Why do girls posting attractive selfies make people uncomfortable?

For some reason, only girls are shamed for using the internet to seek validation.
Published January 25, 2019

A L I A has almost 4,000 followers on Twitter. Her bio is unassuming; she states that she is from Karachi and that her old account is now locked.

A L I A mostly retweets what other desi Twitter users are posting, shares memes and sometimes tweets a “Jumma Mubarak! Have a blessed day.” to her followers.

Her timeline reads like the Twitter account of any teenage girl and her tweets get a fair number of retweets and likes. But A L I A’s most popular tweet by far is a series of selfies in which she pouts at the camera with a full face of makeup on. “Imagine me as your wife” reads the caption.

The tweet has gotten over a thousand likes and several of her followers have commented under it. There are hundreds of comments. Some users compliment her or flirt with her but many also slut shame or call her names.

A L I A responds to the compliments with thank yous, flirts back a little when she feels like it and completely ignores the rest.

Baby saba, another Twitter profile with followers in the thousands, claims to be from Lahore and 19 years old. Her bio reads “God, goals, growing and glowing.” Baby saba also regularly posts pictures asking her followers to imagine her as their wife or even as their teacher.

"A girl posting a nice picture of herself can and should be read as an act of resistance."

Like many internet trends, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what sparked the Imagine Me As Your Wife trend on desi Twitter, but it is most likely inspired by other pockets of Twitter.

Last year, scores of Black and Latina women tweeted pictures of themselves with the caption, “Imagine me as your wife and the mother of your children. God just blessed you twice.”

These pictures are not dissimilar to the ones A L I A and Baby saba post; mostly women wearing winged eyeliner, highlighter and lipstick, dressed in their best and posing for the camera.

Related: 'Hans gayi aur phans gayi': On the mechanics of laughter and sexual harassment

Another trend worth mentioning is the Tell Me Something Interesting tag that followed the same pattern; women posting an attractive picture of themselves captioned "tell me something interesting", often accompanied by a winking emoji.

For those slow on the uptake, the interesting ‘something’ is the person posing for the picture. There are also very few Imagine Me As Your Wife tweets by white women which means this is a trend that has definitely been popularised by women from marginalised communities.

A few weeks ago, a man found he had something to say about the Imagine Me As Your Wife tweets and, of course, took to Twitter to air his thoughts.

“I'd like some more honesty from the ladies posting 'imagine me as your teacher/ doctor/ sanitation worker' with their pics. Something like 'imagine me as desperately seeking validation of my looks from thirsty strangers on the internet' would work. I mean...OWN your low self-esteem ladies!”

He isn’t the only one that the Imagine Me As Your Wife trend seems to have offended.

"Posting a sexy picture is one way to fight for space."

Baji Please, an academic and a writer, tweeted “This "imagine me as your wife" has to be the lowest of the trends on Twitter. Girls are literally demeaning themselves. All of this is faintly reminiscent of women objectification at the hands of beauty pageants.”

The tweets that criticise the trend seem to have been met with a considerable amount of approval from both men and women on the desi Twittersphere. One user commented, “When I see that [the pictures] I literally feel ashamed of how low my fellow girls can go.”

Clearly, girls taking sexy pictures of themselves and putting them up on Twitter has made people uncomfortable and it is important to ask why.

After all, we are part of a universal culture that sexualises young women. We write songs about underage girls, celebrate whenever a man gets together with a girl half his age and cash in on the fantasy of being Lolita-esque.

Closer to home, we push girls to think of marriage and children early on in their lives and rarely conceive of girls as anything more than an extension of their bodies. Yet, we also shame those girls for posting pictures in which they know they look good on the internet.

It is shockingly clear that no matter what they do or don’t do, girls can never win.

"After all, who is not looking for validation on the internet?"

Many will say that Imagine Me As Your Wife is part of the problem. Men sexualise young women and now girls are ‘sexualising’ themselves. Instead of railing against the conception of being someone’s wife, girls are now aspiring to be her.

