The Influencer ‘It’ Girl: Privilege, Performativity and the Politics of Empowered Self-Promotion on Instagram

This piece was written as my major work for the capstone unit, Critical Practice in Media, in the final semester of my BA (Media and Communications). I have shared the work in parts and in no way intend to undermine any of the influencers mentioned, rather question their integrity as public figures. Please enjoy this lengthy piece in part or in full.


This study aims to explore how female Instagram influencers employ gender performativity and privilege through empowerment. Its focus is the areas of fitness, sexualised self-promotion and transparency as a role model through their role as social media entrepreneurs. A content analysis case study of Steph Smith will be used to examine historical representations of the female body and embodied privilege by coding 200 randomly selected images from a 10-month period. Coding criteria covers a number of categories relating to female performativity and privilege informed by the theoretical frameworks of intersectionality and gender performativity. This study has found that fitspiration culture appropriates the ‘booty’ and that the sexualisation of self-promotional swimwear modelling causes body dissatisfaction in young women. Influencer transparency reveals unacknowledged privilege in access to cosmetic surgery and capitalising on followers. Each of these discussions notes the social implications of popularised individuals and the importance of addressing privilege and constructions of gender for young women. This study proposes potential guidelines for the influencer advertising industry.


Since its inception in 2011, Instagram has reached the forefront of mobile advertising with more than 2 million active advertisers every month (Sandberg, 2017). As a result, a new generation of Microcelebrity has been born, the Instagram influencer. Influencers are entrepreneurs who capitalise on self-promotion and advertising across social media. Often, we are only shown the heavily filtered highlights of the influencer lifestyle that includes travel, designer products and exclusive events. Earlier this year, Instagram was named the most harmful social media platform for youth mental health in the UK by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH, 2017). Influencers have been blamed for fostering unrealistic expectations for young women’s appearance, including extreme body appearance and uses of Photoshop that have been linked to the onset of eating disorders (see: Kuijer & Boyce, 2014 and Hesse-Biber et al. 2006) in impressionable women.

Expectations and standards of the ‘perfect body’ in the fitness and beauty fields have emerged from Instagram, such as the ‘thigh gap’ and ‘peachy booty’. These values are constantly reinforced with headlines like ‘Instagram model loses 70k followers after she stops posting bikini pics’ (Wolfe, 2017). Other concerns include the lack of diversity, particularly with Australian influencers who tend to fit the Western ideal of a blonde, tanned and toned female archetype. There is little acknowledgement of the level of privilege held by those who have so much influence in setting trends for their audience. In many cases, female influencers rise to fame due to their performative sexual power and white privilege that I intend to explore throughout this study. Australian influencers such as Steph Smith, who boasts over 1.2 million followers, have fostered a culture of privilege and particular representations of femininity that dictate standards of mainstream beauty and social conduct. This can be harmful and stifling for their female audience and necessitates a revaluation of industry guidelines.

This research project aims to examine the messages surrounding privilege and gender that are communicated through influencer self-promotion and advertising on Instagram. It will explore Instagram fitness culture, self-promoting swimwear modelling and transparency as a role model. The study employs a content analysis case study of Smith to explore historical representations in 200 images from the past 10 months. Dobson (2015), Duffy et al. (2017) and Lind (2016) have made significant scholarly contributions in the field of gender representation in digital media. This study aims to address the void in academic discourse that excludes discussion of Instagram influencers and privilege through the frameworks of intersectionality and gender performativity and their impact on young women.


Privileged Entrepreneurship: From Subordinance to Sexualisation

The female body, its purpose and its place in society has been assigned meaning for centuries yet post-feminist narratives aspire towards female empowerment and bodily integrity (see: Wolfe, 1929, De Beauvoir, 1953, Wolf, 1990, McRobbie, 2009). The rhetoric of post-feminism is lead by Judith Butler (1993) who describes gender performativity as a “ritualized repetition of norms” (p.x) that formulate an identity within the gender binary. Butler critiques the reinforcing of heteronormative power and questions whether the constructs of gender and sex can be separated. This framework is applicable to Instagram influencers who perform and capitalise on their female gender in an industry that does little to celebrate diversity.

