How Pinterest Is Killing Feminism

This isn’t where the internet was supposed to take us.

Art by John Gara.

One in five women over the age of 18 who regularly use the internet is on Pinterest, which had an estimated 23 million users users as of July. It also has an overwhelmingly female audience; around 60 percent of visitors to the site are women. And the site is only growing: between July 2011 and July 2012, 22 million users joined. Since Pinterest stopped requiring an invite to become a member in August, that number is only increasing. But the site’s popularity highlights an uncomfortable reality: Pinterest’s user-generated content, which overwhelmingly emphasizes recipes, home decor, and fitness and fashion tips, feels like a reminder that women still seek out the retrograde, materialistic content that women’s magazines have been hawking for decades — and that the internet was supposed to help overcome.

Pinterest — which drives more traffic to marthastewart.com and marthastewartweddings.com than Facebook and Twitter combined — has become impossible to ignore, even as critics deride it as “the Mormon housewife’s image bookmarking service of choice.” But it’s much more than a collection of pretty pictures. In fact, the site seems like one big user-curated women’s magazine — from the pre-internet era. Sites like Jezebel were created as an antidote to women’s print magazines, which are rife with diet, fitness and dressing tips. The internet has for many years now been thought of as a place where women can find smarter, meatier reads just for them.

Instead, there’s Pinterest: heavy on recipes (diet and otherwise), inspirational quotes, exercise tips, and aspirational clothes and homes. Kitchen porn, cupcake porn, bracelet porn — any kind of eye candy you can think of is probably on Pinterest, waiting for the next Pinner to covet it enough to re-pin it. People don’t go to Pinterest for articles, they go there to scrapbook every imaginable physical aspect of their dream lives, right down to the Mason jar candle holders you really hope to get around to DIY-ing for your next cocktail party.

On Pinterest, you’d never know that sites like Jezebel and Feministing had hit the internet. “Thinspo” and pro-eating disorder content may be banned on Pinterest, but the site is filled with images of Victoria’s Secret models wearing bikinis and other cellulite-free, idealistic bodies. Images of covetable figures and body parts often get hundreds of repins.

Charts of fitness tips are also quite popular.

And some of the most re-pinned recipes are diet ones. Pizza crust made with crumbled cauliflower as a low-carb alternative to dough is almost shockingly popular.

The blog post where the above cauliflower pizza crust recipe comes from explicitly frames the dish as “low-carb” and diet-friendly.

Smoothies as health objects are a whole other beast on Pinterest. The intro to this one on, from the blog Ink Lemonade, reads: “dairy free [sic], really healthy, and tastes like dessert for breakfast minus the guilt and the stomach ache.”

This isn’t where the internet was supposed to take us. The women I know who work in online women’s media hoped that the online content they created would provide an intellectual but fun alternative to print publications’ predictable fare.

And they have succeeded in using the internet for a new era of feminism. Take Jezebel, for example (tagline: “Celebrity, Sex, Fashion For Women. Without Airbrushing”). The site represents what the internet could do for women that traditional publishing houses couldn’t: create truly smart editorial content for female readers without overwhelming them with superficial information about diet, exercise, or clothes, or wildly aspirational images of thin, photoshopped models wearing designer dresses and lounging in mansions. Jezebel’s success made way for other sites with similar themes, like the Hairpin. Light on diet and workout tips, the Hairpin has become known, in part, for revolutionizing the advice column. Instead of expected 100-word answers to cliché questions, the Hairpin tackles everything from dating and sex (gay and straight) to household cleaning, with nuanced advice that feels like it’s coming from your funniest, wisest friend.

But while sites like Jezebel have found sizeable audiences online, it’s taken a lot of work to avoid rehashing the same old tropes. Anna Holmes launched Jezebel with the hope of encouraging women not to obsess over their appearance, materialism, and being thin, but noticed these themes would creep into the site’s comment threads anyway.

“We certainly had critiques of the culture in terms of body image, but it was never, ‘let’s talk about how hard it was to lose that last 20 pounds,’” Holmes says. “Even though I think it was pretty obvious to readers of the site that we didn’t have that sort of content, whenever anything came up that skirted those issues” — a post about a study relating to weight loss, say — “some of them reacted really enthusiastically and wanted to talk about it.” Some readers would post their height and weight and, Holmes says, “We would go in the comments and say we didn’t want numbers.” She adds, “I was surprised at how quickly those conversations would happen. Even in a space where it was pretty obvious we were going to harp on those sorts of things, there was still a hunger for it. I found it very frustrating but the fact is people still really want to talk about those things.”

