Six years ago we existed without Instagram. If you're a young adult, that might be difficult to comprehend. What began as a photo-sharing platform has now become everything and nothing to us; it's LinkedIn; it's Tinder; it's texting; it's political; it's superficial; it's modern life.
Instagram has undergone a latent transformation from a purist visual invention to a self-branding utensil, which has been complicated by the sexualisation of the app. I mean, really, it took longer than you'd have expected on an app where the premise is image-sharing, for soft-porn and sometimes hardcore-porn images to seep through into our suggested account tab. And so, Instagram banned the nipple, abolished "#curvy", added the report button, and in 2013 shut down Canadian photographer Petra Collins' account after she posted a photo of herself in which pubic hair was visible beneath her bikini bottom (even though it didn't break any of Instagram's nudity rules.) In seeking to 'protect' us, Instagram had censored the female body. Collins is an iconoclastic 23-year-old feminist and artist and her post was a statement about society's attitude to women's bodies. But what of the wave of young girls choosing to post almost nude pictures of themselves on a daily basis? Inconceivable abs, Barbie-like waists, hairless skin, a stretched bikini bottom, a nipple obscured by an emoji.
Less than three weeks ago, the New York Post ran a story about Eileen Kelly, a 20-year old Instagram star with the headline: "I fuel fantasies of men who want sex with young girls, and I’m fine with it." It was a pretty accusatory sentiment to level at someone so young but it was the first stab by mainstream media to ask bigger questions about the sexualisation of Instagram's – as they called them – "Lolitas", even if it was a little cack-handed. I'm among the 226K followers of Eileen's account: @killerandasweetthang. She posts highly provocative images, from knife-licking selfies dressed in pink cotton underwear to the one where she's on all fours in full BDSM latex gear with a gimp to boot. But if I'm being real, that stuff is common fodder on the 'gram. I did, however, pause for thought when four weeks ago, she captioned a lingerie photo: "Someone buy me this. DM your credit card number & billing zip code." There she was, unabashedly asking someone to outright buy her some underwear, while posing semi-nude. "Thank u 4 making my dreams come true" read the next post. It was the stark monetisation of her body that stopped me.
I emailed Eileen and asked why she posts pictures of herself in lingerie. "There is zero difference between what I post and what Calvin Klein posts of celebrities on their page," she replied. "There is nothing shameful about my body. If anything, I think I show girls that they too can love their bodies and as long as you’re the one in control, you’re being sexually empowered not sexually objectified." I asked her how her own pictures make her feel empowered, "I post revealing photos of myself because I love my body, I love bodies in general. I’m comfortable with myself and I have no problem communicating that vulnerability that comes along with being nude. I have nothing to hide. Breasts are there for a purpose. They are literally there to produce milk and one day to feed your baby. Human bodies are beautiful. We are so afraid as a society of our bodies and how they function, it’s depressing. " I queried the "Dm your credit card..." post and she stopped me. "That was a silly joke my friends and I put up. I'm no sugar baby." Eileen's critics deconstruct her small build, her child-like face, and her narrow hips. They come at her with the neatly wrapped Lolita binary – the ultimate virgin/whore dynamic that our culture has always struggled to negotiate, largely because it upsets the men it arouses; it is in essence a form of victim blaming. I asked Eileen how she felt about the Lolita label she's been branded with, to which she replied: "I think it’s silly that people associate me with Lolita because I have a baby face. I can’t control that I look young. I do find it offensive. Obviously there is the subtext of paedophilia."
For every girl feeling sexually empowered by posting a semi-naked selfie, I wonder about the fall-out of every young girl who sees Eileen's body and feels inadequate, or in attempting to mirror Eileen, behaves in an inauthentic way. I spoke to Ione Gamble, Editor of Polyester Magazine, who agrees that these young and now famous Insta-girls are a complicated package. "I'm sure these women aren't asking to be outright sexualised, but what makes these Insta-famous people different to the rigid (and often scrutinised) standards in the fashion or beauty industry? I'm not sure a teen girl will be able to differentiate between the two, especially when you're dealing with such high levels of body insecurity." Is it possible, as a pre-teen, to understand the connotations and semantics of these cutesy selfies that an adult might pick up on? It's a difficult question to answer, but the kawaii look that is certainly inspired by a nostalgia for the bubblegum aesthetic of Tumblr is being copied tenfold by young Instagram users. Babegal.lee (Phoebe Lee), a user with over 46.K followers, whose aesthetic is immediately identifiable as a Lolita, in a way that Eileen's isn't really, seems to epitomise this troubling trend. Phoebe is clear that her agenda is feminist but, to the untrained eye, her pictures of her legs akimbo, kitten-embossed knickers on show, with a teddy poised on her left inner thigh, could be confusing.