Historical narratives of female gender roles can be appropriated and increasingly applied to online landscapes. Dobson’s 2015 work effectively outlines that young girls and women of today’s postfeminist media scape are depicted as “fun-loving, consumption focussed, and more “empowered”, active, and bold, physically, socially and psychologically” (2015:23). This dynamic definition of the female gender enables different facets to be showcased in the digital sphere and notes the transition from sexual objectification to sexual subjectification. Both Dobson and Butler highlight the theoretical underpinnings of the gender binary and how femininity is performed, most notably in its transition from a pre-digital world to the current image-saturated sphere of Instagram. This has created an expectation of a privileged “active and assertive sexual performativity” (2015:24) from women on social media, particularly influencers with a financial objective that will be explored throughout this study.

Abidin’s 2016 study examines social media influencers in Singapore with a particular emphasis on Instagram. The study addresses the “moral panic” of selfies plus the gendered labour, authenticity and reflexivity of influencers. This study is important in its discussion of the way in which images are doctored by influencers for commercial benefit. Her work has greatly influenced the choice of coding categories that will be further discussed in the Method.

Duffy & Pruchniewska (2017) and Lind (2017) marry the intersections of race and gender to examine the inequalities born from privilege in social media entrepreneurship. Duffy et al. outline the “digital double bind”, a complex that requires women to engage in “self-promotion, interactivity, and visibility” (2017:848) on social media to survive the meritocracy of digital labour whilst Lind highlights the “mediated messages that are crafted” (2017:6) from factors of race and gender. Both studies are highly relevant to explaining motivations behind gender performativity and tendencies towards selective exposure of race on social media. However, neither study addresses Instagram influencers; highlighting the void my research will attempt to fill.

METHOD (Summarised)

A content analysis case study of influencer Steph Smith (@stephclairesmith) has been employed to code a random sample of 200 images within the past 10 months from a total selection of over 5000.

Limitations and Ethics

Limitations in this study include the potential for human error in recording quantitative data. This has been accounted for through a sample of 200 images that is large enough to not be impacted by minor errors. Empowerment has been the most powerful tool for measuring both privilege and performativity on my code sheet however certain aspects are difficult to measure through a code sheet, such as the use of Photoshop that must be open to interpretation.

Further, ethical considerations must be made with the identification of Smith and other influencers. McKee argues that information published on the Internet is available for public access (2009:4) however Smith has not offered consent for the use of her name and images in this discussion. Considering my personal ethics, I believe that seeking permission “undermines access and ability to conduct public research” (McKee, 2009:6). With 1.2 million followers and a notable influence on young women, Smith is considered a public figure and must accept that with this role comes the inevitability of critical discourse.


The Findings of this study will answer the research question; how​ ​has​ ​the​ ​influencer​ ​represented​ ​a​ ​privileged​ ​and performative feminine​ ​persona​ ​in​ ​her​ ​self-branded Instagram​ ​images?​

Overall the raw findings suggest some indicative results; the majority of images centre on self-promotion, swimwear, and then sportswear. There is a strong correlation between swimwear modelling or self-promotion wearing swimwear that reveals sexual body parts however the most frequently occurring body language is empowered, followed by sexualised. There appears to be no acknowledgement of privilege. These themes will be explored through the following hypotheses:

H1: The influencer uses privilege to present a performative female empowerment through fitness advertising.

In the 11.5% occurrence of Smith representing fitness apparel such as in advertising images for Adidas, she is mostly pictured alone. In 48.5% cases, Smith is represented as empowered through her happy or serious facial expressions, athletic stance and strong, muscular physique. Smith’s body focus is not overtly sexual as she is always clothed yet often only in a sports bra and tights and often, her womanly silhouette is a feature of the image. There is a 0% instance of acknowledgement of privilege. In each case, Smith is portrayed as being either white or moderately tanned. There is little evidence to suggest explicit racial references aside from the occasional occurrence of braids, hoodies and boxing references that could subtly appropriate black culture. Politics of location are almost always in Australia and in wealthy areas such as Sydney’s Eastern suburbs or in a gym environment. Wealth and class are not shown in extreme forms. There are zero instances of being pictured with a person of colour and even when pictured with groups of people at Adidas events, all company is white.