Of course, even with the rising popularity of feminist content online, adult women are still conditioned to think about diet and exercise and looking beautiful, Holmes notes, so it makes sense that they’d pin these things, impulsively or not. Women like herself who are deeply aware of things like Photoshop and unrealistic beauty ideals aren’t immune. “I’m not a runner, but I want to be a runner, and I keep buying Runner’s World thinking I’ll be inspired to start running,” says Holmes, who is familiar with Pinterest, but does not use it. “Perhaps if it was online I would have pinned it for later use. I think the difference is Pinterest is performative, whereas I dog-ear my magazine, no one’s going to see it. You see these things on people’s Facebook [pages] about this ‘6 mile run I just took.’ The announcement of one’s lifestyle choices become a way of bragging.” (Though, Holmes acknowledges, some people use social media healthfully to keep them honest when they’re on diets that will ultimately benefit them.)

And let’s talk about all that tiny food on Pinterest (which may actually be just as popular and breathlessly enthused over as full-size food). Do pinners see it as a low-calorie way to “indulge” in “bad-for-us” foods? Or do they pin it because it’s just adorable the way a lot of small things (kittens, puppies, human babies) tend to be? Or do they really want to try dainty new methods of food styling?

Like some women’s magazines, Pinterest also blurs the lines between unhealthy diet obsessions and health tips. Are users storing charts of fitness routines so that they can try them at the gym because they want to ward off heart attacks and be healthy overall, or because they’re obsessed with getting to size four or thinner? It’s hard to say, especially since comment threads on pins — where users often chime in to say they love something without trying to spark debate —are more reactive than discussion-oriented. (Pinterest declined to comment.)

But you also find a lot of images of women who are well above a size 4, like the below, which has been re-pinned more than 500 times.

This image’s string of comments — like many threads on Pinterest — is overwhelmingly positive:

But women’s magazines, which get a lot of traffic from Pinterest these days, still create a lot of the pinned content.

“Despite the fact that there’s more Photoshopping and models are thinner, I think women are more educated now, and are looking to achieve a new kind of perfection,” says Lauren Sherman, the Executive Digital Editor of Lucky magazine (some of their biggest recent hits from Pinterest came through pictures of white dresses). This ideal, Sherman thinks, is less about dieting down to a certain size than having the best manicure, the perfect lipstick, or just the right assortment of mismatched bracelets on your wrist (detail shots of things like this are very popular on Pinterest, Sherman has noticed). “It’s more about the whole life you live now. It’s about building this world. Your Pinterest board reflects your taste in food, fashion, your home — it’s the life you want to reflect and less about a very specific prize and, ‘I’m not a size two, but I have all this other great stuff going for me,’” Sherman explains. “I don’t necessarily think that is any better. You’re still trying to achieve the impossible.”

“I think women want to see women like them,” says Naomi Piercey, the online editor of Women’s Health, who works on the magazine’s Pinterest account, which now has more than 75,000 followers. She thinks Pinterest users “are realistic and they know what their bodies look like.” While she says diet recipes and fitness tips are some of the magazine’s most-pinned content, she thinks it’s not just about coveting a perfect, Photoshopped model’s figure. “[Users] want to see women sweat. They know it’s hard work to get the body that you want. They want to see real women struggling and lifting weights and using their muscles so I think a lot of ‘fitspiration’ images where girls are leaping and jumping and sweating and doing crossfit I think are more exciting [to users] than a pretty girl in a sports bra.”

And the nice thing about Pinterest, unlike women’s magazines, is that if your fitness board starts to make you feel like a slacker, you can just delete them and unfollow other fitspiration boards in your feed. That kind of personalized editing is one huge advantage to the site. When you buy Shape from a newsstand, you can flip past pages, but you can’t un-see them. You’re relying on editors to present you with the best version of a woman’s life, rather than taking the initiative to curate that for yourself.

Another advantage of Pinterest is that it omits the advertiser influence prevalent in print magazines. While newsstand titles like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar plug clothes and beauty products made by their advertisers, the average Pinterest user only pins things they truly like or want to try. (And some users do pin ads — Percey says a lot of the viral fitness imagery on Pinterest comes from ads by athletic companies.)

So maybe Pinterest is a natural evolution in online women’s media, a place where old print titles and younger outlets like Jezebel intersect. Pinterest might come with airbrushing, but at least it lets you decide just how much of it becomes part of your own user experience. Without drastic changes to the media we’re bombarded with daily — on billboards, television, the internet, and newsstands — women seem unlikely to ditch the cauliflower pizza recipes.

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