A couple of years ago, my friend’s 13-year-old nephew, whom I have known since he was a toddler, quipped during a conversation, “The Democrats lost because of those feminists.” We were on our way to a cafe in Kolkata during our annual home visit and his declaration was nestled between disconnected banter about bands I had never heard of and something about food. “Where did you get this from,” my friend asked incredulously, where as I awwwed and laughed, sort of amused and delighted that a three-year-old I first met at a theme park and tried to comfort during a ‘horror’ ride was now speaking the language of my work battleground — Twitter.
Later, he explained what several supporters of Bernie Sanders in the 2015 American elections contended — if the Democrats had not been trying to score a few ‘feminist’ points by having Hillary Clinton run, they would have probably won. Now, we don’t come from homes where American politics is dinner table discussion. Understandably, he argued, this was ‘all over the internet’ and had come to believe that it was also an accurate reading of the situation. We merely told him, there are various other aspects to it, including racist, patriarchal sentiments and he should look it up. He was 13, he’d grow up, we concurred. However, at that point of time, he seemed satisfied with believing what surfaced on his social media timelines and did not seem too keen on probing or investigating it.
When Santoshi Shetty’s video offering ‘positive vibes’ in exchange for money—she calls it ‘flying cheese’— surfaced, my first reaction was intense anger. Primarily because it immediately struck me how young, vulnerable and also impatient teens like my friend’s nephew — who form a huge section of her followers — would have actually taken her seriously and believed some ‘positive vibe’ hokum and ‘believe in yourself’ catchphrases were a way to battle mental illnesses. They’d probably try to do what she suggested, I thought, because an expensively dressed, stylish woman — with strikingly well done make-up, sitting in an elegant, cutesy home — was asking them to do so. (Shetty later apologised and pulled the video down.)
WHO ARE YOU ‘INFLUENCING’?
I remember being 16 and thinking that Kareena Kapoor quipping, “I don’t know, and I don’t care,” complete with a hair toss in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, was a valid human response to simple questions. Because Kapoor seemed to have what a bunch of us girls wished we had — shiny lipsticks, dyed hair, navel-baring tops and oodles of attention. The product that Shetty or most fashion and lifestyle influencers sell is exactly this — aspiration. It’s okay to aspire to be able to paint your eyelids as spectacularly as Shetty does, but to aspire to be able to battle depression with banter, or worse, think you’d be able to ‘help’ others by offering ‘love and light’ like Instagram captions go, is dangerous.
“The product that Shetty or most fashion and lifestyle influencers sell is exactly this — aspiration.”
In the past two months, I have had two severe panic attacks — one of which felt like a heart attack, and left me with burning fever for a few hours during peak lockdown, meaning no medical help was available. My flatmate called half-a-dozen hospitals which listed out long processes for online consultations while I struggled to breathe and shivered so vigorously that my body started hurting. A friend who couldn’t travel because of restrictions called a PCR van and the police came promptly to my house, while I drifted into unconsciousness, and asked my flatmate to call them if I got any worse. A milder version of this recurred a week later. At the time, most psychiatrists weren’t able to take on a new client like me with severe clinical anxiety and depression.
So when influencers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — not professionally qualified to treat mental health — went all ‘my-DMs-are-open’ after Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, I was mildly miffed. But over years of doing a job that requires me to live on the internet, I have learnt, unlearned and relearned feminism, empathy, ideas of what constitutes oppression and appropriation. “They probably mean well, and hopefully will direct a person with mental illnesses who approaches them to a professional,” I told myself. After all, that’s how I ended up at a therapist’s office the first time and then sought out a psychiatrist — persuaded by non-professionals who understood the value of not treating mental health issues like boredom.
This is exactly the reason why it’s so disturbing that Shetty’s fellow influencers and content creators are calling her video, where she attempted to offer unqualified advice on mental health if her followers paid her a fee, a ‘mistake’. The argument offered in Shetty’s defence shows that despite ample posturing online on mental health awareness, there is little value or understanding of how excoriating the experience of living with a severe mental illness is. Say, for example, you had a serious stomach illness and someone asked you to have green tea as a cure, that too in exchange for money, would you call it a ‘mistake’? Nope.
“You had a serious stomach illness and someone asked you to have green tea as a cure, that too in exchange for money, would you call it a ‘mistake’? Nope.”
PRIVILEGE AND INTIMACY
The lifestyle and travel ‘influencer’ ecosystem in India — rooted firmly in economic and caste privileges — is held together by ‘feel good’. As opposed to a few seconds-long commercial or a print ad which you may eventually lose sight of, an ‘influencer’ in the luxury and beauty space is like a sustained, break-free, never-ending advertisement of a life you’d want to get for yourself, if you invested in the products they advertised. In one of the more sensible defences of Shetty’s video, content creator Dolly Singh pointed out that 100% of their lives are not on the internet and it’s a mistake to assume that if they have not called out Shetty in public, they haven’t done that in person.
It’s a valid lesson on empathy, but the catch is, influencers dig their way into our consciousness — and especially that of young women — by projecting the idea that they are sharing most of their lives with their followers. ‘Night beauty routines’, ‘what I eat in a day’, ‘house tour’, ‘diet secrets’, ‘what I drink first thing after waking up’, ‘relationship advice’, ’what’s in my bag’, ‘what’s in my fridge’, ‘my work-time snack’, ‘what’s in my daily make-up pouch’, ‘work out with me’, ‘shop with me’, ‘shopping hauls’, are popular lifestyle influencer content themes that signal that the person is intimately sharing the details of her life with her ‘followers’. Influencers work super hard to make their lives believable, desirable and hence, ripe for emulation. That makes them an important and somewhat powerful medium of product marketing. And that also places a huge responsibility on their shoulders to not provide misleading, regressive or damaging information to their followers.