Overall, these findings signify the privilege embedded in Australian sports culture, proving the hypothesis. The findings show that Smith’s white privilege is leveraged by Adidas on her Instagram account to present a white woman as being empowered through fitness. Additionally, the fetishization of the fit, female body and ‘booty’ has concerning implications in appropriating black culture without acknowledgement. The repercussions and significance for Australian fitness culture and body image on Instagram will be further explored in the discussion.

H2: The influencer uses privilege to present a performative female sexualisation in self-promotion.

Images found to be purely self-promotional made up 60% of the sample and featured an overwhelming pattern of sexualisation. 37.5% of the sample focussed on a sexual body part like Smith’s breasts or‘booty’. 29.5% of the images are considered sexualised as Smith is pictured as submissive or objectified in each case. 51.5% of the sample depicts Smith in sexual attire that includes skimpy swimwear, lingerie or no clothing at all. Additionally, Smith’s skin tone is either moderately or extremely tanned in 87% of images to appear almost black. Smith is pictured alone in 98% of all images. There is no explicit racial referencing aside from Smith’s tan and ‘booty’ focus that will be explored in the discussion.

In order to self-promote, white, female influencers like Smith resort to an explicit sexualisation of their bodies. Whilst a post-feminist framework may reveal progressive sexual liberation, undertones of narcissism and objectification may foster confusing messages for what it means to be empowered as a young woman. Additionally, sexualised self-promotion can be viewed as further cultural appropriation of women of colour as fake tanning products are used to emulate black skin. Again, the parading of the fetishized‘booty’ leaves little to the imagination. I intend to explore the question of performative sexualisation in hand with unacknowledged privilege that triggers body dissatisfaction and disordered eating in many women.

H3: The influencer uses privilege to alter the behaviour of followers as a performative female role model.

60% of Smith’s photographs are self-promotional. As an influencer with over 1.2 million followers, Smith is often seen as a role model for young women due to her sense of empowerment in 48.5% of images. Smith depicts an overwhelmingly ‘healthy and balanced’ physique in 86.5% of images in addition to 12% appearing muscular and strong’. This combined with her ambassadorship for Adidas and focus on positive body image and fitness render her an idol for many young women. She has graced the cover of the October 2017 issue of Women’s Health Magazine alongside the global launch of her Fitness App. The combination of Smith’s influence with her lack of acknowledgement of privilege highlight an area that requires significant consideration within this industry.

Additionally, since the completion of coding, Smith has begun to engage in an influencer trend known as transparency. Influencer transparency hinges on sharing intimate personal details with followers, as “influencers are amateur and raw, and allowed for immediate interactivity and response from followers” (Abidin, 2015). Through netnographic observation, there have been a number of posts on Smith’s page that share untouched photographs. A notable example is a photograph that features Smith with a minimal amount of cellulite on the back of her thighs (see Appendix). Smith reveals that she is insecure to share such an image and the post has garnered hundreds of comments commending her bravery. Perhaps it is just the lighting, but an image posted days earlier reveals Smith in a similar position with no cellulite. This raises the question of whether influencer transparency is truly authentic as Photoshop tools and cosmetic surgery are becoming increasingly accessible. Additionally, the question of influencer integrity is raised in relation to the position of power and privilege that warrants the status of a role model.


Life’s Peachy: The Privilege of Empowerment and The Fetishization of the       ‘ Booty’ through Fitspiration

One of the most rapidly expanding and hotly contested communities on Instagram, the #fitspo or fitspiration movement is often criticised for the unrealistic expectations it fosters for women’s fitness. With the goal of “motivating individuals to pursue a fit and healthy lifestyle”, fitspiration pages on Instagram are known to preach phrases like “strong is the new skinny”, “excuses don’t burn calories” and “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” (Holland, 2016). The fitspiration movement in Australia not only reinforces heteronormative beauty standards, but also appropriates and fetishizes traditionally black physical characteristics such as the ‘booty’ to create a hegemonic archetype of white femininity that ostensibly empowers women.

A cursory Google Images search of “fitspo” reveals an endless collage of whitewashed abs, booties and thigh gaps in barely-there shorts, G-strings and sports bras (Washington and Economides, 2015:143) (see Appendix). This postfeminist ideal of fitspiration reveals a pedagogy of invisible white privilege with an “almost exclusive focus on whites’ experience [that] not only diminishes the experience of people of colour, it serves as a distraction” (Margolin, 2015:5). Fitspiration stars on Instagram, such as Smith, are seen as leaders in the health and fitness space. They are pegged as symbols for female empowerment by major brands such as Adidas and are often praised for the hard work that goes into building a ‘booty’ and six-pack. The Findings highlight an undeniable truth; whilst Smith empowers herself and her followers through fitness advertising for Adidas, there is no acknowledgement of the privilege she yields as a white fitness influencer.

