By Carol Emslie, Jemma Lennox, Helen Sweeting & Antonia Lyons
Like alcohol, social media is now a vital part of many people’s social lives. Young people regularly post and share drinking photographs, anticipate ‘big nights out’ and discuss their drinking and hangover stories online. Bars and clubs also employ professional photographers to take pictures of patrons which are posted on social media. Young women are more invested in their online appearance and identity than young men, and take considerable time and energy to portray an appropriate image on social media.
Today, we have published new research in the International Journal of Drug Policy which reveals the difficult ‘balancing act’ that young women face when drinking in the age of social media (freely available here).
We asked groups of friends aged 18 to 29 in the west of Scotland to discuss their drinking and Facebook use. Young women wanted to portray themselves as fun-loving, attractive and sociable through their online drinking stories and photographs, but were very aware of how they would be judged if they were perceived to have lost control of their drinking or appearance.
“If I don’t want people to see me looking this drunk, then I will de-tag it or I won’t put it up”
Young women used a number of strategies to resolve this dilemma. For example, they balanced drinking photos with pictures of ‘healthy’ outdoor activities, used carefully posed images as their Facebook profile picture and only uploaded drinking photos in less obvious positions, and removed pictures in which they perceived themselves as looking particularly drunk or unattractive. This time-consuming ‘airbrushing’ allowed them to present a carefully curated identity to others. Young women were also aware of potentially wider audiences beyond their friends and acquaintances, as they knew that photographs of patrons were used online to promote local clubs.
Here are a few of their comments:-
If I think I don’t want people to see me looking this drunk, then I will de-tag it or I won’t put it up. Or I might have them in the albums. I’ve not tagged myself but I’ve still put them on-line in the good spirit of the night out.
Everyone was just looking in different directions (in the photo) and my hair messy kind of thing, and it was not a good look. I must have looked like.. a drunk person … It’s not something I’d be proud of [on my Facebook]. …
I changed the way I would take a photo [when approached by a nightclub photographer]...because it’s not my friends that are gonna view it. It goes on the Facebook for that club...and I’m all like [poses] and I’m smiling and I’m not doing a funny face so I think it does change how I pose ‘cause I don’t want strangers looking at me and writing comments (like) ‘oh, look at the state of her’
"The real me” or unposed and natural? Power and 'taste'
Young working class women discussed the ‘prep’ around hair, makeup and clothes required for a night out, and described how alcohol helped them to feel more confident about their appearance. They enjoyed the transformation from their usual everyday appearance (which was often restricted by work uniforms) to a more glamorous look. Posting photos of themselves and their friends, taken before and during the night out, allowed them to display this transformation (“the real me”) and they enjoyed the ‘likes’ and positive online comments they received. Looking back on these glamorous photos after the event also gave them confidence in their appearance for the future.
In contrast, young middle class women valued more un-posed, humorous and casual images. They dismissed the glamorous online images favoured by working class women as fake and posed, particularly the ‘hall pose’ of a group of women standing in a hallway, dressed up, hand on hip, holding a glass of wine or champagne. Some middle class women did have examples of the ‘hall pose’ on their Facebook profiles, but could distance themselves from this using irony (“It’s shameless! I did it with awareness and I’m gonna let myself off in this one cause I do think I look quite good!”).
This echoes Sarah Thornton’s research on clubbers in the 1990s, who emphasised their hip authenticity by dismissing working class ‘Raving Sharons’ and ‘Techno Tracys’. These comments also show how more powerful groups attempt to impose their definitions of taste on others, deciding what is ‘authentic’ and what is ‘fake’.
Double standards online and offline
Double standards around drinking alcohol and drunkenness, where women are judged more harshly than men, are nothing new. The UK media have a disproportionate focus on women’s drinking, despite men drinking more than women, having higher alcohol-related hospital admissions and being much more likely to die from alcohol-related causes. Young men and women themselves judge women’s drinking more harshly than men’s, describing drunk women as ‘skanky’, ‘gross’, ‘trash’ and ‘a state’.
However, our research reveals how a wider online audience can now observe, judge and comment on how women look and behave, adding to the pressure on young women, and particularly young women with less power in society.