ON BEING AN INSTAGRAM
MODEL AS A NEW FORM OF DIY, DIGITAL, FEMINIZED PERFORMANCE
In early 2015, near the end of my MFA in Fine Arts at Parsons, I set out on a project to create a celebrity by 2020—entirely via the internet—as an art practice. The celebrity I began to create was a hyper sexy, cyber savvy, female rock star named Ona.
Without a large budget or industry connections, I knew that major social media growth would be an important factor. I started by employing some of the usual tactics I’d used in the past for other projects—a press release, an article in Thought Catalog, soliciting articles from journalists. Nothing much came of it.
So I tried a different tack, working with what I already had: two Instagram accounts, each with a couple hundred followers—one for my art practice as a whole (@leahschrager) and one specifically for selfies and modeling (@onaartist). It was immediately clear that the selfies I posted on @onaartist got more likes and the account grew more quickly. I sought out modeling accounts with big follower numbers and I started DMing them, asking the models if I could pay them to talk to me about how they grew. None of them got back to me. I then did some open submissions to @playboy, @arsenicmagazine, and a few others, but I didn't get picked.
Finally, I DMed a collection page—a page with a large follower count that features photos of various models—and it got back to me. The page was @the.buttblog, and I was told it would cost $200 for a permanent post. I paid its admin to post a photo of me and in 24 hours I gained around 5,000 real followers.
This marked the beginning of my transformation into an Instagram Model.
The Instagram Model
Instagram has emerged as a big player in the modeling world, with many different types of models on the platform. Models create IG pages to showcase their work, gain followers, and amass cultural and economic power. And while many “industry models” or “agency models” (models who are signed with modeling agencies) have large Instagrams (e.g. @angelcandices), the IG Model differs from these in that she builds her following on the platform without industry support.
For more than a year, I have immersed myself in the culture and economics of Instagram modeling. By paying careful attention to other users and applying their approaches myself, I came to understand that becoming an Instagram Model involved engaging in a host of specific practices on Instagram and off. By adopting these practices, I've been able to develop my own profile as an IG Model to over 380,000 real followers, and I’ve earned enough income to almost fully support the cost of my IG content creation by promoting through my IG page a pay site that I built using “all the pics I can't put on Instagram.” In the process, I’ve come to feel that being an IG Model represents a new, independent, digital form of feminized labor and performance.
Mainstream media favors agency models and celebrity users well over IG Models. Riffing off something I mentioned in BodyAnxiety.com, an online art show I co-curated in 2015, this could be seen as a further iteration of “man hands.” Because agency models have been “sanctioned” by the system, and because they are frequently photographed by acclaimed fashion photographers—because they have been crafted by “man hands” and do not need to craft themselves—they are seen as more respectable than their non-legitimized independent counterpart, the IG Model. The IG Model is in fact more entrepreneurial, in control of her image, and infused with free agency as she runs her art practice/tech start-up/brand marketing IG page like a business/performance amalgam (like so many artists today).
And, admittedly, because of her “need to try harder,” I personally find her presentation more compelling than what agency models and celebrity users do on IG. The IG Model is highly skilled at shaping her own image, and at monetizing the emotional labor of dealing with the expectations and attentions of (usually) male fans.
What is an IG model?
The labor and performance of being an IG Model is not the same as that of a social user. Any user can put up an IG account with lots of bikini pics, but if she uses her account mostly to socialize and does not do the required work to gain a high follower-to-following ratio, she is not an IG model. The IG Model is not out to chat with friends; she is out for other reasons: to make a name for herself, to make a living, to find fortune and/or fame, to perform, to spread her perspective and her presence.
An IG Model is also not a “product user.” She may promote products, but for an IG Model, the ultimate product is herself.
Finally, she is not a “celebrity user.” Celebrity users get most of their followers by being featured in the mainstream media, not by promoting themselves through the Instagram platform itself.
The distinction between a celebrity user and an IG Model is important. Many women the average viewer might consider IG Models are actually celebrity users, especially when they are industry models. The kind of user one is determines the kind of posts one creates because, for instance, a celebrity posting a photo of a beach view or herself in designer clothing adds value to herself qua celebrity. However, an IG Model is much more likely to post a view of her cleavage or herself in little clothing for the sake of showing her fans what they want to see—her body. Celebrity users get most of their followers by being featured in the mainstream media, not by engaging in tagging, interacting with users, and SFS. Further, celebrity users’ pages generally contain a high level of posts (at least compared to an IG Model) that feature something other than the celebrity herself (such as photos of family, vacation spots, sayings, nights at the club, other celebrities, various luxury goods, interior design, other lifestyle indications, etc.).
