Challenge accepted? Why I think Instagram's new ‘empowerment’ trend is meaningless

How does a monochrome image of oneself, not of the women you want to elevate, champion gender equality?

Celebrities such as Kerry Washington, Khloe Kardashian and Nicole Scherzinger have taken part in the Challenge Accepted trend
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Opinion: Every so often, social media becomes gripped by a trend that looks good but is truly vapid. This is one of those moments.

You may have come across it on your Instagram feed by now – a black and white photo of a female friend or celebrity with the caption “challenge accepted”.

Most posts have little else to go on if you’re trying to find the point, except maybe a line about “uplifting women” or the hashtag #WomenSupportingWomen.

The challenge intends to promote female empowerment, and asks participants to tag other women so that they, too, can post flattering, filtered or fun photos of themselves on their feed. All in the name of feminism, of course.

So far, the hashtags #ChallengeAccepted and #WomenSupportingWomen have garnered millions of posts on Instagram, and the trend is catching up on Twitter, too.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the origins of this trend, although early participants include Vanessa Bryant, the wife of the late basketball player Kobe Bryant, and celebrities such as Cindy Crawford, Jennifer Garner and a Kardashian or two.

I get it – social media is theatre. It's curation. It's performance. We all experience times when we want to show off a little bit of our lives and experiences, myself included

“I am awed by the power of women lifting each other up!!!!!,” the actress Kerry Washington said on Instagram, accompanied by a photo of herself looking radiant in a straw hat.

“It’s so empowering to see #womensupportingwomen,” wrote singer Nicole Scherzinger on Twitter. “Nothing makes more sense. We are the only ones who truly know what we go thru.” Her lips are puckered into a kiss.

Like me, you may be asking – so, what does this do for women, exactly?

The answer, in my opinion? Not much.

I get it – social media is theatre. It’s curation. It’s performance. We all experience times when we want to show off a little bit of our lives and experiences, myself included. In fact, selfies and “felt cute” pictures by friends that show up on my feed usually get a double tap.

But a self-portrait masquerading as activism or empowerment is lazy and, ultimately, meaningless. Whatever cause you may be purporting to support would benefit more from the sharing of resources about that topic.

I’m certain that most of the participants mean well. They’re not spewing hate, but they’re spreading something else that is detrimental in its own way – a passive, performative attitude towards issues that matter.

Trends like #ChallengeAccepted can lull us into thinking we’ve accomplished something, and it allows those who may not necessarily take action beyond social media to bask in self-satisfaction and win virtual approval.

This has been going on for years, from the "Pray for Paris" filters on Facebook in 2015 to the blue avatars for Sudan in 2019 and, more recently, the black square for Blackout Tuesday to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Even Challenge Accepted echoes another black and white selfie trend from 2016 that used the same hashtag in an effort to raise cancer awareness.

These trends come and go. And yes, social media might not be real life, but it can be an extension of it. It can also be very powerful. Think of the many instances when brands, politicians and bigots have been called out on platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, forcing the individuals or companies involved to confront their corrupt or hurtful actions.

Despite the problem of fake news, social media has also been instrumental in giving social justice movements a voice and helping document atrocities, especially if traditional media fails to fully represent them. The videos of protests and police clashes in the US, for example, that appeared after the death of George Floyd, are continually uploaded online to highlight abuses of power.

In many other virtual spaces, I have seen individuals and communities fight traditional beauty standards and declare their rights to representation.

To compare these uses of social media to the self-promoting Challenge Accepted is to see how the black and white images and vague captions flooding our feeds are just taking up space.

Of course, people have the right to post what they wish on their own platforms. And I can accept that, for certain people, the sentiment of support surrounding this latest online challenge can be uplifting to some degree.

Though I would ask, if you truly wanted to uplift and support a female friend or colleague, would it not be better to send them a message and ask them how you can best do so? How does a monochrome image of oneself, not of the women you want to elevate, champion gender equality?

I especially ask these questions about celebrities who jump on opportunities to showcase their solidarity and "spread positivity" on their platforms – remember the cringe-inducing Imagine singalong led by Gal Gadot when the pandemic broke out? – but often end up endorsing little but themselves.

What I’m taking away from seeing these trends, which look unlikely to die out any time soon, is the need to consider how these platforms can be used more mindfully and with intention, so that they reflect our values, rather than our vanities.

The question of how we can empower others is something we have to consider for ourselves, in our households, workplaces and communities. Again, count me in on this. Those who truly care about these issues and movements as much as they claim to on social media know that there are more authentic and worthwhile ways to help beyond the smartphone screen.

And if, once in a while, someone wants to post a selfie on the beach or a throwback to a luxurious vacation, that’s OK, too; I’ll be sure to give it a like.