Fitness brands such as CrossFit and F45 have crept into the Instagram fitspiration scene and are endorsed by influencers such as Smith. Washington and Economides highlight, “CrossFit’s fitness focus in practice appears to be more on an attractive body, rather than a strong, functional one” (2015:150). This “attractive body” that encompasses a large, robust backside essentially fetishizes a body part that culturally appropriates the African-American physique with no acknowledgement. An excellent example of the white fetishization of the booty is Hollywood superstar Blake Lively, who came under fire for an Instagram post of herself on the red carpet at Cannes. The picture focuses on the derriere of Lively, dressed in a sparkling gold gown and its caption reads; “LA face with an Oakland booty” (see Appendix). Whilst the caption quotes Sir Mix-a-Lot’s ‘Baby Got Back’, Lively was criticised for her abuse of white privilege and appropriation of black culture, as Oakland is a predominantly black area of California (Daily Mail, 2016). Additionally, the ‘booty’, paired with a tiny waist and slender thighs, is unrealistic and reiterates further ideals of what it means to be a ‘real’ and ‘curvy’ woman: a message resulting in poor body image.

Smith, who promotes activities such as F45 and boxing religiously, aligns with this archetype. An ambassador for Adidas, Smith is often invited to events with other influencers to endorse the brand. Her Instagram images demonstrate a coded whiteness in each photograph, as her company is entirely white females who also align with the fitspiration prototype. Ultimately, “If a central part of whites’ racial domination is their denial of that domination…then the question of how to end that domination seems… [to] “make visible what is rendered invisible” (Carby, 1992, p. 193)” (Margolin, 2015, p.2). Whilst fitness influencers such as Smith and her female counterparts are perpetrators of appropriating black culture without acknowledgement, there appears to be little evidence of regulation of these messages.

Perhaps moral rightness can be regained through confessing this privileged empowerment however until then, the invisible privilege of hegemonic beauty in fitspiration culture will continue to trivialise and alienate women of colour. Additionally, fitspiration fosters a perennial need for self-improvement that is a major cause of body dissatisfaction for young women (Hesse-Biber et al., 2006:208) and must be addressed by regulatory bodies.


Sun Kissed and Sexualised: ‘Illegible Rage’, The ‘Bikini Babe’ and Empowered Self-Promotion

Whilst first thought to be scandalous 70 years ago, the bikini was quickly integrated into Western culture and has become a symbol associated with post-feminist Australian beach culture. With origins of gender dualism, where “strict regulation”that separated men and women was employed to “keep the encounters at the bathing reserve non-sexual”(Metusela & Waitt, 2012:37), Australian beach culture has evolved to merit the sexual liberation of the female gender. For influencers, a notable facet of digital entrepreneurship entails self-promotion in order to maintain a healthy following. However, many aspects of this performative sexualisation align with McRobbie’s 2009 discussion of Butler’s ‘Illegible Rage’. The Australian‘beach babe’ archetype yields similar characteristics to her fitspiration counterpart. She is tall with sun-bleached hair, tanned, toned and incredibly slender, yet still boasts perky breasts and a ‘peachy booty’. This whitewashed, ‘true blue Aussie’ identity is synonymous with privilege and excludes Indigenous Australians and other ethnic minorities. The ‘beach babe’is ubiquitously encountered on Instagram and influencers like Smith are considered iconic iterations.

