In May, Krystal Aranyani shared a video on YouTube that was unlike her usual fare. The yoga teacher wore no makeup, was poorly lit, and slouched in front of tapestries and pillows, her hand propped on her face in a thoughtful gesture.
“Hello, beloveds—welcome back to my channel,” she began, her usual salutation. “You may notice I look a bit different today. The other day I was thinking how I’ve never made a video without any makeup on, which is fine because people on social media, especially ones like myself that want to help others and make a career out of it, like to present ourselves in a certain way. But I’ve been meaning to make a little bit more of a real video for you guys to remind you that it’s not always like that 24/7 and we’re really just playing out roles in our lives.”
At one time, Aranyani’s approach might have seemed bold, perhaps even risky, for tampering with the image her viewers were accustomed to. Brave as she may have been, though, Aranyani’s video was one of many, many posts across social media in 2019 that rejected what had become the accepted aesthetic of online self-presentation: airbrushed, perfectly posed, like a fairy tale come to life.
When Instagram first launched in 2010, it was akin to a digital photo album. A normal person could shoot a normal photo with a normal smartphone and—with the help of a few filters and easy-to-use editing tools—create a stunning, professional-looking image.
For eight years, social media was all about the augmented look: Facebook birth announcements, Twitter ~personal news~ posts, YouTube makeup tutorials, carefully crafted lifestyle blogs, and more.
But in 2019, something changed. It became cool to be real. Like, really real.
Celebrities, of course, helped. The YouTube personality Emma Chamberlain has over 8 million followers, and her introductory reel on her YouTube page begins with her saying, “D’you know what? I’m going to be totally real with you guys!” She described in a recent profile why she often posts videos of herself crying: “Whenever I’m crying I like, weirdly, to document it. Every time I cry I always take one photo of myself afterwards because I like to look back and think ‘Remember when I was so upset about X, Y, and Z? Look at me now—I don’t care about that anymore!’”
Chamberlain is of the generation that has challenged what it means to be on social media. Millennials may have invented and adopted Facebook, and stuffed Twitter and Instagram with memes and snark and (sometimes fake) news. But Gen Zers now seem to be on a quest to post the most authentic, unretouched photos possible—ones that show them emoting, and in unflattering light, angles, and situations. Being real for this generation means recording a TikTok that documents one’s own struggle with mental illness. It means posting an image that shows a lopsided smile and eyes shut right when the camera goes off.
On the one hand, such content feels like the starting point for refreshingly candid conversations online. TikTok has become the platform of choice for teens for this very reason: in 30-second loops, they can be concise and punchy, tearing apart everything from Pete Buttigieg’s campaign dance routine to the Uighur crisis in China.
Rebecca Jennings at Vox described how TikTok’s appeal for teens can be mapped out by the “I’m ugly” trend. Depressing as it might seem on the surface, it’s empowering for teens to create content that attacks classic Instagram tropes like the before/after split screen. “Relatable videos are why people like TikTok in the first place,” Jennings notes. “And feeling unattractive on TikTok is one of the most relatable experiences of all.”
However, being authentic—being real—is often a performance in and of itself. Posts about taking the mask off, so to speak, are in fact very carefully worded and often paired with somber photos meant to communicate thoughtfulness and depth.
When Kim Kardashian, the archetypal influencer, gets “real,” she never truly breaks character.
In a video released this month, she talked about dealing with preeclampsia while pregnant and the five surgeries that followed. As painful and genuine as Kardashian’s experience was, it’s nearly impossible to ignore how practiced and staged everything in the video is. Perfectly lit, her symmetrical, made-up face offset by a brown teddy sweater and mauve wall, Kardashian’s moment of vulnerability is also a commercial for her shapewear brand, Skims.
This phenomenon has been called “aspirational realness,” the idea that a curated life that’s ever so messy in just the right photogenic ways is somehow authentic. But anyone who’s ever attempted to take a snapshot of brunch or use a toy to distract a baby into staying still for a photo knows that capturing the “real” is inherently not. It’s posed, takes many tries, and requires planning.
That extends to 2019’s trend of supposed soul-baring. It isn’t a coincidence that Aranyani’s heart-to-heart video dovetails nicely with her business as a yogi and empowerment coach. We get to witness Chamberlain’s tears because she has an odd penchant for self-documentation, sure, but underneath that is a keen understanding that emotions generate clicks. Same for Kardashian, the consummate professional. She is well aware that her brand relies on a seesaw of aspiration and relatability: she’s a billionaire businesswoman, but a mom of four, too.
So while it has become more acceptable to acknowledge that real life happens, in a way it’s just a new manifestation of the same urge for online notoriety. This year might have given us a tsunami of heartwarming TikTok videos of dancing with your mom or lip-synching a country song in your pajamas. But it’s the same endless loop: calculating the dynamics of a perfect digital extension of yourself to garner the dopamine rush of likes. Being “real” is just one way to do that.