If you're a frequent user of Facebook, you'll know what profile picture I'm talking about. The photo is taken from a phone that's been lifted high above her head. When it's posted, her face is front and center, a sultry smile on her lips, and you can see right down her shirt. She's not wearing the usual wardrobe of one sitting at her computer. Take my current style as an example: no shower, sweats, hair caught up in a messy ponytail, baggy sweatshirt. No, the profile picture I'm talking about looks like she's ready for a night out with her girlfriends: halter-top, jewelry, shiny red lips, curled eyelashes and freshly brushed teeth. For the record, I think women should wear whatever they want, and I hope they feel beautiful and confident. Many of their diverse body shapes are gorgeous, and I believe they have every right to post photos of themselves in whatever pose they wish online. But it isn't just adults who take these self-portraits and view these profile pictures.
When I check my homepage, I see my cousins and their friends (under sixteen) in the same pose: hair freshly straightened and swept to the side, dark lines trimming their eyes, pursed lips, and a bit of cleavage peeking from their blouse. What's the response from Facebook users? Fifteen "likes" within minutes and comments like "sassy" and "you look hot!" Curiously, I peruse photos of their mothers and the profiles of some high school "friends" I've been reunited with through this social network. The same image keeps cropping up.
What's also notable is the lack of feedback on postings that celebrate the preteen's intellect, imagination, kindness or maturity. Sure, every once in a while you see an "I'm so proud of my daughter; she made the honor roll." I'm not implying that these are nonexistent; however, I would say that I see more reinforcement of beauty and sexuality than I do of other traits. Because mothers are their daughters' primary role models, I wonder what impact a mom's sultry image with a thumbs-up has on her adolescent.
Our profiles are projections of an ideal, a version of ourselves that is, at best, a half-truth brought to life by our interactions with "friends." Facebook has been given its name for a reason. This social networking site enables users to share a certain "face" with the world in a presentation made up of choice photos and carefully considered status updates.
My preteen years are far behind me now, but I can still remember the care I took in curling my bangs each morning before the school bus arrived. I haven't forgotten the shyness I felt about the brand of clothes I wore or the anxiety resulting from my belief that everyone was looking at and judging me. Daily, I wished to be thinner, prettier, and cooler. My concerns were not all that unique.
In the age of social networking, these all-too-familiar feelings young girls share are magnified. Unlike those of us who grew up before cell phones and the Internet, we might have found comfort in the fact that we could be wrong. Maybe no one actually noticed the totally unhip clothes we wore or the way our bangs didn't lie just right across our foreheads. Unlike earlier generations, today's preteens can track the number of people who are looking at them. They can see just how they've been judged by the "liking" and the commenting, and they are encouraged to judge one another. Studies have shown that these online interactions have an impact that isn't always positive.
This phenomenon reminds me of the myth of Pygmalion who asked a sculptor to create an image of his ideal woman. Of course, Pygmalion falls hopelessly in love with the statue, a non-speaking, non-thinking beauty. I'm wondering what image we're carving out and bringing to life in young girls when we allow them to create a Facebook profile. What perspective do they have of the "ideal woman" as they scroll down the page and see a woman who has posted a new picture that glorifies her beauty? Do they notice the absence of that woman's perspective in an otherwise male-dominated conversation or the few thumbs-ups on her link to a controversial topic? What do we reinforce when we "like" a picture or ignore an astute comment that expresses inner beauty?
Our next generation of women may grow up with a strong foundation of knowledge when it comes to using a computer or of researching on the web. On the other hand, they may be like Pygmalion, hopelessly in love with an ideal that has little chance of becoming a reality (without the help of divine intervention). If so, what value will they place on the real woman whose status can't be expressed in 140 characters?
This piece originally appeared on Open Salon.