One way to suss out the difference between industry models (who are celebrity users) and IG Models is to compare @emrata, a celebrity agency model with 7.1 million followers, and @saraunderwood, an IG Model with 4.4 million followers. The two actually have a history together and show some similarities. They did a BBQ's Best Pair commercial together in 2013. @emrata is said to have broke through in Treats! Magazine (a highly respected fashion magazine known for having high end models to pose naked in “artistic” shoots), high fashion modeling, and acting in movies. @saraunderwood is known for being in the (at-the-time-nude) Playboy (as Playmate of the month and year) and for a bit of commercial modeling.
The current use of their Instagram pages nicely illustrates the difference between the IG profile of an agency model/celebrity and an IG Model. While the two are comparable in terms of follower numbers, a deeper look at their pages shows that @saraunderwood showcases her bikini-clad body in every photo, while @emrata sports a bikini in a third of her photos, fashionable wear in another third, and features landscapes, food, interiors, and family photos in the other third. If @saraunderwood posts a photo and she is not in it, it is probably an advertisement she has been paid to post. She also has a separate IG for her personal photos, which is not her “IG Model” page and is mostly landscapes. It has around 100k followers.
This indicates that @emrata makes her income outside of IG, through her modeling and acting agency—movies, fashion spreads, etc. While she might do a bit of brand sponsorship on her IG, it is rare and high level (i.e. @tiffanyandco), marked as an #ad or #sponsored, or it is the result of a modeling job or celebrity event, both of which are most likely booked through her modeling agency, which is the contact info in her bio. @saraunderwood, on the other hand, seems to make the majority of her income through direct brand ambassador activities or being paid to advertise on her IG (and there is no distinguishing between promotional and non-promotional content). In her recent “road trip through the northwest” posts, @saraunderwood actively promoted various brands by way of numerous photos on IG and on her Snapchat, including @yandy, @trendy_butler, @supeapp, and others. So, unlike @emrata, her income comes directly from having a large following on IG and goes directly to her—she has no modeling agency and it is her contact email in her bio.
Their relative status in the modeling industry may be partly determined by their different body types. @emrata has a typical fashion model body in that she is tall and skinny, and she has large "natural" breasts. @saraunderwood does not have a typical model body—she is shorter and more zaftig—and she has acknowledged having breast implants (something the fashion world does not seem to embrace).
Part of what makes the IG Model’s specific practices so interesting is that they are quite different from those used by industry models or celebrities. More important than being seen at the right party is being featured on the right collection page. More important than the skinny industry model look is the curvy Instagram look. More important than wearing the most in-style designer dress is, well, probably no dress at all. In this sense, IG Models are the “working girls” version of modeling. Taking on the low status of the “working girl” certainly can have a negative impact on one’s social reputation, as artist Amalia Ulman attests: “Suddenly I was this dumb b---- because I was showing my ass in pictures.”
Unlike industry models, being as explicit as one can be while still staying within Instagram’s Community Guidelines is part of the IG Model’s art form. For instance, it is extremely rare to hear of an IG Model supporting #freethenipple, since, in a sense, the censorship of the nipple is part of what gives the creative IG Model her power—how sexy can she be without getting naked? It also helps keep her work technically SFW and prevents society from throwing the word “erotic” or “porn” in front of “model” when describing her, which is good, since they are not known for getting lots of brand endorsements from mainstream products.
In the end, IG offers a platform for women who enjoy performing or modeling to work and thrive in a new space even though they do not possess the genetics of a standard fashion/industry model, and there are enough models on IG operating without industry support to warrant a discussion about a new form of modeling performance unique to Instagram.
What does an IG Model do?
The most visible aspect of an IG Model’s performance is her posting practice. As mentioned above, she exclusively (or almost exclusively) posts pictures of herself (as opposed to also posting pics of friends, family, food, landscapes, etc.), and most of her photos feature a relatively large amount of skin (i.e. her outfits are usually rather skimpy).
Because her body type is often not what modeling agencies look for (too short, too curvy, too big, too old, non-industry-standard facial features, etc), her posts may attempt to turn this into a positive by highlighting her unique physical feature (large tits, round ass, etc.). Further, her poses are often more sexual than models who are signed with modeling agencies or the average female IG user.
In addition to posting, the labor of being an IG Model also includes dealing with users and their feedback (moderation) and growing her presence on the platform (growth).
