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From Subculture to Mainstream

Pear shapes, apple bottoms, and clothes that accentuate these fruity figures were once looked down upon by the mainstream. These standards of beauty were really only valued by “us folk.” The ability to create our own standard of beauty and style speaks not just to the oppressive systems that made it necessary but to our ability to thrive and create when the larger socio-cultural system did not recognise our value.

No longer relegated to certain neighbourhoods or alternative media, urban and mainstream fashion have merged. The days of a few fashion magazines telling us dos and don’ts are no more. Now we are influenced by a wider range of magazines, sites, and influencers who look like us; and we can make our own rules and determine for ourselves what qualifies as fashion or style.  This is great but it also comes with greater responsibility.

Shift in Mainstream Culture

As is common in a democratic society, we all have a right to express ourselves through fashion. You might see someone outside in their PJ’s or in a designer gown complete with opera gloves. There is no longer a consensus of what constitutes good style, and with the democratisation of style you may very well be praised for wearing something that has traditionally been known as bad taste if you have enough social power to do so.

While we have an omnipresent media to keep us informed, we can get swept up in other peoples’ styles. And when everyone’s clothing choices seem cool and of-the-moment, it can feel like no one’s does. So the challenge becomes how do we create individual style with such an overwhelming amount of media?

I think we can look to Black and other historically marginalised style makers whose sense of style reflected a unique self-expression that developed within a very specific sociocultural context. Eighties hip-hop artists donned the styles of their communities; and amplified trends like door-knocker earrings and Addidas sneakers’, forever altering the mainstreams’ perception of desirable dress (think suits with sneakers). And in the 60’s, the afro exploded into a whole socio-political discourse about beauty and acceptable dress. And somehow, the decision to embrace one’s own “natural hair” became a symbol of strength and courage.  

According to psychology, behaviour can be explained by some combination of environment, genetics, and psychology. Thus, these style makers may have been influenced by mainstream and subcultures, predispositions to certain styles, and their distinctive ways of interpreting it to create something unique. So how can we create individual style within our unique sociocultural system?  We may not be able to alter our environment and genetics, but we can have some control over our psychology. Here is how psychology can help us hone our individual style.

Using Clothes to Communicate a Specific Message to Others

Research shows that fashion communicates a message to others. And we interact using clothing symbols that guide our behaviour. So wearing a wedding gown typically means marriage, or wearing a bathing suit typically means swimming.  Are we aware of the clothing symbols attached to our clothing? Love it or hate it— leggings once worn only for workouts or around the house have now become a legitimate part of the outfit. It may be seen as sexy by some, and as lewd by others. And you will have to have enough cultural intelligence to know what to wear when in order to communicate the message you intend.

One theory proposes that people attach specific meanings to appearance cues, or parts of the outfit that stand out. And they use these cues to make inferences about other people. For instance, large hoop earrings may signal spicy, sexy, or sassy while studs may say something more understated. Are you aware of your appearance cues? What stands out on your outfit— the colour, a shape, a piece of jewellery? What message does it send? Consider the look you want to convey and determine which look closely matches that.

Using Clothes Communicate a Specific Message to Yourself

Our fashion choices not only send messages to others but to ourselves as well. Research shows that the meanings we attach to our clothing are validated by others’ responses. So if your pants suit says you’re about business, and people respond to you with a certain reverence, then your message is validated; and will reinforce your perception of yourself as someone to be taken seriously.

Studies also show clothing we wear triggers us to act differently depending on the symbolic meaning the clothes has for us. What symbolic meaning do your clothes hold for you? Do you feel good because you are wearing shoes you saw X celebrity wear? Many of us are driven by the emotional experience that occurs when we wear something we saw on someone we admire. 

We feel peer validation by evoking the image through our clothing; and this reinforces positive feelings about ourselves. It is through this process that clothing as symbols are strengthened. And the more we are aware of it, the more we can be in control of our style choices rather than feel controlled and overwhelmed by them.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you that Covid has forced fashion businesses to accelerate their digital transformation. Technology has become more of a necessity than ever before, rather than just something experimental, hence the rise of virtual influencers and models

The computer-generated images (CGI) help to promote products and share fashion content. Brands ask their agencies such as @thediigitals if they can digitally wear their designs, just like real-life models. An example, I’m sure most of you are familiar with is Lil Miquela, who has racked up 3million followers and collabed with many well known brands.