The bikini goes hand in hand with a glowing tan and Smith emulates this image through her ambassadorship for Bondi Sands Fake Tan. She is the face of Bondi Sands Ultra Dark Fake Tan and is overwhelmingly depicted, as being tanned to the point of almost appearing black, which has become a kind of fetish in Australian beach culture. This is a common trend for ‘beach babe’influencers, as the instrument of fake tan highlights “…the nearly infinite ways their white skin makes them feel at home in the world and allows them to escape the penalties and dangers which non-whites suffer” (Margolin, 2015:3) in their lived experience with dark skin. The appropriation and fetishization of a ‘black’ tan often referred to as ‘Balinese’ in Australia, reinforces the ideal of white empowerment whilst appropriating facets of an underprivileged culture. McRobbie highlights that the fetishization of the female bikini body serves as a reminder of phallic power (2009:101). Indeed, phallic power can be interpreted as a hegemonic, post-colonial presence that has overrun underdeveloped countries like Bali with Western holiday go-ers and influencers alike, who shamelessly appropriate and abuse culture.

The post-feminist, Australian ‘beach babe’ archetype is the subject of much body image related anxiety, an illegible rage that can result in self-mutilation which exists in many forms. Whilst female influencers perform a kind of post-feminist, empowered sexualisation, they often remain “the object of the male gaze”(McRobbie, 2009:101). Quasi-pornographic poses, the absence of body hair and revealing (not to mention uncomfortable) bikini briefs call in to question any sense of liberation at all. The melancholia of sexualised facial expressions “helps us to locate the threshold of pain, self-punishment and loss”(McRobbie, 2009:99) that could be attributed to hours spent exercising and restricting food, the pain of a Brazilian wax and a degraded sense of self-respect in order to garner attention and followers. In almost every image, Smith is pictured alone. Her isolation and loneliness conjure a sense of melancholia and this shameless self-exposure encourages what McRobbie explains as popular culture grooming women towards rage. The isolation of self-promotional images fosters self-comparison that leads women to self-berate and despise one another. The double standard of “the feminist ideal of liberty and equality”(2009:115-16) only engenders resentment towards other women and our own bodies, as within this framework, each woman exists as a solitary object to be admired by men. The Australian female beach identity is flawed at best and the      “repetition, circularity and double standards”(McRobbie, 2009:95) within the paradigms of privilege and female liberation do little to encourage diversity of bodies and cultures.

The implications of platforms like Instagram emulating a “cult of thinness” (Hesse-Biber et al. 2006:208) has resulted in the cause of 13% of eating disorders in the United States (Stice, 2016:372) and a growing culture of body-dissatisfaction in young women. These factors are evident through the prominence of cosmetic surgery that will be explored in the following discussion. This act of normalising certain bodies fosters a sense of post-feminist melancholia and rage that can be extremely harmful for the psychology of young women and can no longer be ignored by Instagram and regulatory bodies.

Plastic is Privilege: The Influencer Role Model and Authentic Beauty

The defining factor that differentiates the appeal of influencers as opposed to the traditional celebrity is their ability to relate to the proletariat. Influencers are depicted as authentic yet empowered every day people despite their obvious financial privilege. Gnegy defines authenticity as “the operation of one’s true self in everyday life, as presented through genuine portrayals of identity constructs” (2017:40). Authenticity is a tool that many influencers employ in their marketing and self-promotional efforts and is favoured by both brands and consumers “because authenticity is personally determined…from displayed appearances” (Gilmore and Pine, 2007:18). Influencers grapple with the balance of presenting real and fake versions of themselves in accordance with Gilmore and Pine as “people want real offerings from genuinely, transparent sources” (2007:18). Through this act of representation, influencers incorporate behind the scenes insights into their lives to create a perception of intimacy (Abidin, 2015). In the case of Smith’s cellulite post (see Appendix), deceptive uses of Photoshop call into question the motivation behind glimpses of her authentic self. This raises concerns for body image, as self-comparison is an inevitable process on social media. An increasing occurrence of selective transparency problematizes our perception of influencers as role models as there appears to be a clear financial objective linked to intimate content that builds trust with followers.

Contrarily, part of the appeal of Instagram is its aspirational aesthetic. From fitspiration and superfoods to exotic locations and an unattainable ‘beach body’, Instagram is considered ‘life porn’. Sheldon and Bryant (2016:94) note that the most common motivation behind Instagram use is surveillance and information seeking in their application of uses and gratification theory. The surveillance of the lives of strangers, namely influencers, resembles a kind of Schadenfreude enjoyment of observing the highs and lows of other people’s lives. This is particularly relevant when examining the popularity of ‘transparent’ content like Smith’s cellulite post. Many influencers adopt and profit from a ‘real-fake’ authenticity (Gilmore and Pine, 2007) that sees them admit their flaws to gain trust and build relationships with followers. This front-stage, honest representation is what Abidin (2010) refers to as “perceived interconnectedness”, however the acknowledgement of privilege and deception remain back-stage.