The IG Model has a high level of activity on her page (likes and comments) and she herself interacts with her followers. Unless she is a fit model, her fan base is often predominantly straight men, and she often presents herself as single. As far as I can tell, the high rate of male fans that IG models have is an important difference between them and celebrity users. A quick look at some of the top female celebrity users (@beyonce and @kimkardashian, etc.) shows that they have significantly more female “likers” than male “likers” on their posts—perhaps around a like ratio of around nine women to one man,—while IG Models generally have around the opposite ratio, and in fact some IG models have almost no female likes. This would seem to imply that being appealing to a female audience is a major precondition to being embraced by the mainstream media as a “celebrity” while those who mainly appeal to a male audience are largely ignored, probably because they are considered unacceptably “pornographic.”
The IG Model's follower-to-following ratio is very high (the IG Models I discuss here all have over 100k followers, as this high number indicates that one “has what it takes” and has put in the necessary labor to be an IG Model). She gains followers without the help of mainstream media, and her social media presence is often exclusively on Instagram. Generally, her Instagram page is her most important public exposure, and comes up at the top of a web search for her name (since she has very little mainstream press and rarely has a Wikipedia page).
To earn these followers, most IG Models engage in some level of SFS (spam-for-spam, which generally involves cross-promotion of some kind between two pages). She is frequently tagged on other people’s pages, collection pages, and photographer pages. She is often openly engaged in the promotion of either her own or others’ products/services. She often makes money off her own or others’ product promotions and/or off SFS (and thus, money goes directly to her as opposed to an modeling agency or a third party). She may also make money from camming or other kinds of paid arrangements with followers, though this is hard to assess as such arrangements are not public like endorsements.
Spam for spam, or SFS, is a blanket term used to cover a number of interactions that generate growth for users. The word “spam” is used loosely, since it sometimes involves advertising for another page on your page via an image or comment, but that’s not always the case. In fact, SFS in the context of Instagram modeling is an essential growth mechanism and lacks most of the annoying associations of the word.
On the smallest level, SFS can mean two IG Models just liking and commenting on each other’s posts; each one’s followers sees the other liking and commenting and perhaps then goes on to follow them. A more powerful form of SFS is when an IG Model cross-posts with a “collection page,” a page that features many different IG Models. When the SFS is initiated, the collection page will post a photo of the model, tag her, and @ (“mention”) her in the caption: e.g., “follow @onaartist for lots of sexy pics.” The IG Model then posts a photo of herself (or a photo of the page’s choosing) on her page, tags the collection page, and mentions the collection page in the caption: “follow @k_inzixoxo to see lots of hot girls.” While some leave these posts up permanently, the model and/or the collection page will at times delete these photos shortly thereafter. This is probably done for aesthetic reasons (some pages like to only have a fixed number of certain types of images as permanent posts) and because the vast majority of traffic trading/growth happens in the first 30 minutes to an hour after the post is made (since the more time that passes the further down in a feed a post will be). In the long run, having fewer posts concentrates the number of likes on those posts, which is valuable because it makes the page seem more popular and interactive. It’s too early to say how the new algorithm is going to affect these dynamics.
Two models can also SFS with one another in what is often referred to as #wcw (Women Crush Wednesday) or #wce (Women Crush Eternity or Women Crush Everyday). These posts are generally deleted within twelve hours, not only because the vast amount of growth happens right after a post is made, but also because each model has a unique performative style, and the longer term objective is that followers follow them because of their style and personality and prefer to see only their photos when they go to their page.
Tagging: Community, Fan Pages
Instagram community pages, collection pages, and fan pages are also central to an IG Model’s growth and environment. Instagram communities are single accounts made up of a recurring set of models with fairly matching aesthetics. @arsenicmagazine, @suicidegirls, @ganja.girls, and @tazangels_ are community pages, which often have some IRL physical connection, while @k_inzixoxo, @fameshouts, @the.buttblog are collection pages. Community and collection pages support their models by tagging/posting their photos and doing SFS mostly within their community. Collection pages are usually quite specific to a particular IG aesthetic, post IG models (they don't post celebrity content), and their look and posting patterns are quite different from mainstream publications (i.e. @voguemagazine).
Sometimes a collection page posts an IG Model’s photo and tags her but she doesn’t post and tag that collection page (so no SFS occurs). This is called “featuring” or, simply, for the collection page, a post. Many of the most popular and unique IG Models are regularly featured on collection pages without reciprocating. I notice direct changes in my profile growth based on the number and quality of collection pages that feature me. Often specific photos or IG models will suddenly become fashionable and be highly featured across many IG pages at once.