Instead of deriding the sexy teacher trope that every teenage boy both snickers at and lusts over, girls are choosing to put on a pair of glasses and playing into the fantasy.

Fortunately for us, like many trends both on and offline, it is just not that simple. A girl posting a nice picture of herself on the internet and captioning it ‘imagine me as your wife’ can and should be read as an act of resistance.

It is no secret that the internet is a scary place for women. On the internet, women are slut-shamed and stalked, their pictures are leaked without their consent, they are made to feel ugly and small and stupid.

Men on the internet get a free pass to bully and harass women and many of them avail this opportunity frequently, revelling in the anonymity that the internet provides them.

Read more: The noose and the internet

In Pakistan, online harassment is so rampant that Nighat Dad, a human rights lawyer and feminist, thought it necessary to set up the Digital Rights Foundation, a research based advocacy organisation that envisions a ‘free internet’ in which women and minorities may exercise their right to freedom of expression while being able to protect their privacy.

The foundation even has a 24-hour cyber harassment helpline and reports that it has received over 2,000 complaints via the helpline in the past two years.

And this is just the internet. In Pakistan, like much of South Asia, the middle and upper middle classes are bound to notions of respectability and honour and place the burden of being ‘respectable’ and ‘honourable’ almost entirely on girls.

Girls may only leave the house for appropriate or approved purposes, must cover up and be demure and, most importantly, have no desire to be sexy.

Therefore, if a few girls post pictures of themselves looking fly then this is resistance whether the journalists, activists and academics of the desi Twittersphere like it or not.

In a world where women and girls are not made to feel welcome or secure, posting a sexy picture is one way to fight for space. That the pictures have been met with so much criticism only indicates the need to expand our stuffy views of what resistance can be, especially for women.

"Watching girls take control of a fantasy is a powerful thing."

But Imagine Me As Your Wife is actually much cleverer than we are currently giving it credit for. This is unsurprising because, of course, we only conceive of girls as vapid and never as clever.

The caption is so obviously playful. Asking someone to imagine something is worlds apart from stating any actual desire to be someone’s wife. In fact, it implies the opposite. You can look all you want, these girls are saying, but we are definitely out of your league.

The pictures themselves are also worthy of our attention and are an example of how heteronormative ideas of beauty can also be used to resist.

Yes, most of the pictures being posted are of fair-skinned and full-lipped girls with makeup on. They wear jeans, t-shirts and kurtas or are dressed up for weddings in lehnga cholis and saris.

The images espouse both conventional and aspirational ideas of beauty. However, it is important to note that the burden of changing the almost impossible beauty standard should not fall on these girls.

More importantly, there is some power in embodying the beauty ideal that many believe to be ‘wife material’ and then putting it up on Twitter for the world to see. This is powerful because it undercuts the trope of being beautiful but somehow unaware that you are.

In other words, being honourable and respectable, which is what society demands from its wives-to-be.

See also: Of being a woman and smoking in Pakistan

Lastly, there is the criticism that these girls are just looking for validation. The only legitimate response to this is to say, so what?

After all, who is not looking for validation on the internet? The internet is where many of us go to in order to look for community. From journalists offering their many opinions to activists posting long rants to teenagers who make and share memes, we all post and tweet and share in order to feel heard and seen.

Yet for some reason, only girls are shamed for using the internet to seek validation. Why? Because this is how the patriarchy operates, and every time we judge and deride women for seeking validation, we are complicit.

Honestly, I hope the Imagine Me As Your Wife trend doesn’t die out anytime soon and when it does, I hope it is followed by another trend that encourages girls to feel good about themselves and, in doing so, take up more space on the internet.

Watching girls take control of a fantasy — no matter how tired the fantasy may be — and use it for their own pleasure is a powerful and necessary thing. There is no better example of this than an exchange underneath A L I A’s pictures.

A follower commented “begum chai pila do aur hamare beta ka pamper change kardo”, an attempt to remind her of what a wife’s ‘duties’ are.

An unfazed A L I A simply replied, “Imagine karo, yaqin nahin.”

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