“Influencers work super hard to make their lives believable, desirable and hence, ripe for emulation.”
In an Instagram post, fashion influencer Komal Pandey spoke about the violent nature of ‘cancel culture’ and how it demolishes the hard work put in by an individual overnight. Since the bread-and-butter of influencers rests on them remaining relatable to their followers, Pandey is right that not only is a call for ‘cancelling’ an individual harrowing, for an influencer it also takes away their economic opportunities.
‘INFLUENCER’ IRRESPONSIBILITY IS NOT NEW
That said, it is necessary to point out here that Shetty took down the video only after non-influencers complained relentlessly about its dangerous implications. It is not like Shetty inhabits an ecosystem where mental health isn’t discussed or she lacks access to accurate information about it—with 712,000 followers, she is literally one Instagram story away from asking for resources about mental health. That too, only if she was unwilling to do the research herself. Instead she offered quack-like services, packaged the same way she would promote a new line of lipsticks.
Shetty’s was not a mistake. It came from an acute understanding of her privilege, the power she has over thousands of people and was also aimed at occupying a space that rightfully belongs to therapists, most of who aren’t able to draw ‘followers’ with a glittering, good looking lifestyle.
“It is not like Shetty inhabits an ecosystem where mental health isn’t discussed or she lacks access to accurate information about it”
And this is not the first time that an influencer, coming from a place of privilege, has propounded ideas that are regressive and belittling of the experiences and realities of other women. Pandey herself was recently called out on Twitter for ranting against her house help whom she accused of ‘shoddy’ work despite paying her a lot. Strangely, her logic of ‘don’t cancel’ somehow did not extend to another woman with much less privilege, much less social capital and no avenue to respond to or contest Pandey’s claims.
While she asked for Shetty to be not criticised further and be ‘forgiven’, she took to her 978,000 followers to brand her domestic worker lazy and inefficient. Despite Twitter pointing that out, Pandey neither retracted her words nor showed any evidence of reflecting on what she said — at least on Instagram.
In this article on the vilification and caricature of parlour workers, we found Pandey’s video with lifestyle website PopXo, where she mocks the struggles of a parlour worker by mimicking her. “Meri life main bahut struggle hain” read her subtitle, while Pandey mimicked a parlour woman saying her husband doesn’t work, and how hard she works. That is supposed to be funny. Again, the video was belittling the labour of a woman of very few privileges, quite the opposite of what she had to say about fellow influencer Shetty. Women idolise Pandey in endearing, admirable ways—evident from the profuse praise on her page about her expertise in styling. Imagine them also learning to disrespect and dismiss the labour of poor women from her. Not fair, right?
A few days after the Shetty fiasco, Instagram users pointed out how popular travel and lifestyle influencer Saloni Chopra — who was awarded ‘feminist of the year’ by Cosmopolitan Magazine for her content on body positivity, feminism, equality and stereotyping — posted photos of her face painted with a shade of bronzer or foundation to make her skin tone look much darker. The accompanying text was well-intentioned — asking women to be comfortable in their skin.
However, a light-skinned woman mimicking an experience she has not had to live through, and a specific trauma she would not have been subjected to, by brown-facing herself belittled the experiences of the very women she perhaps set out to inspire. Again, her comments section was full of praise except for a few critics, thereby normalising the idea of appropriating someone else’s suffering. The post still exists, indicating that the circle of faith inhabited by influencers in India did not find a problem with it. Chopra was also called out, again by non-influencers, for mocking the struggles of parlour workers to promote body positivity among her ‘community’.
THE ISSUE OF FORGIVENESS
It is only fair that feminist influencers like Dolly Singh and Kusha Kapila who painstakingly, humorously speak about feminism and agency, at times in the face of obnoxious sexist online attacks, rallied around Shetty asking people to not be hard on her. However, several women pointed out on Twitter that they only issued these statements after Shetty was continuously criticised by non-influencers till she took down the video.
“It is not impossible to be political and self-aware. Empathy need not essentially be performative, as exemplified by various artistes and designers on Instagram who also depend on the platform for their work but don’t shy away from speaking the hard truth.”
The demographic of followers that Shetty and other women influencers have often overlap — and Kapila, Singh and other influencers’ silence on Shetty’s mental health project could have signalled to their own young followers that perhaps Shetty was offering something meaningful.
A story or a post expressing their own understanding of mental health — as they have done now — without even naming Shetty or alluding to her post while it was up, could have effectively provided a counterpoint, and something to ponder over for their followers. That wouldn’t have punched Shetty down, but also helped youngsters see the right path to seeking help for mental health.
It is not impossible to be political and self-aware. Empathy need not essentially be performative, as exemplified by various artistes and designers on Instagram who also depend on the platform for their work but don’t shy away from speaking the hard truth. From protests against the government’s atrocities to calling out discrimination, lifestyle influencers have done it all. Muslim bloggers I spoke to commented how crushing it was to experience the eerie silence of their fellow lifestyle bloggers when they themselves were talking about atrocities against minorities in the wake of the Delhi riots, anti-CAA protests and arrests of students. Several beneficiaries of the influencer ecosystem often whip out the word ‘empathy’ in their defence, but do they really live it, at least on Instagram? Only when it is convenient.