Many big IG Models have fan pages (a page devoted exclusively or almost exclusively to photos of a single model that the owner of the page did not take and is not in). Sometimes these fan pages are devoted to a particular model for some time and then switch to another model. Fan art is also a common gift to IG models.
The larger networks that build around a model are viewable in the “tagged” section of a model’s profile (“Photos of [model username]”). IG Models usually have a few of these a day, and they come from a diverse range of users whose posts can garner a wide numerical range of likes and comments.
Posts can be bought. For instance, an IG Model can pay to be featured/posted on a collection page or another model’s page for variable lengths of time (one hour, 24 hours, permanent, etc.). Assuming the collection page or other model has real followers, this will lead to an increase in the model’s followers. I have been quoted $50, $100, $200 for an hour post and $250 or more for permanent. The amount varies widely based on the page’s number and quality of followers.
A model can also pay for fake followers, but this results in a skewed likes-to-followers ratio that any knowledgeable IG user will notice, and this dampens opportunities for SFS with legit pages. For example, if a user has 1 million followers but 2k likes or four comments on a post, this user has bought followers. However, if someone buys fake followers they can also buy (or use apps that enable) fake likes. Overall, one wants to keep the likes-to-followers ratio looking “realistic” to facilitate trades.
I’m not very well informed on the practice of fake followers and fake likes, but I have seen pages with both (as indicated by their likes-to-followers ratio). At times IG will purge fake accounts. IG Models engaging in SFS or brands looking for sponsorship always have to suss out who has fake and who has real followers.
Sometimes an entire account is built and then sold for financial gain. For instance, I'll sometimes find a rather unusual photo in my feed and realize the account is new and that I never followed it—in this case the account I followed was likely sold and the new owner deleted all the past photos and added new ones to match the new page’s agenda. When a username changes, the “mentions” in captions of the posts do not change, but the tags on the posted photos do.
An IG Model’s following only grows if she’s active. She must post regularly (once or twice a day) to remind users that she exists. Once I took four days offline and grew a paltry 400 followers (whereas, if I had been active, I would have grown over 4k). Each time you post you also lose a few followers, but growth greatly outweighs loss and every post increases the chance a collection page will remember you and post one of your photos. Sometimes IG will feature your post in “top posts” through use of a hashtag, which boosts followers. However, the algorithms for this are quite mysterious and the top posts you see in your account are based on who you follow and like already.
IG Model accounts also grow when users “mention” other users in the comment of a post. For instance, @britneyg77 will type “@wrentopalert; in a comment on a post because she thinks @wrentopalert will want to see the post, and @wrentopalert will then possibly follow the account. While IG Models aren't actively involved in this mention-commenting and thus can't control it, the more “comments” a post gets, the more successful it is deemed, so IG Models work to make posts that are likely to get their followers to mention-comment other users. The most mention-comments often come on the most unique posts, such as those that show the body in a new creative angle, include a stunning setting, are extremely sexual, or involve a non-IG standard action. For example, a photo taken from below of me climbing a hill, which is an uncommon action to see from an IG Model, was very popular. Further, when I started posting “meta selfies” (photos of me taking a selfie), they were very rare on IG and were very popular. They are more common now and garner fewer likes.
Through their posts, IG Models engage in a particular performative self-presentation using a variety of features and signifiers. They’ll usually pick a performance style and stick with it to build their individual branding and establish a community of collection pages and potential communities to collaborate or SFS with. Each has different aesthetic parameters, characteristics, goals, and ways to grow traffic. Within IG there are a variety of looks, which I will describe below.
Face/Tits/Ass Girls (Showing Different Cheeks)
Part of deciding on a performance style involves choosing what “cheeks” to feature. In other words, models on IG can generally choose to position themselves as Face, Tits, or Ass Girls. These categories aren’t hard and fast, and they are bound up in questions about status and following as well as body type.
Tit Girls choose to highlight tits (carefully obscuring the nipple) and face. Many of the highly popular IG Models seem to have breast implants. Some Tit Girls openly share and discuss on Snapchat or Instagram that their tits are “fake.” Women who have had breast implants are often very successful as IG Models and do a large number of brand endorsements (@crystalhefner). They may endorse supplements, teeth-whitening products, clothing stores, or any product for that matter.
