One defining attribute of the stereotypical Cool Girl is that she doesn’t care. The mundane does not phase her, the opinions of others are not important, and she would never waste her time chasing trends or boys. She’s far too cool for that. Of course, despite her lack of regard for others’ judgments, she is popular and envied by those who long to be so effortless and unique. What we run into with the stereotypical Cool Girl is the ironic contradiction of needing people to validate how interesting, effortless, and carefree she is. Of needing her rebellion to be accepted.
This mess of contradictions is exactly what we run into when we look at the region of the internet where the Cool Girl resides: Casual Instagram. On Casual Instagram, you will never find posed group pictures, vacation posts, or fit pics. There are no filters, edits, or hashtags. Much like the Cool Girl prides herself on being carefree, Casual Instagram prides itself on being the nonchalant antithesis of the smiling, visually coordinated aesthetic that dominates the majority of Instagram. On Casual Instagram, storefronts, shoelaces, ringed fingers, straight-faced selfies, graffiti, snacks, and plants have a chance to be featured. So long as your photo doesn’t have too much meaning or effort put into it, there’s a home for it here.
In theory, Casual Instagram is wonderfully refreshing. To share one’s life openly without regard for likes, comments, and general approval would be a giant middle finger to a society that is constantly telling you to conform and perform. However, the reality of Casual Instagram is one of just as much curation, worry, and judgment as any other subculture of the app.
By nature, Instagram demands curation. You choose what photos you put up and everyone who is digitally connected to you sees the choice you’ve made. The photos then stay on a grid connected to your personal handle until you choose to take them down. With so many eyes on what you are doing digitally, it is impossible to not put some inkling of thought into what you put up. There is some degree of choice that must go into the matter of posting. The problem arises when people start to pretend that this is not true. This is what we run into with Casual Instagram.
Casual Instagram rejects the notion of curation while it curates. It claims to be an authentic and “casual” picture of real life while it only features photos of things that, in some shape or form, fit a specific aesthetic or brand. So while my actual real life may be full of calling my mom, homework, and Swiffering, someone’s “real” life on Instagram seems to primarily consist of sunlit corners, trips downtown, and nights with friends. Casual Instagram creates a pseudoreality consisting of all the interesting and cool parts of real life while ignoring the repetitive and mundane.
Of course, nobody wants to see the repetitive and mundane. It makes sense that Casual Instagram is full of interesting details and honestly, the content itself is not the actual issue. The issue is the notion that this content is casual in any sense of the word. The majority of the people that I know who participate in Casual Instagram are incredibly cool, respected, and well-liked. They are aware that cool and casual are connected terms and they curate their Instagrams to match this aesthetic. They know what they are doing and ultimately, they care about what other people think. They want to be perceived a specific way—just like those who embrace a more conventional Instagram aesthetic.
This is human nature; it is by no means a bad thing that even the Cool Girls of Instagram care about others’ perceptions. I just wish this aesthetic was not advertised as casual. A truly casual Instagram would have to be entirely unaware of others’ perceptions, and while people over the age of 35 may be able to achieve this level of digital oblivion, nobody in Gen Z, much less Cool Girls, could ever be so out of touch.
Despite my awareness of the curation that goes into Casual Instagram, it still has a unique and strong tendency to make me feel inadequate. While conventional Instagram asks its viewers to feel “less than” on special occasions, Casual Instagram asks its viewers to admit that their day-to-day lives are far more boring, ugly, and plain than those they see online. It demands its participants to be on the constant lookout for something perfectly funny, cool, and niche; it makes life itself an aesthetic competition.
The pseudoreality of Casual Instagram is dangerous because it feels far closer to a picture of real life than a post of someone at their graduation or on their beach vacation. And while the current social pressure to admire this subculture is far too strong to detach from, I think the old reminder “Instagram is not real life” is more applicable than ever. Quite obviously, nobody’s life is an endless stream of cool outfits, pretty bits of nature, and laughing friends; although Casual Instagram may be casual by Instagram’s standards, it is nowhere close to real.
By Jill Risberg