An Anthropological Critique of Instagram #NoFilter Hashtags


What do you think of this Instagram image? Do you like it? How might you describe it? It’s filtered, obviously. A bit impressionistic? Dreamy? Hold those thoughts–I’ll return to this image in a moment.

I like Instagram and use it sporadically. Really, it’s like Facebook with less of the political, religious, capitalistic, and ideological redundancies to wade through on a daily basis. Chalk it up to my being a millennial, or my love of anything imagery-related. Pictures of your foodie exploits, your unbelievably adorable children, your cats lounging about in funny places, your color-streaked sunsets, your stereotypical but envy-inducing Eiffel Tower (and other travel) pictures, your teetering stacks of books beside your bed, your mocha foam art: please keep them coming.

But recently I’ve noticed at interesting phenomenon. More and more people seem to be appending the hashtag #nofilter or #NoFilter to their images. I see it under sunsets, nature shots, outdoorsy light flare-ups where the sun casts that surreal glaze that textures the rest of the image. What these hashtags mean—or at least my social scientifically informed  interpretation of them—is that the picture-taker wishes to make it clear that they by no means used a custom filter, provided by the Instagram smart phone application. The photographer took this picture themselves. They captured the image on their own and managed to be in just the right spot at the right time to do so. Sunlight (and lighting in general) is fickle, as both amateur and professional photographers know, and it’s hard to predict just how luminescence will appear on digital film. Regardless of these technical difficulties, no filter was needed. Thus, #nofilter.

One might analyze the #nofilter phenomenon as a legitimizing mechanism or strategy of authentication. The implication is that a #nofiltered image is more real, more accurate, more authentic, more true-to-life. You get the picture. According The Huffington Post, apparently #nofilter constitutes a veritable “social contract.” (But a contract to or for what? one might wonder. The hashtag is an authenticity contract. A purity contract. #nofilter is a purity pledge in the context of folk photographic practices and online social networking. The irony of my interpretation is that some anthropologists have questioned whether Instagram itself, and other socio-digital photographic applications such as Hipstamatic, are themselves authentification tools to make digital-age photographs appear more like those from the 1980s, the golden age of folk photographic practices.)

I’ve got mixed feelings about the hashtag, partly because as a graduate student part of my research has focused on media, technology, images, lived experience, and how people conceptualize the interplay between these domains. My biggest issue with #nofilter as a claim to realness or authenticity is that it ignores the fact that media studies scholars have long argued that a photographic image itself constitutes a theory of the world. Any photograph—any image—is a theory. A photo is a frame. A photograph is a filter. In my opinion, whether a photo uses an Instagram filter or bypasses the option and hashtags #nofilter instead, is irrelevant.

Go ahead, I guess, take credit for your unassisted, filter-free, photographic skill: #nofilter your Instagram images. #nofilter away. But do realize that by taking a photograph of any kind to begin with, you’ve already provided a filtered “reality” for the viewer. A photographed image—not unlike a video recording lens—is a theory. An Instagram image, #nofilter or not, is a filter.

So, that filtered Instagram image of a #barn I opened with. It’s not really realistic (whatever that means). But when I remember that day–the walk, the scent of the wildflowers flowers, my wife next to me, the bees buzzing by, the humidity hanging in the air–the image in my memory is pretty similar to this one, down to the humid haziness and blurred edges of vision. I’m not sure, then. Maybe this photo is pretty (read: subjectively, emotionally, experientially) realistic. One last thought: Does the medium itself (i.e., Instagram and it’s sensuous frames and filters) shape my memory or does the medium simply do a good job representing what I remember about that day?

I’m not sure. But long live photographs. Long live #filters.



Student journalist Natalie Rowthorn, in a recent op-ed to the Indiana Daily Student titled “The era of the legging must end,” expresses strong opinions about one particularly controversial article of clothing that goes by many names: yoga pants, tights, or leggings. Leggings, as Rowthorn identifies them, are too convenient due to their ease of outfit planning and all around comfortable fit. In a description of her typical morning dress routines, she writes, employing a flurry of dashes, that

I rummage through my drawers and yank out the first semi-clean shirt I can find and grab my favorite pair of black leggings off the floor next to my over-worn flip-flops. Boots if it’s fall. 

Rowthorn’s complicity as a frequent wearer of leggings segues into abrupt critique:

This is the outfit of disaster, people. Or, should I say, ladies. Maybe I’m being a little dramatic but it seems that the young women of America love wearing their leggings a little too much.

But what is the source of Rowthorn’s criticism? Why–given leggings’ convenience and practicality–does she oppose them? Rowthorn’s sartorial critique stems from a recent study abroad trip in which the student was exposed to high French culture and fashion. Leggings, Rowthorn discovered, are not a universal phenomenon:

This is an American problem. While spending this summer abroad in the south of France, I did not spot a single French man, woman, or canine sporting a pair of leggings–not a single being (besides my fellow Americans, of course). . . .  I made this shocking realization. I was the slobby one. While sporting a pair of leggings, I made my way around, slowly realizing that not only was I a foreigner, I was an outcast, a fashion abomination. 

French style assulted Rowthorn in all of her slobbiness as she meandered around fashion current Parisian streets. Back in the hotel room, thoroughly embarrassed, Rowthorn rights her ways and swaps inappropriate and super-casual leggings for something more fashion worthy: a floral print sundress. The style convert now finishes her tirade against American and particularly college sartorial sense:

I’ll say it bluntly. America, we look like slobs. Sure, we’re practically dressed for class [when donning leggings]. But when we finally graduate college and enter the real world, one without red solo cups and tailgates, we must also relinquish our leggings.