In terms of social status, Ass Girls are the lowest: they don’t have agency representation like Face Girls and aren’t as prime for product endorsements as Tit Girls. Part of this is because Ass Girls like @tazsangel_ab show a lot of their behind from the side, back, or below, usually with (though sometimes without) panties, which means they feature the face less often. This makes their posts more frankly sexual, and less easy to pass off as wholesome and brand-friendly. Nevertheless, these models have a special niche on IG as there are collection pages that feature them and there is a particularly high level of skill involved in presenting the ass creatively.
The story of @crystalhefner shows how models create a particular focus for their account, which may change. It also illuminates how personal biographies and challenges can make their way into an IG model's performance. Over her current 164 posts and prior to a couple weeks ago, her photos exclusively featured her face and cleavage (minus three ass photos from the beginning of her page: Sept 2015, Nov 2015, Jan 2016). The rest of the ass on her page was that of her “friend”/SFS partner @slawada. On her own page, @slawada shows ass and tits (no face, just @crystalhefner's face). While these IG Models are unusual (@slawada shows no face, @crystalhefner shows no ass), they show how, given different assets, they have created a nice complementary SFS partnership by adding the missing cheeks to the other's page.
A few months ago, @crystalhefner began posting about being ill, saying that she was posting mostly photos she took a long time ago when she was feeling well. Finally, she announced that her breast implants had poisoned her and she was having them removed. Right around this time, she posted two ass photos (her own ass, not @slawada's). Without breast implants, she has adjusted her performance, showing resiliency and a capacity for reinvention.
In general, IG Models have more diverse body types than traditional agency models. The “thick” girl can be hugely popular in a way that she can’t be as a fashion model. Also, height doesn’t matter on IG, just proportions. In this way IG fosters more diverse body types than are seen in traditional modeling, but due to the urge for and competitiveness of growth, it also rewards extremes (as in bigger tits or ass). Since nudity is not allowed on IG, innovative ways to cover up and be nude without actually being nude are part of the IG game.
Photographer + Communities
There are many big photographer, model, collection, and community pages that feature a style/brand of modeling/production that is characterized by clean lighting, “fake” tits, perfect touch ups, and luxury locations. I call this the LA aesthetic, though it includes photos taken all over the world, from Miami to the Maldives. Many of the largest IG Model accounts are in this group and they and their collection pages do a great deal of trading with each other. Alternative photography aesthetics do exist, but they are much smaller in comparison to the power of the LA aesthetic in terms of moving traffic and growing accounts.
Many models work with a group of the same photographers so their style is dictated accordingly. For IG Models who want to grow, shooting with the right photographers is a big deal, because when they get posted on the photographer's page many of those following the photographer then go and follow the model. This cross-posting is considered as a more “legitimate” or non spammy version of SFS for growth. Popular IG photographer accounts include @ohrangutang, @2020photography3, and @ryanastamendiphotography.
Perhaps in recognition of the growing power of the IG Model within internet culture and marketing, fashion agencies have started adding an “influencer” or “social” division. Dedicated “social influencer” agencies are also popping up. The One1.K division of One Management is an example of the former, and Kitten Agency of the latter. Thus, the lines are starting to blur even more between industry models and IG Model, but I would propose that most of the users who are represented by modeling agencies still end up in the celebrity category. They receive mainstream coverage, their contact information is their modeling agency (money comes to them via the agency), their self-presentation and poses are not graphic or explicit, and their body types are the model industry standard in terms of age, weight, height, etc.
In terms of creative artistry, I'm most impressed by the independent IG Models because they tend to be more diverse, artistic, and unique. However, they are not the most popular. They often land under 1m. Or below 100k, but that's another essay.
Captions can create a particular attitude for the IG Model and add personality. Captions may be banal diary entries (“I’m so glad it’s Friday”), poetic messages or inspirational quotes (“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words” —Robert Frost), ironic twists or joke-like memes, promotion (“Buy my clothing line by clicking the link in the bio”), or personal manifestos/tirades.
IG only allows one hyperlink on a profile, and this is commonly referred to in a caption as the “link in bio.” This is the link that you enter under profile settings → website. It is the quickest and easiest way for a follower to access a link external to IG. Links may exist outside of the “link in bio” but they do not hyperlink out, so they have to be copied and pasted by the user.
