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I was about to turn 28 when it started – an inundation of sponsored posts on my Instagram, each boasting the side profile of a woman not dissimilar to me in age, revealing her “pre” and “post” whatever procedure she’d just undergone.
The cosmetic transformations I witnessed varied: fat-freezing, Botox, teeth-whitening, thread lifts, body contouring and veneers. The slight tinge of redness wherever a needle had just punctured delicate skin was made barely noticeable behind captions using the words “pain-free”, “cheap” and “uncomplicated”, all pasted neatly around the subject’s face.
The Instagram algorithm takes note of a user’s gender and age, among other things.Credit: Stephen Kiprillis/iStock
Along with these posts came soft graphics advertising egg-freezing payment schemes, their captions reminding me “early action is a big help” and that freezing your eggs works out to be “more affordable than Saturday brunch”. Scrolling my feed, it became clear I had graduated into a new age bracket online – Instagram had clocked that I was a woman approaching 30 and prescribed me with a new set of expectations to internalise.
According to Lizzie O’Shea, a lawyer and the author of Future Histories, Instagram’s business model is a commitment to specific, targeted advertising. The algorithm not only tracks the consumerist desires of each of its users – what shampoo they’re eager to use, according to whether they’ve Googled “dandruff remedies” recently; what teeth-whitening product they’re desperate for; what film they might like to see next – it also takes note of a user’s gender and age, among other things.
“There is a growing concern that your autonomy is not as fulsome as you might expect when it comes to your online experiences, and it may be shaping how you spend your money,” says O’Shea.
“Instagram had clocked that I was a woman approaching 30 and prescribed me with a new set of expectations to internalise.”
Digital strategist and author of Disconnect: Why We Get Pushed to Extremes Online and How to Stop It, Jordan Guiao says that a high capacity to “microtarget” users is what distinguishes social media platforms from other publishers.
“Age range is quite standard, but they [social media companies] also build shadow profiles that can target based on demographics, psychographics – psychological characteristics based on desires, goals [and] values – behaviours and interests,” says Guiao. “Gendered interest targeting would make up a significant portion of their revenues.”
It is no great mystery that how we engage with the internet informs the decisions we make about our lives and bodies. But those decisions become a little blurry when they aren’t solely informed. Who is pulling the strings when a social media platform has the power to coyly push its users in one direction, carefully curating a pathway of gendered consumerism?
On any given day, I find myself flicking through an index of posts about pregnancy initiatives or body modification options. I’m not alone in this.
“[Because] I’m a woman of a certain age, I get sponsored posts for fertility products. This encourages you to see your gender in a particular way,” says O’Shea.
What’s even more disconcerting is that there are social media marketing strategies referred to as “lookalike audiences”, where the curiosities, anxieties and shopping habits of those that “match” you online – be it in appearance, age, class, sexuality or more – will find their way into your advertisement reel.
Meta, the company behind Facebook and Instagram, addresses their use of lookalike audiences on their online Business Help Centre, defining them as “a way your ads can reach new people who are likely to be interested in your business because they share similar characteristics to your existing customers”.
“Who is pulling the strings when a social media platform has the power to coyly push its users in one direction, carefully curating a pathway of gendered consumerism?”
Guiao considers lookalike audiences as being part of a “vast surveillance network that most people would not have opted into if they knew how invasive it was”.
When describing lookalike audiences, Guiao says that “even if you’re careful … if you meet a couple of similar criteria to other groups of women, their tracking can be extrapolated to make generalisations about you as well.”
This means that, even if I haven’t explicitly been considering cosmetic injectables or fertility treatments myself, but other women in my various demographics have, it is very likely that a sponsored post for both will find their way to my feed.
This was the case for Kasey, a 31-year-old woman based in Melbourne, who is choosing not to share her surname for privacy reasons.
Kasey started noticing an influx of “plumped lips” on her Instagram feed. “I had never considered [getting lip filler] before, but I felt sort of compelled to try it – I think because I had turned 30 and have definitely noticed an increased fear around ageing, and my face and body changing,” she says.
Instagram noticed Kasey’s fears too, circling in on them with advertisements. “These beauty businesses make it feel very normal, and present it as ‘empowering’ to change your appearance through injectables”, Kasey says.
As it currently stands, market researchers Grand View Research have attributed a value of $5.4 billion to the growing industry of facial injectables in Australia, and project it to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 27.3 per cent from 2023 to 2030.
“The more I clicked on advertisements and searched [for] businesses and looked at stories, the more suggestions popped up, which all fed into my desire to get the lip filler. It felt more normal and tangible than before,” Kasey says.
After paying a high price to get a particular lip technique, commonly referred to as the “Russian lip technique”, which involves a softer, more “natural” injection of filler, Kasey felt short-changed by her experience, describing it as painful and uncomfortable. “I did not go back.”
We should not condemn or judge an individual’s desire to change, alter or modify their body – that is their choice. Where issues arise is in whether, when social media algorithms start deciding for us, free choice can really be harnessed online at all. Is it still possible to make up your own mind on social media? Or have the gendered mathematics that social media platforms rely on blurred the lines too fiercely?
“The ultimate aim is to trap users in the platforms and keep them there,” Guiao says. “And they will allow any type of content or advertising that contributes to this. In this way, all women therefore are just consumers waiting to be targeted at the right moment, mood, time of life.”
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