critiques of the ‘influencer activist’ fail to ignore a crucial element: the role of desirability politics.
this mode of activism is becoming increasingly strained as time goes on and one of the biggest gaps in the over-reliance on template responses to situations of injustice is the absence of a meaningful analysis of how desirability functions in these contexts.
if we look at the main creators of this repetitive work , a very clear pattern forms: the people posting are largely structurally desirable.
for this discussion i will be borrowing da’shaun l harrison’s terminology from belly of the beast: “prettiness, with a capital p, is about much more than one’s appearance, and it requires one to reckon with what it means to experience structural advantages over someone who is ugly. when i capitalize the p in pretty and the b in beauty, or the u in ugly, it is to name who does and does not have access to desire capital—that is to say who owns or embodies more or less of the identities that grant one access, power, and resources.”
we have often discussed the way that infographics prioritise aesthetics over all else.
this is also true of the people doing the posting; they tend to be thin, white, have eurocentric features, or at least their aesthetic aspires to the white supremacist ideal.
doing otherwise would be to become ugly. those who are deemed ugly face additional barriers to success, especially on a platform like instagram where both users and the app itself punish them for their bodies.
fat activists have been highlighting these barriers for years, and have called out the co-optation of the body positivity movement that originated amongst fat black women, by mid-size white women. the consequence is that resources and attention are shifted away from the most marginalised who are calling for radical change.
fat black people are largely unable to get work published which addresses material issues like how fat people are hired less, or the medical negligence which is considered to be acceptable when applied to fat people’s bodies. meanwhile, midsize white women are able to publish books using body positivity in its shallowest terms, contributing to a narrowing of the political imagination required to break the chains that bind us.
as put by kelsey miller in her medium piece ‘how whiteness killed the body positive movement’: “skinny models haven’t been replaced, though some slightly less-skinny models (like graham and lawrence) are in the mix. ‘diet’ remains an uncool word but it’s been successfully rebranded as ‘wellness’, as have diet companies like weight watchers”.
in this ecosystem where desirability is king, there is a clear effect on who is viewed as a good source of information and the information that gets put out – especially when these social media forums focus so heavily on lived experience. something as simple as fashion and makeup tips can make a real difference to the safety of trans people in public spaces, but when all those tips are given out by politically pretty trans people whose advice relies on their prettiness it becomes unsuitable for how politically ugly people exist in the world.
a useful example to explore the intersection of desirability politics and the influencer activist is schuyler bailar (@pinkmantaray), who boasts 372,000 instagram followers. his signature is an image of himself shirtless, holding a whiteboard with a dramatic progressive statement on it, then a few more slides expanding on the point. there have been variations on the theme, but the format of his content is broadly consistent. while these messages are often fairly progressive, the perception of him as radical is reliant on both prettiness and the way that radical politics are forcibly projected onto trans and racialised people (bailar is a trans asian man). bailar’s prettiness also means that in spite of the radical perception the work is still palatable to his audience.
last june, bailar posted some sponsored content that perfectly exemplifies the issues at hand.
in the first slide bailar, in a tank top and short shorts, flexes one bicep and holds a whiteboard that says “let’s talk about fitness”. in the latter slides, he goes on to talk about the relationship he has with fitness and how it helps his self-embodiment.
to his credit, he does explicitly say diet culture is bad, and he doesn’t want people to use his body to create toxic expectations (though he never uses the word fatphobia). however, at a certain point, the structure still wins regardless of individual intention. bailar ends up raising up “fitness” as “empowerment” and “self-love”, which is perfectly fine when it comes to his own relationship with his body, but still inherently creates a fit/unfit dichotomy and attaches a moralistic weight to the state of people’s bodies.
by ignoring the fact that the engagement he receives reliant on him being thin/muscular and thereby politically pretty, he contributes to the perception that the ideal trans body is thin, amalgamating with the broader societal fatphobic ideas which mean so many trans people cannot access essential gender-affirming healthcare.
regardless of bailar’s own held beliefs, the reality is that to say something more radical and paradigm-breaking would mean that this post most likely wouldn’t be sponsored by gymshark, a company that profits from the deeply fatphobic fitness industry. he is by no means alone in this. with a fitness industry that is worth billions of pounds in the uk alone, and a broader beauty industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars, there is a clear financial incentive for the upholding of these structures of desirability which marginalise the politically ugly.
the huge financial power of said industries and the whims of the instagram algorithm reinforce each other to make it near impossible for platforms that challenge this hegemony to be built.
desirability also determines the disposability of activists. an example of this phenomenon is matthew bernstein (@mattxiv), a make-up artist, photographer and activist influencer with over a million followers on instagram.
the format of their post alternates between a photo of them standing in front of a wall with a statement edited onto it and a close-up photo of part of his bare body with words painted or edited onto it. these are then followed by slides with more information.
bernstein has repeatedly been called out for their posts being poorly sourced and bordering on misinformation, as well as for glib comments with regards to heterosexual hiv infections.
despite all this, he is constantly extended grace, and allowed to continue putting out (mis)information and making money from it, only having to occasionally delete a tweet or post. by contrast, people who are politically ugly are frequently chased off of their platforms for even the smallest perceived misstep – put at the butt end of disposability culture.
it is tempting to stop the analysis at instagram and say that it is a problem with that specific app, but politics of desirability have a real effect on more ‘official’ sources of information as well.
in march 2021, rochelle humes hosted a documentary on the disproportionate black maternal mortality rates. it emerged that candice braithwaite, darker-skinned and less thin than humes, had been consulted by channel 4 for a very similar project before humes was brought on board. despite braithwaite’s extensive history with the topic, she was not given the space to discuss it, a particularly troubling phenomenon when we consider how darker-skinned and fatter people often face the worst of medical anti-blackness.
to pretend we could meaningfully separate the official media from the world of the influencer activist is to ignore that we live in the digital media age.
everyone, from authors to journalists to producers, has to become their own social media managers, and photos and videos are essential to that. this is especially true for the very social media engaged new media.
if we look at the british new media we see a dearth of people who are visibly disabled, darker-skinned, fat etc, and a corresponding lack of published work that meaningfully engages with the structures of desirability.
the colourism extends to black british new media, where darker-skinned women, in particular, have been treated with contempt or simply ignored. it is clear that way beyond the scope of instagram thirst follows, this new wave of information-givers is defined by those structures.
desirability politics are a crucial component in so much of the world that exists around us, both online in a social media landscape that is so visual in nature (especially with the rise of tiktok), and also offline: from clubs to healthcare.
it is therefore crucial that we apply this analysis to the activist influencer and beyond, so we can understand the structures of the world we exist in and fight for liberation that works for everyone – regardless of our bodies.
co-published in collaboration with onyx magazine