There are some highly identifiable themes on IG Model pages. There is the model who mostly models for different photographers and showcases their collaboration by showing a photo or two from each shoot. There is the fit model who shows off her body to the enjoyment of some and the inspiration of others, like @anacheri, @iamnayfit, @bundleofbrittany. Lifestyle models and fashion bloggers are usually not IG Models as their targeted audience is SFW and they often focus on a particular product subset (luxury goods, nutrition, style, clothing). There are IG Models who promote their art, e.g., actresses, musicians, visual artists, clothing designers, photographers, and so on. And there is the sex worker, most popular of which are various Suicide Girls and MyFreeCam accounts. Interestingly, traditional escorts do not have a significant presence on IG (perhaps because they rely on anonymity, and prefer not to show their face? Or they focus on IRL not URL performance?); porn star accounts range widely in size and range between a celebrity profile (@stoya, who heavily features her cat) and IG Models (@cjmiles8ig, who actively posts videos and advertises for her own products). Generally, I find that cam girls, escorts, and porn stars thrive more on Twitter, perhaps because IG is seen as less “adult” friendly.
While some might assume that most IG Models do sex work (offer the chance to sex cam with them or meet them in person), there is very little evidence for this assumption. Some IG Models promote their pay site or say that they are available to cam, but it's a small percentage. Actually, any IG user (including agency models) may use their IG accounts to attract people interested in paying them for sex or naked pics or cam sessions. My sense is that the assumption that IG Models are more likely to be engaged in sex work is due to their images looking more sexual than the average user, but barring some deeper consideration of which types of user actually engage in sex work, it seems incorrect to assume IG Models do so to a greater degree than other IG users.
In the wild wild west of IG Modeling economics, the more followers and likes you get, the more likely it is a model or collection page will SFS with you, a photographer will ask to shoot you, a magazine or website will feature you, and a brand will want to pay you to endorse its product. Once a model shows real numbers or growth potential, brands often approach her for product endorsements or to be a “brand ambassador” (i.e. @claudiaalende) The more followers, the more brands come knocking and the more she can charge to promote a product.
Sometimes brands send samples and/or clothing that they want the model to pose with and endorse, and the model may keep the product. If her following is larger, she can charge to endorse. It’s hard to say where this line is. While having lots of followers helps (at least several hundreds of thousands), the number of followers a model needs to gain endorsements can be less of a factor than brands thinking she has a lot of followers who would be interested in their product. As for specific arrangements, they vary—sometimes the model gets the item for free, sometimes she makes a percentage of a sale, sometimes she receives a payment, etc. Examples of brands who seem to be building their customer base in this way through Instagram are @skinnybunnytea, @lordtimepieces, @brighterwhite, @yandy, @proteinworld.
From my experience, the only way to find out how much models get paid to endorse is to pose as a company and see what they charge, since just asking them doesn’t work—they either “cook the books” or they refuse to tell. Most girls want to keep it a secret, perhaps so they can negotiate at higher levels with certain companies. This is because IG Model dreams are driven by the fact that real incomes and careers can be launched from IG.
I have received various brand endorsement requests, such as: 1) clothing from @bigheadedunderwear and a few other brands, which I have worn in photos and posted (for free, though I got to keep the clothing), 2) requests to start and engage on other social media platforms (paying by the word count of engagement), and 3) an offer to do three posts for $120 with a tea product. However, I am not actively engaged in pursuing brand endorsements for several reasons. First, I haven’t found the offers to be remunerative enough to expend the time and energy it takes to negotiate and make a post. Second, my IG is part of a celebrity-as-art-practice project so I keep it focused on promoting my music, pay site, and art, and I fear that excessive product promotion could alienate my followers via “promotion fatigue.” Finally, I am very exacting about the aesthetics of my images and am not interested in cluttering up my page with extraneous product placements.
While some IG models are happy with the income generated from their page thru SFSing, some are aggressively trying to crossover into “true” celebrity thru becoming photographers, starting fashion lines, acting, etc. This crossover is incredibly difficult since what made the IG Model successful is often exactly what the mainstream media and brands don’t want to be seen as endorsing. Sometimes models will cull and reinvent their pages (delete the more explicit photos, start adding landscapes, sayings, and other kinds of images that “true” celebs post). @niykeeheaton is an impressive success story of an IG Model launching a successful music career.
It’s common for a photographer to shoot a model and post a few pics of her on their IG, then if you look at her personal IG, you can tell that the photographer has drastically touched up her photos. Among IG Models, filters, touch ups, modifications, etc. are all part of the art form, and “body modification” criticism is relatively nonexistent compared to the mainstream press. It’s generally assumed and accepted by followers that photos (and bodies) are touched up from the start. Photoshop is generally seen as part of the art, and I can’t think of a single time that a follower has commented negatively because an image looked touched up.
