How Gen Z Is Challenging Perfection On Social Media…And Falling For It

By Cameron Katz

When I open Instagram and mindlessly scroll through the app’s reels (essentially Instagram’s form of TikTok), I will likely come across two different kinds of content. The first is what I have intentionally selected for my feed: a variety of women openly challenging diet culture, the male gaze, or airbrush-perfect beauty standards. As someone who counted calories, cut out bread and sugar, and subbed iced coffee for lunch when I was younger, this content reminds me not to return to old habits. 

The other content is what the algorithm spits at me without my consent. It’s lip sync videos, how I could make my hair shinier, jaw exercises to slim my face, women who have defied aging by wearing sunscreen, and more. All things I could do to make myself prettier — better

You would think hours of therapy, a nearly two-year break from social media, and a complete reset of my relationship with food would protect me from the tsunami of advertisements and cultural expectations about what my body should be. Or, at least, that’s what I thought.

I knew that body image could never just be “fixed.” There were going to be good days and bad ones. But I hadn’t anticipated how easy it would be for that lingering feeling of being not quite good enough to creep back.

This social media content has given me an entirely new vocabulary to talk about everything that’s apparently wrong with me. The first flaws I see when I look in the mirror are things I never used to even think about: the sebaceous filaments along my nose, my large pores, the semi-dark circles under my eyes, my keratosis pilaris. The beauty aisle sounds like a pharmaceutical paradise, touting BHA exfoliants, retinol creams, and nutrient-infused toners as “solutions” to my conditions. As they say, there’s a product for everything.

The most disturbing thing to me about all of this is the specificity of these insecurities. It’s not just a thigh gap or a flat stomach anymore; the high resolution of social media has exposed every potential flaw in Gen Z. So while some of this younger generation has certainly begun to challenge beauty standards more successfully than our precursors, the other side has already crafted an entirely new version of the perfect girl, right down to the pore.

That’s not to say the rebellious beauty-standard-challenging faction is perfect either. Although they do not require us to have flawless skin or slim figures, there’s an unspoken obligation to be morally perfect — to never have days where we don’t like what we see in the mirror, to unconditionally love ourselves. 

For many of us, such a reality is impossible, and the precedent of moral perfection can make some women feel as though they’re “failing” at being body positive. This reality can be discouraging because we might come to think that in order to engage in self-love, we must have an entirely positive relationship with our appearances. 

Embracing yourself is a journey, not something that a mantra or positive thinking can fix overnight. And the process of healing is often reserved for those with the financial privilege and available headspace to attend and process therapy. 

Although the two sides of Gen Z make their displays of perfection seem attainable — one through consumerism and the other through simply willing it into existence — both extremes fail to simply meet women where they are.

When it comes to sizing up beauty standards, we need the gray area. The path to accepting our appearances should be ambiguous because everyone’s relationship to their body is different. What one influencer did might be helpful, but it’s very unlikely that their followers will use all of the same tactics. 

To be fair, perhaps this gray space is asking too much of Gen Z body positive creators. They are already fighting a massive beauty standard monster. But introducing some leeway into the body positive conversation can expand the movement to include those of us who have never been able to love our imperfections. 

I do take comfort in knowing that there’s an entire arsenal of creators calling out the perfectionism that exists on both sides. In this way, Gen Z has made some significant strides towards challenging perfectionism, so much so that I can name several influencers off the top of my head (Jameela Jamil, Katie Budenberg, Olivia Campbell, and more) who guide Gen Z. But I’m afraid that the two extremes are going to keep crawling to further ends of the spectrum, and the polarization will only worsen as long as we keep rewarding the concept of perfection.

Cameron Katz | Image by Caroline Ruth Photography

Cameron Katz is originally from Tampa, Florida. She recently graduated from Emory University with a double major in History and English Creative Writing. Cameron completed a history honors thesis about felony disenfranchisement in Florida and is interested in social justice, reading fiction, and digital art.

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