On platforms such as Instagram, facebook, Youtube, Vimeo, wikipedia ...
BANNED ON THE INTERNET
A few times the idea of opening a new account popped up but she refused to play the game to stay in the game. "It goes against my core values to scratch on top of my innocent nipples", Marisa says. She believes that censoring the human body could be dangerous for the human race, even though we are creatures of culture, by seeing the body as something purely sexual, we de-naturalize the body and we separate us from the natural world around us. She does understand that the vulgarization of the human body doesn’t belong on an open platform as Instagram or Facebook. But if we continue to ban nudity on social media, the link with nudity and vulgarity will become a new reality.
Since Marisa is blocked from Instagram, Youtube, Vimeo, Wikipedia, Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook (occasionally), the only way to ‘follow’ her today is through this webpage or her personal Patreon account. Patreon has been a base of support that gives Marisa the freedom to awaken and initiate her own projects and visions.
"For years I have traveled the world with the freedom to express myself in any way I could imagine. I have gotten to see so much beauty on this planet but I have also seen so much ugly. I have fought to keep plastic out of the oceans, I have fought for wildlife conservation in Africa, and I have fought against the atrocities of religion. My Patreon isn’t about showing myself off, its about spreading the word and opening minds. You’ll get the Marisa you know, the one who was born naked, lives naked, and plans on dying naked.
I’ve discovered I have a voice that some people will listen to and I want to use that voice to keep addressing issues that affect our lives."
Exploring the Politics of Gender Representation on Instagram:
Self-representations of Femininity
Marisa Papen is a twenty-four-year-old Belgian Instagram model, who gained national and international fame by sharing carefully aesthetically crafted photographs of her (nearly) nude body on Instagram, in an unapologetically sexy manner. Before being banned in 2016, Papen’s Instagram account had amassed over seven hundred thousand followers. She was even voted the “most beautiful woman on Instagram” by the readers of the Dutch online magazine Manners.nl. For Papen, Instagram played a significant role in launching her modeling career by serving as a tool for sharing her stories and for making connections with a wider audience.
Marisa Papen is from Belgium, a liberal western European country. However, her Instagram and modeling activities transcend this local context. She was featured in magazines and websites worldwide, including in shoots for both Playboy.com and several other cross country Playboy issues . She posed for photoshoots worldwide, and her Instagram had a large transnational group of followers. Despite her wide popularity, Papen’s photographs were deemed “too provocative” by Instagram, and her account was thus banned from the online platform in August 2016. This decision made by Instagram – a private company based in the US – creates a transnational context, transcending the local Belgian context. More importantly, it brings the “platform politics” that shape Instagram use to the fore. For Papen, this was the fourth time her account was banned from Instagram. But unlike the previous times, when her account was quickly re-instated after making an appeal to Instagram, this was a lasting ban, which was still in effect at the time of writing this article, over three months later. Papen’s example thus provides an illustration of the theoretical discussion previously introduced and exemplifies how gender politics work in relation to her Instagram account ban.
Papen’s Instagram use is quite distinct from the informal engagement of most common social media users, as it is not confined to the expected practices of selfie-taking.
Papen’s Instagram use is better understood in line with Leah Schrager’s conceptualization of the uses of this social media platform by Instagram models, which entails a highly skilled labour of self-branding; a shaping of one’s own image and Instagram practices, in order to gain fame, to spread one’s perspective, and to monetize one’s Instagram activity. Nonetheless, Papen’s illustrative case helps to emphasize the complex and nuanced gender representation politics that underlie and shape all self-representation on Instagram.
Despite such creative efforts, her Instagram account was still banned. Marisa Papen has never publicly shared any official reply she received from Instagram about previous bans. Yet the response of the platform seems to echo other similar cases when Instagram banned certain images due to what they deemed inappropriate, only to publicly concede later on that they “don’t always get it right when it comes to nudity”, acknowledging their mistakes and restoring the banned photographs and accounts.
