My Pins, My Self: Getting Pinned and Liking It

I work in tech, and over the past few weeks I’ve found myself in various conversations about the resounding success of Pinterest. The site just reached 10 million users, and is growing rapidly. But something I’ve repeatedly been hearing from my male colleagues is that they don’t quite get it. They have accounts, and they’ve played around with it, but they don’t understand why it’s so appealing. Meanwhile, I have to impose an embargo on Pinterest during work, because if I start, I won’t be able to stop. So their confusion, in turn, puzzled me. What’s to get?

sample pin
A sample pin.

Pinterest users are overwhelmingly female. What you see, when you go on Pinterest, is mostly retail. Clothes, shoes, and home goods are a huge category. Another is food. Wedding pins are a huge subset, as are children’s accessories. Travel photos, crafts, jewelry, and design are other common pins. It’s head-scratchingly stereotypically female. Which led me to wonder: Is Pinterest fundamentally feminine in some way?

The answer is no. Pinterest isn’t feminine. Pinterest is a natural offshoot of reading women’s magazines.

I’m not going to dissect the evolution of women’s magazines better than n+1’s Molly Fischer, who traced writing for women from the flawed vehicle of women’s magazines to the differently flawed, but still flawed, vehicle of mainstream “ladyblogs.” Whether or not her criticisms are valid, I think that she accurately and importantly identifies a community of women who used to read magazines voraciously and now exist mainly on the Internet. Perhaps ladyblogs (like this one) have become the new, better forums for community engagement and writing for women. Pinterest, meanwhile, has turned itself into the arm of women’s magazines that I believe we had a more complicated relationship with – those gorgeous layouts and photoshoots that depicted the world we wanted to live in. And significantly, that world was often based in retail goods. As I thought back to how I used to read magazines, it struck me that the process was very similar to how I use Pinterest today.

Buying a magazine was not just about reading what was inside, after all – it was also an opportunity to define yourself by its niche, and to be influenced by the tastemakers who created it. And so if you read Vogue you were a certain kind of woman; if Cosmo, another. But all of these magazines, if they had a visual component, sold something. Not just through their advertisements, but through their features and editorials. Sometimes they sold actual things, like clothes, makeup, books, accessories, and home goods. But the products were often astronomically priced, far out of reach for most people. Though the magazine layouts featured salable goods, mostly they sold a lifestyle. They sold feelings and beliefs, ideals and values. They sold romance, and they sold dreams.

Like many of you, I grew up reading women’s magazines. There was a brief golden period of frequent flier miles when you could trade in miles for magazine subscriptions. Through this I got Vanity Fair, Vogue, Food and Wine, and InStyle delivered to my house at one time or another. I supplemented these with a heavy rotation of grocery-store impulse buys: Jane was my favorite, but I’d settle for Seventeen or Cosmopolitan in a pinch. (I still have all of these magazines shoved into a closet in my parents’ house. It’s a surprisingly comprehensive timeline of the decline of women’s magazines, from 1998 to 2004.)

By the time I was in high school, the way I would read these was almost formulaic. I’d settle down in front of the television, rewatching a Julia Roberts movie, and I would tear an entire magazine apart. I might give it a quick scan first, but the point of having the magazine was to cut it into pieces. I’d rip out interesting articles from time to time, but it was far more important to tear out pictures: fashion shoots, travel destinations, interior design, food porn. Pull-quotes overlaid prettily on charming photos of Europe. Advertisements and original content were equally interesting, if they caught the eye. When the process was over, the magazine was just binding, glue, and discarded images. I’d harvested what was most important into a pile of my own pictures, which often included the cover.

bcbg ad
Very representative of the type of advertisement I would pull from a magazine. (Fatima Siad for BCBG Max Azria)

In my experience, the girls I knew had different ways of handling their hoard of clips. Some might go into scrapbooks or inside lockers. I knew some people who would modge-podge magazine cutouts onto their class notebooks. My clippings went on my walls. I’d never thought about it this way before, but you could even argue that I had different boards, because different sections of my room were devoted to different topics. There was a whole section of anime, of course. In high school, the wall over my dresser became a Hollywood board, with movie stars and stills from film. The back of my door ended up becoming eye-catching magazine photography. My closet doors were almost entirely interesting advertisements. I had a few smaller collections: people who I thought looked like fictional characters, the Backstreet Boys, the Lord of the Rings (yikes). I even had a whole section from bridal magazines. Neither the clipping nor the organizing itself was well thought-out. In fact, the more I did think it through, the less my clips meant to me. I was looking for something, and I found it in that moment.

What was I looking for? It could have been anything, really. The way a dress draped over a model’s body. Black-and-white photos of starlets in exotic locales. Interesting one-page columns, like “How to dress like Alias’ Sydney Bristow” or “Silver bracelets from around the world.” “57 Things Every Woman Should Know” – written by a man, of course. Candid photographs of Johnny Depp. Stills from my favorite movies. I was looking for photos, layouts, or quotes that would strike a chord within me – that would resonate with some romantic idea of who I wanted to be. Because I was 15 or 16 when I was going through these magazines, when I saw a photo of a model ascending an airstair wearing a voluminous Michael Kors violet gown, I knew that someday my life would look like that. I wasn’t sure how or when, but it was very clear to me that this vision of femininity was what I wanted. It was the same feeling I got watching Friends or listening to Enya (double yikes) or reading Marian Keyes books. A vision of being an older, more capable woman, financially comfortable, drinking cocktails and going on dates and decorating my apartment in Manhattan.