CGI Humans as a marketing Strategie

Virtual Influencers have almost three times more engagement than real influencers now (shocking, I know). Research revealed that consumers’ interaction with digital humans may change the way businesses interact with consumers regarding communication channels.⁠ The findings unveil positive consumer attitudes towards interacting with digital humans. However, it is interesting to note that men were significantly more positive towards their intention to interact with digital humans than women.⁠

So, what effects will virtual models have on consumers?

In the fashion industry, the most common concerns for consumers are what CGI models mean for setting realistic body standards and the overall influence on body image. The negative impact of fashion models on appearance is not new to us. There is already numerous criticism relating to the number of images of models with a slim physique and activists campaigning against the false representation of beauty on social media. There is no wonder that virtual models would have an impact on consumers who desire to possess a thin image and be seen as fashionable. 

Transparency and Authenticity

Now due to the rise of technology we have the most perfect models who don’t even really exist marketing our clothes. So, with authenticity already a big issue wouldn’t you agree CGI models are a step too far? 

 

Shudo Gramm is another famous virtual model, she is based on a barbie doll, the princess of South Africa, instead of a real person. At least when we were younger we knew that Barbie was just a doll, but will younger children think she is real? 

 

A study implied that early exposure to dolls epitomising an unrealistically thin body ideal may damage girls’ body image, which would contribute to an increased risk of disordered eating and weight cycling. So if toy dolls weren’t bad enough, we now have models based on dolls but without really knowing if they are real. 

Virtual Models and Social Comparison

From a psychological perspective, one of the negative consequences of virtual models is social comparison.  Instagram has created a ‘comparison culture’ amongst its users and the lack of transparency of models is a big issue in terms of social comparison. ‘Social Comparison Theory’ suggests individuals drive to evaluate their progress and in the absence of objective standards, people compare themselves to others to know where they stand. 

Women that define self-worth by meeting idealised beauty standards could be more likely to engage in social comparisons. This is because the tendency to base one’s self-worth on appearance often has negative consequences for affect and esteem. It can also negatively influence consumers to engage in behaviour in an attempt to achieve unrealistic beauty standards.

Upward comparisons occur when consumers compare the self, often subconsciously,  with a model’s body as it is perceived to be “better”, but this can lead to negative self-perceptions. 

But, are virtual models really that bad?

With everyone using GCI more often such as Instagram filters and being constantly exposed to retouched models in beauty marketing they can be argued to be just like what we already have. 

Cameron James Wilson, the creator of Shudu said he’s “adding imperfections rather than taking them away, you’ll see more natural imperfections on Shudu’s page than your average influencer.” A Virtual plus-size model with visible stretch marks has also been introduced, Shudu sister, and Lil Miquela has posted displaying her armpit hair. This suggests that using virtual images as a marketing strategy could be used to promote self-acceptance, prosocial emotions and enhance self-esteem. 

Ads are more effective when the physical features of human models match those of consumers, so consumers may be more likely to purchase as the model looks more similar to them. As people prefer brands that are humanised, so basically the more human-looking these nonhumans look, the better. Consumers may think, if even the most perfectly made models have these perceived flaws mine must be accepted?

To sum up, though brands should embrace new technologies that add value for the consumer, they should be wary of the ethical challenges that CGI influencers pose to an industry that should be built on transparency and authenticity. 

I think it’s all about curating your feed, Instagram is said to be one of the most inclusive platforms if we use it properly and limit our exposure to unrealistic beauty standards.

Hairstyles are a key part of self-expression, in the same way that makeup and clothing are. The way that we style our hair can be a manifestation of our personalities, even if this is done unconsciously. However, for those of us with curly and coily hair, it’s not as easy to express ourselves as it may seem.

