“Do you hate looking in the mirror?” I don’t think there is a sentence on the planet that gets to the pain point of an entire gender faster than that question. Whatever your answer, the rhetorical one for women (for girls, really) is a resounding “Yes.” It’s a question that is posited to us from the moment we “get ready” in the morning and repeated throughout the day as we scroll through social media, survey the work landscape for the lowest acceptable level of cosmetic norms, gloss over targeted ads on the internet, and watch any amount of TV. It’s mindless, usually, until psychological effects begin to show, if in fact they ever do.
When I think about how many times I silently lob that question towards my own reflection as I apply lipstick in the rearview mirror, circle my eyes with liner, or send hostile thoughts towards my straw-straight hair, I start to feel like a bad feminist. I know, I know. We have options now. Altering your physical appearance fits in with a particular brand of choice feminism that seems to be everywhere. Especially on Instagram. Or, in the case of Hannah Huntley’s BFA thesis, Insectgram—an elaborate parallel platform (for bugs! In CMYK print!) constructed for the sole purpose of deconstructing why performative beauty makes us feels so bad.
To do this believably, the University of Nevada, Reno student built an exhibition, titled Imperfect Alterations, that uses the language of social media to undermine the platform. In the Insectgram universe, the question, “Do you hate looking in the mirror?” is actually the beginning of a sponsored ad for “Freddy’s Facial Fixes,”posted by a user called FreddysBeauty. It goes on, “Uncle Freddy has got you covered! Be the you you have always wanted to be!” A picture of a fly with and without human features backgrounds the text.
This print-posing-as-digital-ad is presented on the screen of a fake iPad that sits on a real dresser. Next to the dresser is a green, human-size, cartoonish hand-sewn caterpillar who stares at herself in the mirror, wearing a smiling expression that she appears to be stitching onto her own face, like the fly in the ad. Her physical presence, coupled with her back-towards-the-viewer-stance, gives gallery goers a vantage point from which to explore the rest of Insectgram, or at least the 18 posts that hang on the wall opposite the giant larva.
The posts, designed to look like iPhone screenshots, give the viewer glimpses of what is certainly known in the insect world as “beauty and lifestyle Insectgram.” With each post, the viewer begins to understand a little more about this strange yet familiar corner of the internet. We learn that the caterpillar has her own account and goes by the handle “princessbarb” from a photo she has posted of her sewn-on smile, complete with caption “new face new me #makeover #beauty #better.”
We also find out that Insectgram is populated by a lot of the same content as its human counterpart—sexy selfies, makeover posts, engagement rings that sit atop flowers, and lots and lots of SponCon. The insects make denial posts about surgical work they may have had done, promote spider porn, and try to eliminate all the hair on their thoraxes. All users are female, while all products are attached to male names, reminding the viewer that the male gaze is omnipresent, even if you happen to have six legs and eat poop.
There are also some beauty phenomena unique to the universe of bugs. Insectgram users covet #humanfaces and something called “flubs” which I believe are just “curves.” Wings, especially, seem to represent a certain kind of ideal body standard here. Users take “welfies” or “wing selfies” and many reference becoming a part of an elite squad called Weston’s Angels, the insect equivalent of Victoria’s Secret Angels.
One user, a blue caterpillar who goes by the name “suzieblueface,” posts a picture of herself with a new pair of flower-shaped red and orange wings. She captions her photo, “I can’t believe I am finally a #westonsangel. I feel #complete #beautiful.” Several other Weston’s Angels posts—including some ads—pop up on Princess Barb’s feed.
The posts seem to make an impression on the impressionable young caterpillar because the next time we see Princess Barb, she is lying on her back in the gallery bay next to the dresser scene, sewing a pair of flower-shaped red and orange wings onto her blue body. Wait … I thought she was green??!! OMG. Princess Barb has not only copied Suzie Blue Face’s wings, she has also dyed herself blue to match her favorite Insectgram influencer. That is super thirsty, Barb.
It’s more than a little embarrassing how easy it is to get caught up in the drama of Insectgram, but such is the magnetic vortex of social media one-upmanship. Not exactly the cause of our self worth issues, but definitely a magnifying force that takes any insecurities that might be brewing offline and counters them with post after post of welfies and flubshots. If nothing else, Huntley’s thesis marks a departure from the tepid non-stance of mainstream my-feminism-is-not-your-
Insectgram works because it’s funny, and it’s funny because it’s true. It also doesn’t hurt that Huntley’s subject matter is charming and seems to be in conversation with other printmakers in the UNR orbit. Teal Francis’ sartorial animals come to mind as well as Eunkang Koh’s Instagram foodie paintings and “Plastic Surgery” print series, which also plays with the idea of surgically altered beasts.
Sometimes, saying it with animals provides a much needed buffer to the hard truths we don’t want to see in ourselves. It’s easy to look at Princess Barb and recognize the toll that invasive beauty regimens have taken on her relationship with her body. How empowering is it, really, for Barb to acquire a new face? A pair of wings? An Insectgram following? I love this artist for making us ask these questions. Please make more art, Hannah. And please make Insectgram real, God.