Papen tried once more to appeal Instagram’s decision and to have her account reinstated, but at the time of the writing of this article, her account was still not re-activated and she had not shared any response from Instagram on her other online platforms, such as her website or Facebook account. Marisa Papen’s gendered self-representations are actively created through a negotiation with Instagram’s possibilities and limitations. On Papen’s blog and in interviews, she has explained the aesthetic of her nude photography as a discourse of agency and resistance – one that is very different from the justification given by Instagram for her ban. Instagram argued that her pictures were too provocative and too sexually explicit. Papen, however, sees herself as a “free, wild hearted expressionist” (Papen, 2016a), using her photographs as a means to express her way of viewing the world. Her choice to “go naked” is presented as a form of resistance, and, simultaneously, as the way in which she simply feels comfortable expressing herself. She equates it with an effort to distance herself from the “corruption of society”, that is, as a mode of being that is authentic, pure, and in touch with nature (Papen, 2016a). It is a nakedness that she claims has no specific bodily requirements, that supports embracing the body just as it is, and that encourages feeling good in one’s own skin. Papen’s discourse echoes the political discourses of liberation and empowerment of “fourth-wave feminism”, although she does not actively engage in overt digital feminist activism or make use of politicized self-representation. She takes advantage of the online platforms of Instagram and her own blog to create representations that seek to disrupt the hegemonic limitations of “proper” femininity. Furthermore, Papen’s use of Instagram embodies the notions of “everyday politics” and “everyday activism” that view the sharing of women’s personal representations as political in itself, even when not deliberately constructed as such. It is a “micro-political practice of daily life” that allows for the dissemination of different perspectives and discourses.
By using Instagram, Papen claims visibility, making her voice heard and using the humanizing potentialities of self-representation to present herself as a “speaking subject” in her own right.
The photographic practices of Papen on Instagram seem, in this way, to be following the postfeminist idea of bodily display as being a sign of strength, independence, and empowerment.
In addition, by using Instagram, Papen seems to be claiming agency not only over her photographic practice but also over her modeling career, adopting an ethos of self-enterprise, self-employment, and self-branding. She subverts the traditional power structure of the professional modeling agency and media industry, taking matters into her own hands, doing the work of production, distribution, and networking herself, and monetizing her Instagram activity.
In line with other recent studies on self-representation on Instagram, Marisa Papen’s photographs can also serve to reproduce normative gender representations through her poses, styling, mannerisms, and a portrayal of sexiness that is traditionally constructed as enticing to the male gaze. Perhaps inadvertently, she continues to represent the same formulaic gender stereotypes, while claiming empowerment. Equating this very narrow definition of “sexiness” with empowerment leads to the internalization of oppressive norms of femininity that perceive the female body as both powerful and in need of constant improvement. Despite her stated views that there are no specific bodily requirements to be an Instagram nude model, Papen nonetheless adheres to and professes a specific fitness and dietary regime in order to maintain her slim figure. Even under the banner of something done just to please oneself, the representations are still strikingly similar to the conventions that the larger society identifies as “sexy” femininity states, through a process of interpellation, these social representations have become accepted by Papen as her own authentic representations.
Despite Papen’s claims of resistance, her self-representation can be read as one that has already been “absorbed by the mainstream” and has become tailored to normative tastes. Her images draw their influence from other societally approved images, intertextually linking them to the texts and conventions of popular culture. They represent a highly perfected and idealized image of femininity, filtered both visually and through cultural conventions. Conversely, the edginess and the resistant potential of Marisa Papen’s self- representation on Instagram has also been absorbed and incorporated into the popular mainstream media. Her images are still constructed in a way that is especially attractive to the male gaze, appealing to a traditional heterosexual male audience, as an erotic object for male visual pleasure. This erotic appeal to a heterosexual male gaze is reflected in the comments that often accompany Papen’s photographs. Although the original comments on her Instagram account were removed when her account was banned, on her other online platforms, such as her website (Papen, 2016) and Facebook account (Papen, 2017), most comments are made by male commenters. These comments are mostly positive and supportive, expressing appreciation for the aesthetics of both her photography and her body, often echoing her own discourses of freedom and naturalness. Yet, at other times, the comments have an explicitly sexual nature, expressing overt desire for Papen herself. As such, Papen’s images could be seen not only as highly gendered representations but also as sexualized. She represents herself as fitting the seemingly hetero sexual ideal. These images are produced for male sexual pleasure. Indeed, Papen’s images, with their appeal to a conventionalized notion of sexiness expressed in the poses and styling, can evoke concerns of sexual objectification of women. Viewed in isolation, they seem to encompass some of the characteristics that Martha Nussbaum associates with objectification. Namely, the notions of instrumentality – of treating a woman as a tool for the purposes of others, in this case as a tool for achieving visual and erotic pleasure – and the denial of subjectivity – treating women as if their subjective experiences and feelings do not need to be taken into account. As a result, Papen is often featured in media outlets typically associated with sexism and objectification, such as Play- boy magazine or the Belgian online “lads magazine” Clint.be. Some of the people commenting on Papen’s blog were quick to point out these inconsistencies, stating that “if you look at her actual images, the way they’re photographed, and the initial sneer at Playboy etc. for objectifying women: you really have to ask what the difference is. 99.9% of people looking at her images just see another beautiful model in semi-erotic nude poses...”.