The Burden of Societal Pressures

It should be no surprise that women with curls feel an external and societal pressure to straighten or relax their hair.  To some people, for whatever reason, curly hair automatically represents a lack of seriousness, with it often being classed as ‘messy’ and ‘unruly’. 

Dr. Marianne LaFrance, a professor of psychology, women’s and gender studies at Yale University has previously shared how:

From early on, women are given the message that appearance is massively important, and it can become a marker for their success in life.  

The desire to meet society’s Eurocentric beauty standards creates a barrier in many women’s self-expression, and this is evident across many different countries. In particular, many women in Egypt can be forced at a very early age to straighten their hair, all to align with European standards of beauty. Moreover, the beauty standards for Dominican women can be highly criticizing too. The term “pelo malo” (bad hair) is used towards women with curly and kinky hair.

Targeting Black Women

Black women in particular face a much larger stigma when wearing their hair naturally. More so for Black women, rocking natural curls seems to be a lot more political than it is aesthetic. Not only is natural hair a barrier in self-expression for Black women, but it can also be a barrier in scoring careers or even going to school. The UK school system specifically seems to have a problem with afro-textured hair, as Emma Dabiri (author of ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’) emphasises. Pupils have previously been excluded for fades, locks, braids, natural afros and more. 

Fashion is Psychology’s very own founder and editor-in-chief, Shakaila Forbes-Bell, also offers her own perspective. 

I avoided being natural due to an ingrained belief that my hair wasn’t beautiful and being teased for the tightness of my coils.

Underlying messages and racial stereotypes presented by society can have a deep impact on self-esteem. Black women are consistently told that they have “nappy” or “bad hair” and begin to internalise self-hatred. In order to reduce these social pressures of adopting a more Eurocentric look, we must target the beliefs adopted at an early age through socialisation. 

Forbes-Bell agrees, emphasising how

There is a lot of unlearning we have to do when it comes to how we maintain our curls and coils and how we feel about them. For decades Eurocentric beauty norms have been instilled in women worldwide so it’s understandable why straight or relaxed styles have their appeal.

The Curly Hair Movement

The curly hair movement has represented a crucial shift in attitudes towards embracing curly and natural hair. Although natural hair has been gaining momentum over the last couple of years, the curly hair movement has been supercharged by recent lockdown restrictions. Not only was most of our time spent inside, but professional treatments have not been possible for many months.

According to recent research from L’Oréal, Google searches for “how to make your hair curly” have increased by 50%. Not only are more people with naturally curly and coily hair embracing their style, but there seems to be an overall increased interest in having curly hairstyles. 

Editorial director of naturallycurly.com, Alexandra Wilson, states:

The natural hair movement really ignited in the 70s when black women were wearing their afros.  

The acceptance of natural seems to have been a long time in the making, with many factors playing a crucial in its rise.

The Social Media Boom

One of the most important factors to consider is social media. Social media has created an accessible community in which people can learn from each other in a way that wasn’t previously possible. A quick search into YouTube can tell you what products and techniques are best for your curl type and texture. Social media is especially impactful for those who are not used to seeing people with similar hair types and textures to them. Being able to witness other women embrace their curls has inspired others to follow suit.

According to one study, Instagram online communities have contributed to making hair types mainstream, and have educated people with a new perception that black women’s hair types are actually beautiful.

Positive Psychological Shifts

Importantly, this new acceptance and appreciation for curly hair has led to a psychological shift in those who are embracing their curls. The curly hair movement can perhaps go hand in hand with the culture of body positivity and acceptance we are experiencing as a society. 

For example, one woman has previously shared:

Discovering my curls and embracing exactly who I am has granted me many incredible opportunities to share my individuality and promote self-love.

However, it’s crucial that we keep this positive momentum going, as there is still a long way in how we approach and perceive natural hairstyles. 

Forbes-Bell offers an interesting insight regarding the perception of Black women in particular: 

Instead of being seen as the gold standard, straight hair needs to be viewed as one of many styles that Black women can rock with confidence. There needs to be increased texture representation in all forms of media and there also needs to be more education on the various ways that curls and natural hair can be taken care of – ones that don’t break the bank!