She balances out her critique with a final disclaimer, however, in which she redeems the use of leggings in limited circumstances and contexts:

I’m not saying all college women should trash their leggings and never wear them ever again. I’m just saying we should re-evaluate the occasions for which they are appropriate. Save leggings for that dreadful 8 a.m. discussion class on Fridays, not dinner with the parents. 

Let’s put Rowthorn’s op-ed to the side, momentarily, to consider another critique of the leggings phenomenon. Evangelical writer Phylicia Duran, who blogs at Phylicia Delta: Approaching God’s Grace in Red High Heels and writes on issues of fashion, faith, and modesty, sees her work as helping to instruct Christian women. In one post, titled “That Day I Wore Yoga Pants,” Duran denounces the pants. Like Rowthorn, Duran describes the appeal of the article of clothing’s sheer functionality or practicality as she prepared to head to they gym:

Hurriedly I raked through my second dresser drawer in the dim light of the unlit closet, scrambling for pants of some kind. Finding some, I grabbed a work out shirt, jammed feet into tennis shoes and breathlessly answered the door for Mr. M. . . . The pants I had found in my harried search were work out capris — otherwise known as yoga pants.

Personally, Duran makes clear, she likes yoga pants:

I like them because not only are they comfortable — as all yoga pants are — but I look trendy. . . . I like that look, regardless of the consequences. 

But there are consequences. 

At this point my anthropologist ears perk up. Why are there consequences? What exactly is wrong with wearing the pants? What’s her rationale? The issue, for Duran, is modesty. Denouncing yoga pants has to do with sartorial choice as it does for Rowthorn, but in Duran’s rationale modesty trumps fashion preference. In the latter’s mind, wearing yoga pants is immodest:

The issue isn’t yoga pants at all, but the principle of the matter. The pants are skin tight. You can see every curve of my lower body. Not only is it attractive to Mr. M [her husband], but from several other informal interviews, comments, and input from other men, it’s a recurring blind spot with Christian women everywhere. It’s about how hot I look, or how I want to dress, regardless of what anybody thinks. 

Wearing yoga pants contradicts the advice given to her by her husband and other Christian men. Yoga pants, and other revealing/immodest/form-fitting/short-hemline/tight types of clothing generate lust in men. And lust, she writes, corresponds directly to the ways women dress and present their (em)bodied selves. The level of men’s lust toward women’s bodies, in fact,

is directly related to how much of our bodies is available to lust after. The less we advertise, the less opportunity we give them to covet our bodies.

Avoidance of sin does cut both ways, though, in Duran’s conception. Men are responsible for not sexually objectifying women’s bodies, yes, but only partially so:

It is not just his job not to look: it is our responsibility to provide nothing provocative to look at. We cannot blame men for what we instigate, and it is time for women of God to start acknowledging our responsibility in this matter, taking up our cross, and honoring God with our dress. 

Mr. M himself even contributes a quote to the post:

Yoga pants make it difficult to work out [at the gym or fitness center] when the girls are right there and the pants are so tight, it’s basically like the woman is naked.

Duran and Mr. M are very clear on the matter: Honoring God requires that women abstain from wearing yoga pants. Yoga pants are immodest and lead to men’s sexual sin. They are, as she writes later in the post, a particularly powerful “visual stimulant.”

Rowthorn and Duran, then, reach an identical conclusion: Women ought to stop wearing yoga pants. The means by which the writers go about reaching that conclusion, though are different. Rowthorn’s method is largely a sartorial one. For her what is at stake is the fashion identity of American women. Duran’s method, to the contrary, is a religious or moral one. What is at stake is the purity, modesty, and physical-spiritual health of Christian women and men. Two strategies, one outcome. Two rationales, one pronouncement. Leggings as slobby fashion choices; yoga pants as immodest and revealing articles of clothing. Both writers, though, work to mark yoga pants as dangerous and taboo.

As always, when I’m analyzing the creation and maintenance of social taboos, social anthropologist Mary Douglas informs my thinking. In her seminal work, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concept of Pollution and Taboo, Douglas advances the argument that all cultural groups, operating within some sort of social system, engage in processes of separation, tidying, purification, cleansing, and demarcating–all for the purpose of unifying group experience and reinforcing social schema or patterns. Certain things, however, arise in social settings that pose a threat to the ordered system; these new problems threaten the order of the system and must then be policed and managed by social authorities. Such contagions Douglas categorizes as polluting, dirty, anomalous, discordant, ambiguous, and untidy. These things that don’t fit within established social schema must either be (i) accommodated into said system, that is, explained, categorized, and accounted for, or (ii) rejected as polluting and dirty.

The yoga pants controversy, I’d argue, exemplifies Douglas’s second point. Yoga pants are ambiguous in terms of wardrobe, right? (What exactly are they? Work-out pants? Athletic apparel? Lower-body layers under dresses and skirts?) The voices above, while they only partially appropriate the clothing (Rowthorn: leggings fine for early a.m. classes; Duran: yoga pants not inherently evil, just not to be worn in public situations under which one might be subjected to male gaze), work more adamantly to dismiss the clothing altogether. Yoga pants, then, are dangerous. Wearing them threatens either (i) style/fashion/sartorial taste (i.e., leggings as a “fashion abomination”) or (ii) religious/modesty/purity standards. Either way, they’re denounced and rejected.

Not all of my questions as a social and cultural theorist are immediately cleared up, however. We witness two seemingly differentiated pollution strategies being employed, but for what appears to be a shared purpose or outcome. But how related are the two tactics? According to Douglas, the presence of dirt signals the existence of system. In our case two methods pertain, but do both relate back to a singular normative system? And what are the implications of a society (or loosely-aligned sub-societies) that monitor and police the bodies of one (gendered) segment of its population but not others?

Image credit: Hegemony77 (Creative Commons)