In May, Krystal Aranyani shared a video on YouTube that was unlike her usual fare. The yoga teacher wore no makeup, was poorly lit, and slouched ahead of tapestries and pillows, her hand propped on her face during a thoughtful gesture.
“Hello, beloveds—welcome back to my channel,” she began, her usual salutation. “You may notice I look a touch different today. the opposite day i used to be thinking how I’ve never made a video with none makeup on, which is ok because people on social media, especially ones like myself that want to assist others and make a career out of it, wish to present ourselves during a certain way. But I’ve been aiming to make a touch bit more of a true video for you guys to remind you that it’s not always like that 24/7 and we’re really just playing out roles in our lives.”
At just one occasion, Aranyani’s approach may need seemed bold, maybe even risky, for tampering with the image her viewers were familiar with. Brave as she may are, though, Aranyani’s video was one among many, many posts across social media in 2019 that rejected what had become the accepted aesthetic of online self-presentation: airbrushed, perfectly posed, sort of a fairy tale come to life.
When Instagram first launched in 2010, it had been like a digital photo album. a traditional person could shoot a traditional photo with a traditional smartphone and—with the assistance of a couple of filters and easy-to-use editing tools—create a shocking, professional-looking image.
For eight years, social media was all about the augmented look: Facebook birth announcements, Twitter ~personal news~ posts, YouTube makeup tutorials, carefully crafted lifestyle blogs, and more.
But in 2019, something changed. It became cool to be real. Like, really real.
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Celebrities, of course, helped. The YouTube personality Emma Chamberlain has over 8 million followers, and her introductory reel on her YouTube page begins together with her saying, “D’you know what? I’m getting to be totally real with you guys!” She described during a recent profile why she often posts videos of herself crying: “Whenever I’m crying i prefer, weirdly, to document it. whenever I cry I always take one photo of myself afterwards because i prefer to seem back and think ‘Remember once I was so upset about X, Y, and Z? check out me now—I don’t care that anymore!’”
Chamberlain is of the generation that has challenged what it means to get on social media. Millennials may have invented and adopted Facebook, and stuffed Twitter and Instagram with memes and snark and (sometimes fake) news. But Gen Zers now seem to get on a search to post the foremost authentic, unretouched photos possible—ones that show them emoting, and in unflattering light, angles, and situations. Being real for this generation means recording a TikTok that documents one’s own struggle with mental disease. It means posting a picture that shows a lopsided smile and eyes shut right when the camera pops.
On the one hand, such content seems like the start line for refreshingly candid conversations online. TikTok has become the platform of choice for teens for this very reason: in 30-second loops, they will be concise and punchy, tearing apart everything from Pete Buttigieg’s campaign dance routine to the Uighur crisis in China.
Rebecca Jennings at Vox described how TikTok’s appeal for teens are often planned out by the “I’m ugly” trend. Depressing because it might sound on the surface, it’s empowering for teens to make content that attacks classic Instagram tropes just like the before/after split screen. “Relatable videos are why people like TikTok within the first place,” Jennings notes. “And feeling unattractive on TikTok is one among the foremost relatable experiences of all.”
However, being authentic—being real—is often a performance in and of itself. Posts about taking the mask off, so to talk, are actually very carefully worded and sometimes paired with somber photos meant to speak thoughtfulness and depth.
When Kim Kardashian, the archetypal influencer, gets “real,” she never truly breaks character.
In a video released this month, she talked about handling preeclampsia while pregnant and therefore the five surgeries that followed. As painful and genuine as Kardashian’s experience was, it’s nearly impossible to ignore how practiced and staged everything within the video is. Perfectly lit, her symmetrical, made-up face offset by a brown teddy sweater and mauve wall, Kardashian’s moment of vulnerability is additionally a billboard for her shapewear brand, Skims.
This phenomenon has been called “aspirational realness,” the thought that a curated life that’s ever messy in only the proper photogenic ways is somehow authentic. But anyone who’s ever attempted to require a snapshot of brunch or use a toy to distract a baby into staying still for a photograph knows that capturing the “real” is inherently not. It’s posed, takes many tries, and requires planning.
That extends to 2019’s trend of supposed soul-baring. It isn’t a coincidence that Aranyani’s heart-to-heart video dovetails nicely together with her business as a yogi and empowerment coach. We get to witness Chamberlain’s tears because she has an odd penchant for self-documentation, sure, but underneath that’s a keen understanding that emotions generate clicks. Same for Kardashian, the consummate professional. She is cognizant that her brand relies on a seesaw of aspiration and relatability: she’s a billionaire businesswoman, but a mom of 4, too.
So while it’s become more acceptable to acknowledge that real world happens, during a way it’s just a replacement manifestation of an equivalent urge for online notoriety. This year may need given us a tsunami of heartwarming TikTok videos of dancing together with your mom or lip-synching a rustic song in your pajamas. But it’s an equivalent endless loop: calculating the dynamics of an ideal digital extension of yourself to garner the dopamine rush of likes. Being “real” is simply a method to try to to that.