IG Models not only spend a lot of time creating content for their page, but they also need to time manage, or moderate, their account. This involves dealing with inactivation, responding to user comments, and handling DMs.
IG Model accounts are regularly deleted for content seen as sexual (sheer nudity, sexual poses, clothes coming off, and so on). In order to have your account reinstated, you need to submit an appeal through an IG form you receive when the account is suspended. From what I’ve heard, accounts are often deleted automatically when a set number of complaints are issued against it, and then when you appeal, an actual person reinstates it as long as it does not flagrantly break the rules.
My account was deleted once from IG and the email said it was because my page was “sexually suggestive,” even though IG’s Community Guidelines do not use this phrase. Rather, they read:
We know that there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples, but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too.
Every IG Model I have ever seen get deleted has been back within a month’s time (though I’ve seen many collection pages disappear for good). There are only two exceptions to this that I have witnessed. IG Model @real_olindacastielle (137k) had her first account deleted at 2.1m and her second account deleted at 250k. She is still hoping to get them reinstated, but hasn’t yet and it’s been three months. Like Olinda’s current new page, her old deleted page did not break any Instagram rules. She showed creative, provocative, and extreme images featuring both tits and ass, but no bare buttocks and no uncensored nipples. Her captions were often personal manifestos on female sexuality and social puritanism, and they continue to be brashly honest and sexual. She often asks to be considered as an artist and a provocateur. As she said in an email to me, “I am too sexual, honest, and real so I inspire but also scare a lot of people.”
Then there is the case of IG Model @marisapapen, who was taken down at around 545k in late July 2016. When I first became aware of her, around June 2015, she would occasionally post photos in which she was fully nude and would show bare buttocks with barely occluded nipples. Over time, she started more frequently breaking Instagram's rules for putting up bare buttocks (one example July 2, 2016), uncensored nipples (most recently July 4, 2016), naked vagina from the front (around June 30, 2016), and full frontal nudity (on a fairly regular basis, most recently July 25, 2016). The full frontal nudity photos are removed by Instagram. When live, she grew at an impressive rate, perhaps because she seems to be the only user able to get away with nude photos. Did she escape the censors for so long because she also appeared in Treats! Magazine? Or because her aesthetic was one of nudism (not arousal) and her captions were “banal diaristic” (not challenging)? Hard to say, but an interesting puzzle. She did not respond to my email inquiry.
My sense is that collection pages that post Ass Girls are more commonly deleted. @onaartist is an Ass Girl (I lack mainstream celebrity, agency representation, and impressive cleavage) and Ass Girl pages that I have regularly SFSed with have gotten deleted and then reinstated. In each case they say either they don’t want to SFS with me anymore or they are happy to keep SFSing but they need to “play it safe.” This means no back (or below) ass photos, or, preferably, just tit photos or highly smoothed/photoshopped side or above ass. This ultimately means that tits can be posted from any angle, but ass (regardless of clothing) may only be posted from a conservative or “socially appropriate” angle.
Right prior to publication I noted that @real_olindacastielle has been deactivated and @marisapapen is back, enforcing the trend I mentioned prior. The fact that some pages remain while still repeatedly breaking the Community Guidelines and others can be deleted even if these rules have not been broken creates an air of mystery as to what IG allows and what it censors. Navigating this mystery to achieve optimal clickbait traffic-generating sexiness while not breaking ambiguous and inconsistent rules is a challenge. It's also a reminder that somewhere beyond are the rulers who built this platform and who determine who stays, who goes, who is featured, and ultimately what is allowed to exist.
Interacting with Users
IG Models spend a lot of time interacting with or deciding how to interact with their users in the comments section of each post: who to block, which comments to delete, which comments to reply to, and so on. For example, is the comment “I hope you have pussy insurance, cuz I’m gonna bang it to death” (which I’ve actually received on a photo) an expression of hate or desire? Some models would find it unacceptable and others would see it as a welcome expression of sexual urge. Another conundrum is the comment “fuck you.” It could be rude, or it could come from a non-English speaker who’s trying to say “I want to fuck you,” which would be understood by most IG Models as a sign of a successful post. Some models leave rude, hateful, or offensive comments up, others delete them.
Fan users also tend to fight with each other—for instance, if someone criticizes a model’s photo, other followers will come to her defense, and the exchange can get ugly fast. When this happens on my page, I have to decide whether or not to keep this argument up. My personal philosophy is that my IG account is a place of positivity, love, and expressions of desire and admiration, so comments that involve hate and nastiness are deleted and the user is blocked. Other models have other philosophies and delete expressions of sexual desire but keep up negative comments. It just depends on the kind of environment an IG Model tries to maintain.
