This morning began like so many others. In a sleepy haze, I shuffled around for my freshly-charged phone on my nightstand (groaning while remnants of my dream of a shirtless Rami Malek throwing darts at a picture of a certain Republican President’s orange face slipped away from my conscious mind). The anomaly came when, while filtering through emails of pathetic updates about online learning from my university, I noticed I had three new DMs on Instagram from people I follow. This was a rare occurrence as my DMs are mostly littered with requests from desperate men in India. Today, however, I had numerous requests to accept a certain challenge of posting a black and white photograph of myself in the name of female empowerment. *Cue the deeply disappointed sigh*

On a normal day, the word ‘challenge’ denotes a hardship of some kind in the form of a complex task or situation. In the age of social media, we have somehow skewed its definition to mean “posting a photograph of yourself in the name of an ostensibly good cause while looking conventionally attractive”.

Remember the #10YearChallenge that points out how hot you have gotten (specifically to your high school bullies)? The recent #WomenSupportingWomen #ChallengeAccepted arguably falls into this questionable category of ‘conquering the difficult task of building an online image’ as women bravely choose their most flattering selfie, slap a black and white filter on it (for a reason unbeknownst to them) and post in the name of sisterhood. Oh, if only I were that courageous.

So far, more than 3 million photos have been uploaded with the #ChallengeAccepted hashtag; many more have appeared without it. “The trend is still picking up with usage of the hashtag on Instagram doubling in the last day alone,” an Instagram spokeswoman said on Monday. “Based on the posts, we’re seeing that most of the participants are posting with notes relating to strength and support for their communities.”

But do these captions actually achieve tangible results?

While its inception may have been to spread positivity and awareness to a cause (in this case, women empowerment), the execution of it largely falls short, as many of the accompanying captions to the sexy feed of black and white photographs are vague and self-serving. They inherently say nothing of substance, rather opting to preach about kindness and strength over shining a light on organisations that can help women on the ground level with job access or gender-based violence relief, etc.

Women in need, are you feeling empowered yet? No? Well, Cindy Crawford just posted her #ChallengeAccepted contribution that looks like an ad campaign in Vogue…so what about now?

How is this challenge actually helping women? I am all for instilling confidence in women (and people in general) but can’t we harness the power of social media to call attention to the thousands of more pressing matters that women face daily?

Do people not know that you can post a cute selfie for no apparent reason? Why use the guise of performative wokeness to do so?

“Ladies,” Alana Levinson, a writer, tweeted on Monday, “instead of posting that hot black-and-white selfie, why don’t we ease into feminism with something low stakes, like cutting off your friend who’s an abuser?”

Other women online suggested that instead of a black-and-white selfie, women should share photos of books, articles, products and charities that benefit women.

This trend is a prime example of activism being done on a surface-level to increase one’s social capital, rather than due to a dedication to the cause at hand. Its social-justice message feels a little hollow when the main focus is on the participants’ flawless faces.

And this is where the challenge’s main fault lies. Do people not know that you can post a cute selfie for no apparent reason? Why use the guise of performative wokeness to do so?

There are many suggestions of the origins for this challenge. Some say that it surfaced after Rep. Ted Yoho’s sexist attack on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which aligns with this supposed mission of women empowerment, yet includes no hashtags to speak to this event (#FuckingBitch would be great to claim the label, to be honest).

Others claim that this challenge has been around since at least 2016, with its original purpose of spreading awareness around cancer. If that’s the case then I am not more aware of the intricacies of cancer now than I was in 2016…because of photographs of women’s bras.

Once again the Instagramability of social justice causes takes precedent over its actual message in the age of aesthetic.

The most jarring of these potential causes lies in Turkey’s hatred and neglect of its women.

Recent protests have sparked in Turkey over the country’s high femicide rates, so social media users took to the internet to highlight the murder of its women. Some say that herein lies the challenge’s roots.

According to the now deleted tweets from New York Times writer Tariro Mzezewa, “The Turkish hashtags about domestic violence and femicide were dropped as the challenge went viral. The images were for women to bond “but MORE importantly that we know that we can be the next trending image and hashtag.”  Mzezewa also claimed that “the original accompanying hashtags were #kadınaşiddetehayır #istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır which I’m told translate to say no to violence against women & enforce the Istanbul Treaty/ Doctrine (where rights to protect women are signed.)”

(Check out this informative video by Elif Şafak Elif Shafak where she forgoes the black and white selfie in favor of raising awareness about the situation in Turkey right now. And click here for ways to help.)

With so many voices on where this challenge originated and why it’s around, do people truly know what they are contributing to? Or simply following the herd? Regardless of this challenge’s origins, whether it be cancer or gender-based violence awareness, it tragically fails to address any of them.

Once again the Instagrammability of social justice causes takes precedent over its actual message in the age of aesthetic (just look at #BlackoutTuesday, which had pure intentions but ended up overpowering important information regarding #BlackLivesMatter). I mean who would want to look at beaten up women with the stark red of blood staining their screens (and I mean actually injured women – not those who put makeup on to have their eye looked bruised to glamorize violence) when we can instead look at selfies of those who have perfectly winged eyeliner under the classy black and white filter?

So, while the ‘tag-you’re-it’ nature of the challenge urges you to @ a few women you like to share their own tastefully hot selfies, and for them to subsequently ‘challenge’ a handful of other strong, independent women to carry the torch (of course they must also add the hashtags #WomenSupportingWomen and #ChallengeAccepted for optimal empowerment), ask yourself if you could better spend your time educating yourself on the actual life-threatening challenges women face in their daily lives and how you could help them in tangible ways.

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  • Kajal Premnath

    Kajal Premnath is a journalist, writer and editor based in South Africa. She enjoys interrogating the ways in which representations of diverse cultures and social justice issues in popular media affects everyday life. Kajal is obsessed with dogs, hates cheese, and believes "Jane the Virgin's" Rogelio de la Vega to be her alter ego.