An excellent example of this is Australian influencer Shani Grimmond who has recently undergone breast augmentation surgery in addition to lip fillers, eyebrow tattooing and false veneers. Grimmond candidly shares her journey through the pain and discomfort of undergoing surgery yet strongly recommends her surgeon and the procedure to her followers. An investigation by SBS reveals that Australians are spending approximately $1billion on cosmetic surgery each year, a figure 40% higher than the United States (King, 2016). It is logical to conclude that this spend is strongly correlated with the candid and open confessions of influencers like Grimmond. This figure is problematic as it highlights the dangerous messages of appearance-based value mediated by influencers in a culture of self-comparison that results in body dissatisfaction for many women. Gnegy explains the relationship between an influencer and their audience as an emotional connection that generates bonding social capital over time (2017:6). This is apparent through the transparency of influencers who document their lives in order to strengthen the relationship with their followers. Australian influencer Gabby Epstein who boasts over 1.7 million followers reveals that some of her influencer friends earn up to $250k per post (Brown, 2017). The influencer economy profits from sharing candid insights into a privileged life where the empowerment of a mass audience following offers the status of being a role model.

Overall, this study questions the authenticity of selective influencer transparency that only reveals a filtered representation of truth and privilege. Whilst followers appreciate intimate content, the influencer role model status becomes problematic when privilege is excluded from this conversation. With an audience of millions, influencers like Smith and Grimmond must acknowledge their financial objectives. They must recognise that cosmetic procedures and tools like professional and Photoshopped photography are a luxuries reserved for few and can send dangerous messages of body dissatisfaction to young women. 


Future Recommendations

An academic standpoint on these concerns highlights the social implications of popularised individuals and the importance of addressing privilege and constructions of gender for young women. The significance of this study is its ability to propose regulations for the conduct of influencers and brands within the Instagram advertising industry. Influencer representation on Instagram is undeniably a critical player in forging harmful consequences for racial minorities, the increasing occurrence of eating disorders and the rise of poor body image in young women.

This study proposes that organisations like the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) impose guidelines for self-regulated advertising practises on Instagram within Australia. These regulators could work alongside associations like Beyond Blue to educate both users and influencers alike on what body image related content is appropriate to share and how to process self-comparison and body dissatisfaction. Guidelines for the transparency of promotional posts have recently been imposed but these could be extended to transparency in the use of Photoshop and cosmetic procedures and the acknowledgement of financial and racial privilege when endorsing products. Finally, brands must celebrate more diverse influencers. An employment of influencers with different ethnicities, body types and perspectives would make an incredible social impact and encourage young women to embrace one another for their true potential.


This study has exposed the ways in which privilege and gender performativity intersect with empowerment through the case of Instagram influencers. The areas examined include fitness culture, swimwear self-promotion and transparency as a role model. A content analysis case study of Instagram influencer Smith has revealed the embodied privilege and performativity that can no longer go unnoticed on Instagram. This study has found that fitspiration culture has resulted in the fetishization and cultural appropriation of the ‘booty’, a traditionally African-American physical characteristic. Additionally, through an exploration of the sexualisation of self-promotional swimwear modelling, a reading of post-feminist ‘Illegible Rage’ is apparent in the onset of body dissatisfaction for multitudes of young women. Finally, influencer transparency has become problematized through unacknowledged privilege in the access to cosmetic surgery and the financial objectives of building trust with followers.

Overall, this study offers incredible insight into the ever-evolving culture of influencer advertising on Instagram that has received little attention in academic discourse. Future research in this field is an undeniable necessity with the ubiquity of Instagram and influencer advertising. This study is applicable to a myriad of Australian influencers like Natasha Oakley, Tammy Hembrow and Shani Grimmond. A larger sample size from a variety of influencers may reveal a more extensive scale for the patterns of gender performativity and privilege as discussed in this study. Finally, the significance of this study is its ability to contribute to the development of industry guidelines for Instagram influencer advertising, as well as its ability to bring Instagram to the forefront of discussion for the cause of a number of mental health issues in young women.


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