Finally, models respond to commenters to varying degrees as they seek to grow an adoring fan base. This can be time consuming, so some large-follower-count IG Models hire someone else to do it for them. Emojis are really helpful here, since they are quick and offer a variety of ways to say “thank you.”
DMs, Dick Pics, Proposals, etc.
For every comment you see, models receive many more DMs. When you have hundreds of thousands to millions of followers, it can be very time consuming and complicated to wade through the DMs to see what’s legit. For instance, if a photographer asks if you’ll model for him, is he worth the time it will take to respond and negotiate? If someone asks if you’ll cam, i.e. accept money to spend some time two-way video chatting with them, how do you avoid getting dragged into a long logistical conversation before you even see a penny? Lots of DMers are just interested in conversation with a model and have no intention of paying for anything. Further, DMers are not always what they say they are.
From what I hear, and from my own experience, models receive many dick pics. Some have a policy against it and block the sender. Some are fine with it. I am fine with dick pics, though I do not respond to any DMs, whether dick pics or personal notes, unless there is an offer for SFS or pay.
My experience as an Instagram Model has always been within the context of my “celebrity as art practice” project. Prior to starting my IG account, I had become fascinated with the art world’s obsession with celebrity and thought it would be interesting to combine the two into a practice, i.e. to create a celebrity as an art practice. Part of my fascination was founded in my interest in questions of ownership and appropriation. In the age of Richard Prince taking pictures of girls off Instagram, calling them his art and selling them for lots of money, I saw it as a distinctly feminist and agential act to be a “girl on Instagram” who is also art and who owns and controls everything she does.
What I’ve learned over the last year is that mainstream celebrity is a very different animal than social media popularity. While a social media user might gain a large number of followers, acceptance into the mainstream (and the greater income potential that implies) is still limited by a number of barriers and qualifications e.g., staying SFW, being sanctioned by the right institutions, remaining within a prescribed performative bandwidth, etc. To put it another way, there’s a world of difference in terms of mainstream celebrity between @saraunderwood and @brittanya187, though they both have around 7 million IG followers.
Regardless, I have found it very valuable as an artist to explore the Instagram aesthetic as a creatively informative and inspiring social media space. I have also enjoyed operating within the dynamics of the micro celebrity that comes from a small subset of the population following your every move. Finally, I’ve discovered that the work of some IG Models constitutes an unrecognized hotbed of outsider art.
The impetuses to work hard and spend the money necessary to become a big IG Model are several. Some look to gain major social media followings and, with enough success, make a living solely from their IG pages. Some try to parlay Instagram celebrity into real-world celebrity, a very challenging crossover. However, others seem to treat their posts as what I referenced in the subtitle: a new form of DIY digital feminized performance. Some are trying to do two or all.
Ultimately, what some IG Models are doing deserves the name of “art” for several reasons. First, their work has at least two socio-critical components: 1) it proposes that engaging the male gaze can be as “female empowering” as resisting it, and 2) in self-making themselves as “supermodels” they are subverting the traditional power structure of the female image machine and ushering in a new era of “woman-made woman.” Second, like many artists before them, they strive to depict the beautiful aspects of nature. And like various artists online, they inspire discourse about the complicated discrepancies between digitality and reality, art and commerce, sociality and agency.
But perhaps the best reason for IG Models to be considered “art” is that, in a certain sense, they are not “models.” In the production of artworks, the model is something that inspires an artist to make art (for instance, a model sitting for Picasso) or that forms the physical basis of a piece of art but is not considered art itself (for instance, a model appearing in a photo by Helmut Newton). In other words, IG Models have freed themselves of “man hands.” They have agency over their performances and they themselves make up the art. They do the work, appear in the work, get recognized for the work, and often get paid for the work, so they are “the work.”
Whether or not the IG Model will find cultural respect outside of IG remains unclear; she is as much a challenge to the art world as she is to the commercial modeling world. The former is likely to consider her too commercial (sexual?) to be art, while the latter considers her too artistic (independent/explicit?) to be commercial. Walking this line—and causing cognitive dissonance in two separate and often opposed major cultural spheres—must be counted as one of the IG Model’s more remarkable achievements. And there are undoubtedly more to come.
Numbers and status of accounts accurate as of July 27, 2016.