman has the choice of a clean house or a dirty house and it is her, independent agency that allows her to choose the clean house.[xxxi] The Pinterest format is similarly choice-oriented in its façade of empowerment and troubling in its ability to present these choices as organic. In mediating an individual relationship with a larger, commercial brand, Pinterest ‘empowers’ the user to pick and choose what they are interested in with the brand and only receive information from that ‘board’.[xxxii] In this postfeminist rhetoric, “feminine achievement is predicated not on feminism but on female individualism.”[xxxiii]
To a degree, the resultant gender disparity of Pinterest as it relates to empowered consumption is economically rational. In the United States, women control 80% of household discretionary spending.[xxxiv] While the marketers and advertisers seeking to take advantage of this emerging platform would hope to present them as essential, the most popular and prominently featured brands and products of Pinterest as predominantly non-essential household and personal luxury goods. While Pinterest has been previously described in this analysis as having little in the way of written content, the language that is used is that of aspirational consumption – “use”, “look”, “want”, and “need”.[xxxv]
However these patterns of content veer into the unfounded when viewed in broader context, and in regards to conflicting messages. Pinterest presents a postfeminist double-entanglement in its core social class association and values. This is exemplified in the co-existing emphases on the female capacity for independent travel and success and the ultimate pursuit of an idolized, stationary, and home-based life.[xxxvi] In the postmodern world, these postfeminist users are those “consumers [who] enjoy the swings between the extremes of aesthetic involvement and distanciation.”[xxxvii] In this case the total concentration of Pinterest on the visual and on brand recognition heightens superficial consumption desire while the pervasive do-it-yourself aesthetic encourages distanciation from consumerism. The heightening effect is seen in Pinterest’s practical application as a source for linking individuals to e-commerce. Consumers driven to luxury retail sites from Pinterest spend an average of $100 more per purchase than those finding the retail sites from other search engines. In the case of the popular beauty and cosmetics store Sephora, their Pinterest followers spend a staggering 15 times more at checkout than their Facebook friends.[xxxviii]
In her positioning of postfeminism within the broader scope of cultural analysis, Rosalind Gill describes the sensibility as containing both stable features and an “entanglement of both feminist and anti-feminist themes.”[xxxix] By placing these features and themes next to the emerging platform of Pinterest and both its user base and content, one finds a striking overlap. Through its surveillance and distortion of the feminine image, its revaluation of social class hierarchies and traditional occupations, and its production of empowerment consumerism, Pinterest breaks a distinctly postfeminist ground on the Internet and with its growing popularity, has the potential to make postfeminist sentiments even more entrenched and pervasive in society.
[i] Enguage, “A Review of Social Media’s Newest Sweetheart,” Enguage Full-Service Marketing, http://www.engauge.com/assets/pdf/Engauge-Pinterest.pdf.
[ii] Kevin Roose, “It’s Time to Start Taking Pinterest Seriously,” New York Magazine, 24 Oct. 2013, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/10/time-to-start-taking-pinterest-seriously.html.
[iii] Rosalind Gill, “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10.2 (2007): 147-66.
[iv] Susan J. Douglas, Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done, (New York: Times, 2010)
[v] Jane Arthurs, “Sex and the City and Consumer Culture: Remediating Postfeminist Drama,” Feminist Media Studies 3.1 (2003), 83-98.
[vii] Ian Mull and Seung-Eun Lee, ““PIN” Pointing the Motivational Dimensions behind Pinterest,” Computers in Human Behavior 33.4 (2014): 192-200.
[viii] Gill, “Postfeminist Media Culture,” 156.
[ix] Ibid, 150.
[x] Joanne Hollows, “Feeling Like a Domestic Goddess: Postfeminism and Cooking,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 6.2 (2003): 179-202.
[xi] Gill, Postfeminist Media Culture,” 155.
[xiv] Douglas, Enlightened Sexism.
[xv] Enguage, “Social Media’s Newest Sweetheart”.
[xvi] Arthurs, “Sex and the City,” 84.
[xviii] Shuo Chang and Vikas Kumar, Specialization, Homophily, and Gender in a Social Curation Site: Findings from Pinterest, (University of Minnesota: Press).
[xix] Arthurs, “Sex and the City,” 84.
[xx] Douglas, Enlightened Sexism.
[xxi] Hollows, “Feeling Like a Domestic Goddess”.
[xxii] Elaine J. Hall and Marnie S. Rodriguez, “The Myth of Postfeminism,” Gender & Society, 17.6 (2003): 878-902.
[xxiv] Douglas, Enlightened Sexism, 16.
[xxv] Enguage, “Social Media’s Newest Sweetheart”.
[xxvi] Chang and Kumar, Specialization, Homophily, and Gender.
[xxvii][xxvii] Anthea Taylor, “Blogging Solo: New Media, ‘old’ Politics,” Feminist Review 99.1 (2011): 79-97.
[xxviii] Chang and Kumar, Specialization, Homophily, and Gender.
[xxix] Mull and Lee, “Pinpointing Motivational Dimensions”.
[xxx] Gill, “Postfeminist Media Culture”.
[xxxi] Hollows, “Feeling Like a Domestic Goddess,”.
[xxxii] Mull and Lee, “Pinpointing Motivational Dimensions”.
[xxxiii] Angela McRobbie, Postmodernism and Popular Culture, (London: Routledge), 1994.
[xxxiv] Enguage, “Social Media’s Newest Sweetheart”.
[xxxv] Mull and Lee, “Pinpointing Motivational Dimensions”.
[xxxvi] McRobbie, Postmodernism and Popular Culture.
[xxxvii] Arthurs, “Sex and the City”, 86.
[xxxviii] Roose, “Start Taking Pinterest Seriously”.
[xxxix] Gill, “Postfeminist Media Culture”, 149