OPINION: The high cost associated with ‘being oneself’

In the age of social media and Gen Z-proclaimed self-love, the phrase “be yourself” is nearly ubiquitous. “Be yourself” can mean being silly, quirky, unique, unapologetic or weird — in a good way.

This feel-good culture belies an ugly underbelly: it exists only within certain constraints. Deviation from the normative white, straight, cisgender, middle-class, able-bodied, conventionally attractive standards are grounds for disqualification.

These factors ultimately distinguish between “weird” in a bad way and just “being oneself.”

For people of color in America, the statement “be yourself” may have different implications. Often, pressures exist to leave behind components of one’s identity that would lead to them being associated with preconceived notions or cultural and social stereotypes based on how they look.

Digital platforms give people of color the chance to brand themselves, observing and emulating the trends in beauty, fashion and aesthetics that make for a successful following.

Unfortunately, for black women, this may mean adhering to white society’s definitions of “propriety,” lest they be labeled “ratchet” or “ghetto.”

For Asian women, avoiding the stereotype of the perpetual foreigner means assimilating into white society and stifling the visibility of one’s home life and cultural traditions.

Additionally, appearing presentable means fitting into American ideals of perfectionism and investing money into one’s appearance — an investment most working class, low-income people of color, especially women of color, cannot make. “Being oneself” and being praised for being oneself, is a tricky maneuver that is deeply rooted in privilege.

But “presentable” social media appearances are increasingly becoming a standard expected from real-world industries like marketing, advertising, fashion and entrepreneurship.

In these industries, the statement “you are your own brand” is not uncommon. In our digital media-savvy world, branding has become explosive, transforming traditional career trajectories. For some, the only way to stand out from the crowd is to “be oneself”— nowadays, some companies even request links to personal social media pages in order to gauge the level of “fit.”

The line between personal and professional has become blurred. While some may argue that this added opportunity allows an applicant to showcase further dimensions of personality and individuality, traditional ideals of “uniqueness” still adhere to the same dreaded formula.

Uniqueness is about possessing the traits and belongings that no one else can quite have. The traits that fall under the category of covetable and unattainable, however, are ingrained into our social conditioning by white society, the wealthy elite and corporate America. Thus, an added degree of professional privilege is awarded to those who best imitate these ideals.

Within the confines of social acceptability and our hyper-capitalistic society, “being unique” is commodifiable, and nearly impossible. Digital media platforms, especially in the case of self-branding, set the standards of social and aesthetic acceptability.

They are often simply further excuses for people with social legitimacy to show off their wealth, privilege and access to exclusive spaces and groups.

According to Buzzfeed, social media influencers spend thousands of dollars a month on clothes, photography and makeup in order to regularly refresh their online presences.

Posting photos from trips abroad is a way to appear “cultured” and different, but the price tags of each photo are never publicly broadcasted for all to see.

Even wearing unique “vintage pieces” and branding one’s style as “hipster” or “bohemian,” rather than filling a wardrobe with luxury brands, requires a level of time and energy that not all can offer up for the sake of branding and “being oneself.”  

According to researchers at Georgia Tech, Instagram photos with faces are 38 percent more likely to receive likes and 32 percent more likely to receive comments. Researchers also noted the presence of color branding and picture marketing as a tool for brands and users to differentiate themselves from the crowd, garnering larger followings.

These studies have also revealed that images with happiness and neutral expressions have a positive influence on user likes on Instagram.

If faces, color cohesion and happiness sell particularly well, it’s important to ask what it takes to attain all of these goals and who exactly has the time, energy, emotional well-being and resources to successfully tailor their branding — and their lives — to this criteria.

Milly Chi PZ ’22 is an aspiring media studies major from Buena Park, California. She has deleted and redownloaded Instagram multiple times.

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