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Social media. We love it, we hate it, we joke about it. But at the end of the day, we kind of take it for granted.

As a technologically savvy Millennial, it blows my mind that the iPhone turned 10 this week. Fifteen years ago, there was no Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat. It got me thinking: What is it like for women born before 1980, those who grew up before the personal computer and the cell phone were common?

I see hundreds of women every day as I scroll my feeds. I wonder about their lives. I compare myself to them sometimes. I wonder how I stack up in a world full of seemingly endless opportunities to be richer, prettier, happier. I also see a whole world outside my own that's accessible at just the tap of a screen. But what is it like for women of an older generation, women who don't necessarily engage with social media like I do? Has social media changed the way these women see themselves?

My goal for 2017? Become a wiser user of social media. So I surveyed multiple women over the age of 40 to learn about the impact self-sharing has had on women as they see it. This is what I learned.

On Beauty:

Some think social media has expanded beauty standards.

“Our culture has steered away from the blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty as being the only beauty standard.” —Pauline, 54

“The Internet has opened the possibility for women to express themselves and show different types of beauty (particularly in terms of size). Social media is opening up alternative narratives, which privilege different types of beauty.” —Susan, 44

“I have seen a wider and more diverse definition of what is considered beautiful. Not everyone has to look like Christie Brinkley!” —Ginny, 52

Others think it hasn’t . . .

“There have been some superficial changes [when it comes to beauty standards]. However, for the most part, I don’t think they have changed as much as we may wish. I taught my first university class in 1995. I did a media unit for that class, and one of our areas of focus was the influence of media on body image. During that time, the excessively thin models such as Kate Moss were in vogue. Despite feminist criticism of this excessively thin (and pre-adolescent-looking body type), many of my students (and friends) still desired to be thin. I'm not sure that's changed much.” —Susan, 44

“The standard of beauty still seems to be blonde hair, size 4 or smaller, and 5'4" to 5'7”." —Billye, 60

“Women have always been expected to make an effort to be beautiful. Styles have changed, but I can’t really say I have seen things relax or increase in beauty standards in the past twenty years.” —Ginny, 52

“I don't think beauty standards are, or have ever been, established by women. I think beauty standards have been established by outside forces telling us how we are to look and act.” —Charlene, 46

Still, some "realness" has been achieved.

“We see beautiful people on social media all the time, and it affects us the same way it did when we saw these same types of beauties in magazines. The difference now is that we can easily look up the ages of the people we are comparing ourselves to. We can find out if they have had plastic surgery, and what their beauty regimens are. And we know Photoshop exists. That helps keep it balanced.” —Pauline, 54

“[Social media] has certainly created a larger pool from which to choose our 'norm.' It has allowed 'average' women (i.e. not Photoshopped or otherwise altered) to post photos and videos of themselves being themselves, which is great. I think it has enlarged the acceptable range of looks and behaviors that we allow and embrace.” —Charlene, 46

“I think that the effect of social media has been fairly positive. Women posting their own selfies and pictures actually helps counteract the airbrushed images in women’s magazines.” —Susan, 44

On Relationships:

There’s a great element of reconnection.

“It was definitely more difficult to keep in touch with family/friends when you had to write letters or make expensive phone calls. Social media allows one to keep in touch and up-to-date on what's happening in the lives of their loved ones.” —Pauline, 54

“The most healthy impact has been reconnecting with people that I had lost touch with. It’s nice to see the updates on people’s lives and can give you a reason to reach out to someone. It is so easy to send a private message to a long distance friend—snail mail or long distance phone calls were not an appealing option in the world of quick conversations.” —Ginny, 52

But, it complicates everything, including bullying and breakups.

“Social media has allowed for types of bullying that were unknown in my youth. So, while we can present alternative images of female bodies, we also find horrific comments about women and their bodies in comment sections and on Twitter. For every woman who is brave enough to post a “beauty at any size” picture on Twitter, there is always a troll ready to call her a pig. Whether our young girls agree with the women or the trolls has a huge impact on their self-esteem.” —Susan, 44

“[Before social media] you didn’t have to be constantly reminded of how happy your ex-boyfriend is with their new girlfriend. Or, even with a friendship that has grown apart—I never had to see constant reminders of someone I was moving on from. Or by observing things that you were left out of. All of my daughters would see posts of birthday parties (or any party) that they were not invited to and get their feelings hurt. [Another negative impact]: the feelings of insecurity created and the opportunity to read toxic, negative viewpoints.”—Ginny, 52

“Quite honestly, I think it would be awful growing up with the pressures exerted by social media. Knowing how I feel as a grown woman when I get negative feedback online, I think how horrendous that would be for a young person. Young people are committing suicide over things that transpired on social media. I know how impulsive and impetuous I was when I was growing up, and I can't imagine having had the power of the Internet at my fingertips during those tempestuous adolescent years. Seriously! I get angsty just thinking about it. Seeing kids with their phones constantly in hand, handling interpersonal communication through text and online, measuring self-worth in number and quality of responses to posts. I just want everybody to go outside and play for a while.” —Charlene, 46

On Perspective: 

Social media makes it harder to tell reality from fiction.

“We post our best pictures and our wittiest comments. We re-word and edit our posts. Social media is an artificial construct that gives us snapshots of reality with no context.” —Charlene, 46

“[Social media] has caused women to live and desire things that are unrealistic. [There’s] too much private information being shared. Too much unrealistic information available.” —Nikki, 54

But it has allowed for more options, more choice.

“Without social media, you didn’t have to deal with some of the vile, sexist comments that Internet trolls make (also Internet stalking, etc). However, [growing up without it] was harder because the beauty and fashion industry had a tighter control over the dissemination of images.” —Susan, 44

“It was harder growing up without social media. We were fed information, and we digested what we had. Now we have choices. You can choose what to view on your social media. ” —Pauline, 54


I found these ladies' comments very insightful. What did I learn from all this? I’m grateful for the broader beauty standards social media provides, as well as the interconnectedness, but I know it can't be consumed mindlessly. In the end, one woman's advice stuck with me the most: “Confident women don’t need social media to depict who they are.” —Nikki, 54

Now that’s definitely worth a "like."

Photo Credit: Nirav Patel