We must continue to embrace our curly and natural hair, while also reversing problematic Eurocentric beauty norms.

I’m sure I can speak for us all when I say my screen time has significantly gone up throughout the pandemic. As much as I don’t like to admit it, it’s the result of mindlessly scrolling on Instagram. However, research suggests that the app may contribute to adverse psychological outcomes and poor appearance-related self-perception or as some call it ‘influencer envy’.

The rise of technology has meant the ability to manipulate the way we look has become effortless. Subsequently, new generations are exposed to much more than just airbrushed photoshoots in magazines. A few scrolls down our feed and most of us will see Instagram models, influencers and even peers who perpetuate an unattainable standard of beauty whether it’s “knowing your angles”, a face filter or smoothing out your skin. Apps such as Facetune allow physical features to be manipulated entirely with the click of a few buttons, removing imperfections to whiten teeth, slim waists and reduce sizes to be accepted as beauty ideals.

Comparison Culture

Social Comparison Theory’ suggests individuals drive to evaluate their progress and in the absence of objective standards, people compare themselves to others to know where they stand. However, on Instagram, we can compare ourselves to these edited pictures or individuals with cosmetic surgery (without realising). You may think you easily spot editing; however, only 60%- 65% of the time people recognise edited photos.

A debate has arisen about whether it should be compulsory for manipulated faces and bodies to be labelled as edited on Instagram. This has been proven somewhat controversial- what is your take? On the one hand, it creates a warped sense of beauty, especially for vulnerable women with lower self-esteem. However, is it right to police people’s bodies, especially when it may make the poster feel more confident? Researchers found that viewing an idealised image from social media had a negative influence on women’s body image, no matter if it came with a disclaimer or not. Although, disclaimers lead viewers to form a less favourable impression of the poster. This suggests it may do more harm than good as the posters emotional wellbeing may lower with no effect on the viewer.

A rise in cosmetic surgery 

Evidence suggests social media pushes us to take part in life-threatening beauty trends in the interest of acceptance and social compliance in society, affecting emotional wellbeing. WomensHealth found that those in their 20s desired the fox eye effect of having eyes stretched upwards and back (as if pulled in a secure high ponytail) more than any other age group. This leads to surgery involving implanting dissolvable threads under their skin to hoist it up or Botox to raise their eyebrows. This was most likely the result of repeated exposure to this popular beauty trend and wanting to look more like models such as Bella Hadid. It seems women persist in internalising these beauty ideals as a model for their own comparisons. Consequently, steps need to be taken to help those affected by idealised images on Instagram.

With that Being Said Positive Psychology Can Help…

Positive emotions broaden momentary ‘thought-action repertoire’ (so, like how joy sparks the urge to play), which widens an individual’s mindset. Having an open mind while scrolling down the gram means you are more receptive to different information types. Putting you in an excellent position to judge whether the image is altered and whether or not you should engage in social comparison. These actions then become internalised and lead to feelings of acceptance.

In a 2020 study, women either observed ‘Instagram vs reality’, ‘ideal’ or ‘real’ images. Viewing the ‘Instagram vs reality’ and ‘real’ images whilst identifying the ‘ideal’ images as fake, disrupted the ‘social comparison process’ and reduced body dissatisfaction. This research suggests Instagram can enhance self-esteem with the photos associated with hashtag trends such as #instagramvsreality and #nomakeup as they promote self-acceptance. 

“If positive psychology teaches us anything, it is that all of us are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. No one has it all. No one lacks it all.”

– Christopher Peterson

Therefore, follow some ‘real’ accounts representative of yourself to minimise the risk of engaging in unhealthy social comparison. 

Here are my recommendations for excellent reality-checking and body positivity accounts: 

1.  @danaemercer

“Reminding you you’re special.”

2. @planetprudence  

“Helping you see that your thoughts aren’t alone.”

3. @celebface

“WELCOME TO REALITY.”

4. @stephanieyeboah

“Self Love Advocate”

5. @hi.ur.beautiful 

“Here to remind you that there is no bad way to have a body.”

So what’s stopping you from using Instagram as a tool to foster an appreciation for the full spectrum of beauty!