Artists like Arvida Bystrom promote both a relaxed attitude towards beauty and alternative ideals on Instagram, saying 'no' to shaving and 'no' to makeup – but, I mean, she still looks great. Arvida explained to me why she doesn't hesitate to post lingerie selfies: "Young girls shouldn't really be shamed for taking photos of themselves that are mimicking commercials. I don't think there's anything wrong with posting photos in underwear, but there aren't enough different bodies doing so. Babe_ebba is a great Instagram though – she proves you don't have to be tiny to look amazing in underwear."
In 2016, careers are built on 'likes', and the female body has become a fleshy MasterCard – a conduit to free shoes, guest-lists, waist-trainers and endorsements, or, in Eileen’s case, trips in private planes. Take Essena O’Neill’s tear-stained YouTube video that shook the internet and lifted the lid on the "paid post". She was making around $2000 an image. For a moment, she had the whole world's attention. Then you have Justin Bieber re-gramming an image of Spanish teenager Cindy Kimberley, a babysitter earning €4 (£3.10) an hour, who’s now a catwalk model. Then there's Eileen who tells me of myriad "job opportunities" that her account has allowed for. These Cinderella stories oil the slick wheels of the 'gram and the long arm of business is now hitting the 'like' button.
Eileen is honest about the side effects of hundreds of thousands of followers. She told me of an "intense cyber bullying situation last summer where I had to get the police involved. It was very emotionally traumatic." But it's not stopped her. "Just because someone is nude doesn’t mean it's about sex. I post a photograph in underwear and someone comments on my photo calling me a 'slut'; it doesn’t bother me." Today, ex-pornstars and strippers run legitimate businesses; they’ve gone straight (Sasha Grey and Lisa Ann), and host talk shows. Amber Rose got #SlutShaming to trend and consent activism is helping to change society's perceptions of women's bodies and their own rights towards them. Eileen insists she wants to pursue a career in sexual health education: "My mother passed away when I was eight and going through puberty was tough. I wasn't comfortable going to talk to my dad about boys and sex. I strongly believe that most problems in society stem from sexual repression and our inability to make something so natural and beautiful, an accepted part of life. I have a blog that launches in two weeks that focuses on sex education. I want to act as a sort of older sister on the internet. Sharing stories and experiences with the intent of helping those out who are going through similar things." Arvida is creating a book with body-positive Instagrammer Molly Soda, of all the pictures they've had taken down by Instagram.
The reality is that while we strain to advocate freedom of expression, the discussion remains as contrary as the Lolita image itself. Eileen is unashamedly body positive: "I’m 20-years-old. Sometimes I’ll dress up in cute underwear and snap some pics. I love my body. Just because I am comfortable in my own skin, and with my sexuality, doesn’t mean I should let people who are so suppressed and uncomfortable with their own impact me." She, at least from the outside, seems to be in control of her public persona, in a way that evidently Essena O'Neill was not. The long arm of corporations had rendered Essena a marketing puppet and her exposé rocked the web. But, if like Eileen, they're getting what they ‘want’ then who are we to judge? Why is it a negative transaction? Should we shame the girl who asks for more or who calls on her sexuality to better herself financially? Instagram is fuelled by perception and sadly perceptions of women still haven't changed that drastically. Of course no-one is just their ‘body’, but we get lazy, and if that’s what we see, then that’s what we’ll work with. There are artists – true digressers – like Molly Soda, who are aiming to shift perceptions of female representation with her use of her own body, but there are far too many of us who are posting to impress a lover or a peer group, often at the expense of our own sense of self-worth. The irony is that we get thrown off for posting images featuring nudity, but brands are using the app to sell through sex. Of course, in the end, it all comes down to what you ‘want’ – and that is a very difficult question.