A recent encounter made me realize the significance of social media for women today. I was out to dinner with some girlfriends who started to confront me about my lack of participation on the site of Pinterest. One friend was bothered that I had never posted on our group “pin boards,” while another friend was annoyed that I was not “following” her on the site. I began to notice that my disengagement with this new platform had caused me to be “out of the loop” socially. These women were referring to site-specific jargon that I did not understand; for example, I had to ask the group to clarify the meaning of “thinsperation.” Half of our dinner table wore a hairstyle called “the sock bun,” which I had never seen before. My friend informed me that I was behind on the trend (among others) because I had not been checking the site’s recent hairstyle boards.
This experience made me conscious of how platforms such as Pinterest play a prominent role in female-to-female interactions. The site has been steadily growing over the past few years and currently has a user base of at least 70 million users (Bennett, 2014). One of Pinterest’s most notable features is its exceedingly disproportionate female to male ratio. Pinterest is often called a “women's site,” which is a perception that was popularized by Time magazine’s article, “Men are from Google+, women are from Pinterest” (Wagstaff, 2012). Women are four times as likely to be on Pinterest than men, which is a larger gender difference than any other social network site (Duggan & Smith, 2014). The degree of gender disparity is not nearly as prominent on other social network sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. What is it about this platform that garners such as strong female presence?
To find answers to this question, I decided to do some data collection. I analyzed the “pin boards” of five women, ages 22-25, on the Pinterest site using a visual anthropology approach. I also followed their social media use on Facebook and Instagram in order to see how their communication differed from the site of Pinterest. A core phenomenon of collective femininity was identified using the constant-comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Collective femininity can be defined as a collective identity based on a group’s common interests, histories and sense of solidarity (Taylor & Whittier, 1992). Below are several ways in which I found collective femininity took place on the site:
Each member of my sample had a “pin board” that was dedicated to quotations. These quotes were typically written out in a decorative font with a solid or printed background. The words were written as script, typewriter and/or mock handwriting. The sayings may have originally been spoken by famous authors (e.g. C.S Lewis, E.B White, F. Scott Fitzgerald), celebrities (e.g. Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn), prominent spiritual figures (e.g. Jesus, Buddha, Dalai Lahma) and/or fictional characters (e.g. Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, Carrie Bradshaw). Below are several gendered values that my sample conveyed in their shared quotes:
Confidence and self-worth. Members of my sample circulated quotes about having confidence and self-worth. These quotes enable Pinterest members to remind each other that they are strong women who should never have to settle. For example, one member of the sample “pinned” a picture with the following quote: “Your value doesn’t decrease based on someone’s inability to see your worth.” Her “pin” takes the form of a stationery card and has a faded appearance. The aesthetics of the “pin” make it appear as a mantra that might have been passed down by someone’s grandmother. It symbolizes that this mindset is one that all women should adopt and also reinforces Pinterest’s emphasis on female bonding. This user has several additional “pins” that reiterate the same message. For instance, another “pin” says: “Confidence is the ability to feel beautiful without needing someone to tell you.” The background of the “pin” is hot pink, while the writing is in white block letters. The color-coding of this “pin” indicates that this is a message that should be shared among women. The quote makes the claim that a woman does not need anybody else to tell her that she is beautiful; however, the aesthetic of the “pin” suggests that women should remind each other that they are beautiful. This emphasizes a female-centered message in which men are not necessary for a woman’s self-validation.
Humor: Attitude and self-deprecation. Along with quotes that provide serious inspiration, Pinterest users share e-cards that are silly and light-hearted. These e-cards often jokingly focus on certain values related to shopping, eating fattening food, drinking alcohol, and so on. They enable the women of Pinterest to justify their own habits by admitting their downfalls and laughing about them. For example, one e-card provides an old fashioned picture of a woman wearing an apron and carrying a tray of food. The quote reads, “My daily meals include: breakfast, brunch, lunch, pre-dinner, dinner, pre-dessert, dessert, dessert #2 & a post-dinner snack.” This “pin” provides a tongue-in-cheek way for female users to admit their dieting failures and rationalizes their inability to follow a strict eating plan. “Pins” such as these also satirize the effort that women must go through to appear attractive to men. For instance, another user “pinned” an image of a woman in pajamas peering into the bathroom mirror. The pin states: “You know the weather is warm when shaving your legs becomes a part of your routine again.” This quote publicizes the disdain that women have about feeling compelled to appear feminine to the general public. It suggests that women would never shave their legs if it were not for the social pressure. Similarly, another user’s “pin” shows an image of a girl wearing a sweatsuit. The quote reads: “The first thing I do when I get home is make myself look as publicly unacceptable as possible.” This message illustrates the wish to rebel against having to wear uncomfortable clothing (such as dresses, pantyhose, high heels) in order to appear as an acceptable representation of a woman.
Lastly, these “pins” subvert the message that women should be quiet and polite. One “pin” features an attractive woman saying the following quote: “Don’t let my looks deceive you. I have the mouth of a sailor, the temper of an Italian housewife and the tolerance of an Irishman.” This “pin” enables women to celebrate their ability to engage in all of the behaviors that are traditionally considered “unladylike.”
Arts and crafts. My sample diverged from their identities on other social network sites when posting “pin boards” about arts and crafts. I did not see any discussion of art projects on my sample’s other social media profiles; however, each person signified their role as a member of Pinterest’s female community by dedicating a “pin board” to these activities. For example, one user has a “pin board” called “cute DIY projects” that mostly features ideas for improving one’s home. This includes ideas for making a garland out of pinecones, creating a coat rack out of doorknobs and building a necklace hanger out of a shower rod. It is impossible to tell whether this user has participated in these projects. However, her profiles outside of Pinterest feature her engaging in numerous other leisure activities (such as eating, partying and vacationing), with no mention of crafting.
Thinsperation and Fitsperation. It is not surprising that a female-dominated social network site would dedicate content to body image, weight loss and fitness. Each member of my sample had at least one “pin board” that was based on eating healthy and/or working out. This diverges from the content that my sample shared on Instagram. For example, one user has a “pin board” called “Health and Inspo,” which is dedicated to diet and exercise. However, this user’s images on Instagram feature “#Foodporn” pictures of nachos and Oreos. Therefore, her “pin board” of “Health and Inspo” is rooted in her participation as a member of Pinterest’s female community.
Motivating visuals. Female members of Pinterest also like to motivate one another by sharing images of women who have the “ideal” body. These visuals show pictures of thin and fit women, who are not wearing much clothing. For example, one user’s board of “Thinspiration” tends to feature pictures of models at the beach. Several of her “pins” also show Victoria’s Secret “angel” models dressed up in bras, underwear and angel wings. These pictures serve to motivate fellow Pinterest users to continue working towards their goals of achieving the “ideal” female body.
Retail brands and fashion. Lastly, members of my sample had at least one board dedicated to specific items that they hoped to buy. For example, one user’s board shows images of fashion bloggers wearing clothing and jewelry from e-commerce websites. However, this type of clothing does not seem to be worn by this user on her Facebook profile, where she wears sweatshirts and casual tee shirts. Her fashion personality on Pinterest is one of the many examples of how my sample’s online presentation was shaped by the gendered ideologies of their community.
*Sarah-Rose will be presenting further details on this project this November at the upcoming National Communication Association convention in Las Vegas, Nevada.