The case of Marisa Papen becomes more complicated when considering that many, perhaps even most, of the photographs she shared were not self-representations in a literal sense but, rather, photographs of herself taken by others, often in the context of professional modeling shoots. The fact that the photographers in such sessions tend to be male contributes even more to the sense of empowerment and resistance claimed by Marisa Papen, to be viewed as a sort of disillusion. These images – created by male photographers for outlets like Playboy, and representing Papen in ways that can be read as traditional female objectification for male visual pleasure – can appear to fall back into the commonly established mainstream media practice of portraying women through the male gaze, although this is not Papen’s own view. Indeed, Papen herself has been quite critical of this, embracing the ethos of self-representation that seems to define Instagram, and challenging the views of her photographs as male-imposed objectification. Even when confronted with the problematic choice of posing for Playboy, she defended this choice by framing it as an artistic expression of nudity and as a representation of her own, true, natural self. She has been vocal about her dislike of the objectification of women by the media, and has even acknowledged the role Playboy itself plays in this objectification. Nonetheless she countered that Playboy had offered her “total freedom of content”. As Nussbaum states, “in the matter of objectification context is everything”, and Marisa Papen views her work with photographers, in this and other sessions, as a collaborative effort, through which she gets the chance to express to a larger public her alternative and resistant views on nudity.
Her agency is framed as a means to subvert the idea of objectification and to emphasize the experience of the individual,
Although Marisa Papen’s use of Instagram is not confined to the expected practices of selfie-taking, she nonetheless embraces its self-representation ethos. The fact that these specific images have been actively chosen by Marisa Papen herself to be shared on her Instagram makes them, at some level, self-representations. They fit into a broader understanding of self-representation in terms of curatorial agency and choice about what to share. As Rachel Syme states, allowing someone else to take your picture and then posting it to Instagram is still a form of carefully chosen “myth-making-via-imagery”. As already stated, we can choose to represent ourselves in various different ways on social media, either by using self-portraits or photographs of us taken by others, or even by sharing photographs of things we love, like our pets or family. In this manner, the photographs of Marisa Papen taken by others are used to convey a more comprehensive sense of self-representation on Instagram, as she is an active participant making choices about what to show or to conceal. Overall, the study of Marisa Papen’s photographic practices on Instagram serves to complexify and question our understanding of the politics of gender representation on Instagram and to put into question the role of social media in shaping self-representations. Papen’s practices and discourses reveal a deeply nuanced stance on an ever-shifting middle ground between empowerment and compliance with the objectification of the male gaze. The possibilities of freedom are always accompanied by constraints in a precarious balance between resistance and conformity.
Exploring the Politics of Gender Representation on Instagram: Self-representations of Femininity
Author(s): Sofia P. Caldeira, Sander De Ridder and Sofie Van Bauwel
Source: DiGeSt. Journal of Diversity and Gender Studies , Vol. 5, No. 1 (2018), pp. 23-42 Published by: Leuven University Press
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Sofia Caldeira is a PhD student at Ghent University, conducting a project on representations of femininity on Instagram and women’s glossy fashion magazines, funded by the Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (FCT).
Sander De Ridder is a Postdoctoral Fellow of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) at Ghent University, conducting research on the mediatization of young people’s intimate sexualities.
Sofie Van Bauwel is Associate Professor at the Department of Communication studies at Ghent University with expertise in research on gender and media.
BANNER IMAGE BY SAMMY SLABBINCK