Fast-forward ten years, and the realities of the economy and rents in Manhattan made much of this vision not true. But that was okay. Because magazines were so pass̩, anyway. This packaged lifestyle they were selling us Рwhose life was that, really? Could anyone afford any of these clothes? Was anyone so privileged as to be walking up an airstair in a Michael Kors gown at the age of 22? Was it even possible to clamber up those stairs in a ball gown? As I grew up, magazines could no longer sustain those lifestyle fantasy.

Perhaps that’s just a byproduct of growing up, but I do think the coming of age of the Internet had something to do with it. As online publications flourished and the Internet came of age, taste decentralized. Now the editors of Vogue aren’t the only people that will tell you what to wear; Tavi Gevinson and Bebe Zeva will, too. They might pull stuff from Vogue, but that won’t be the only publication they’re looking at. We aren’t limited to the magazines we get in the mail – we can see all the things, to quote Allie Brosh. There is this sense that we are better than being told what to care about. We no longer have to pay Vogue five dollars to have Anna Wintour tell you what to think about fashion – we can read a blog for free, or better yet, publish our opinions ourselves.

I’m very happy with this stance, by and large. That obsessive magazine reading created expectations for my life that it was going to be impossible to fulfill, especially in the worst recession since the Great Depression. It was nice, as I got older, to feel like I’d intercepted that constant striving towards some sort of beauty or lifestyle ideal I wasn’t going to achieve, and could channel it towards making my own life rewarding, on its own terms.

And then Pinterest came along – and I liked it.

pinterest screenshotWhat I do with Pinterest is arguably almost exactly what I did with magazines growing up. A crucial difference is that I don’t know where the content comes from, though much of it looks like professional catalog or fashion photography. But I feverishly add to my boards with the same diligence I papered the walls of my bedroom – to reflect some idea of who I am, and further, who I want to be.*

The success of Pinterest suggests that it’s not just me who is drawn to this aspirational expression. But I’ve noticed something interesting about the Pinterest community: There’s a self-awareness to this aspiration, too. A common type of pin that floats around from time to time reads something like this: “Pinterest: to plan the weddings we can’t afford, to raise the children we don’t have, and decorate the houses we don’t live in.”

It seems like most of us on Pinterest are in on the joke – we’re buying into a fantasy lifestyle, and selling it to each other. Some of us may be using our boards to plan a real-life event, or to give us ideas for a concrete occurrence, but I think most of us are updating our dream scrapbooks – fully aware those dreams may never happen, but indulging in the fantasy anyway.

But: A little voice in the back of my head says, “Pinterest is how you express yourself”¦ through stuff.” And it’s true that at times Pinterest feels like aggressive Internet window-shopping.

Pinterest the business, I believe, is hoping to leverage on the stuff. It puts pricetags on pins when it can detect a dollar sign, and it gives you the option to search for “Gifts” with different price ranges when you’re browsing. As fun as it is to express yourself, Pinterest is here to make money. Further, it seems like this is exactly what the women’s magazines have primed me for: to express myself through my purchasing power, to bind up inextricably my sense of my future self with my sense of my future things.

But it’s interesting that so many of the pins on Pinterest aren’t attached to a pricetag. They’re more about the idea of the product, or what can be done with the product, than the product itself. I do not pretend to argue that with our pinboards we are not buying into a culture of stuff. But we buy into a culture of stuff by doing a lot of other things, too.

In other words, readers, I can’t really decide if Pinterest is a materialistic retail vehicle, an extremely fun way to shop for shoes, a torturous promoter of a life I’ll never live, or an Internet scrapbook to keep tabs on what I’m excited about. What do you think, readers? Do you have Pinterest accounts? What do you use it for? How does it work for you?

[Find me on Pinterest here.]

[Check out Sally’s how-to article if you’re interesting in making Pinterest work for you.]

41 thoughts on “My Pins, My Self: Getting Pinned and Liking It”

  1. I don’t know that Pinterest is necessarily a materialistic retail vehicle that encourages us all to become shopaholics. I mean, sure, there is that one aspect of it, and I have one pinboard called “Want List” with all kinds of random stuff I’d like to have. But the rest of it is fashion and style ideas (mostly for hair), DIY and upcycle projects that are pure genius, recipes I have actually used and others that I honestly plan to use if I ever get less lazy about cooking, potential travel destinations, and a shit ton of print and web designs that I save for later inspiration when I need help with my ideas for design projects. Oh yeah, and the obligatory “Quotes and Words of Wisdom.”

    When I go to my Pinterest boards, I want to feel inspired or happy, and it’s kind of like I can build my own world to make that happen, you know? So that’s what I get out of it.

  2. I use Pinterest mainly to promote my Etsy shop. But to combat the endless stream of Carefree White Manic Pixie Dreamgirl Thinspo juxtaposed with glamour shots of food, I created boards for Lech Walesa and 20th Century dictators making funny faces. It’s high time I added one for Putin.

    I got started down the weird-Pinboard rabbit hole when I found one called “Surgeries I’ve Done.” (Not for the faint of heart or stomach, if you’re thinking of searching for it.)

  3. I fucking love my Pinterest. A friend sent me an invite with a message “How do you NOT have this? It was made for you.” Truth. After I signed up, I went to all my favorite blogs and pinned the crap out of all the source docs I used as references. I could compile images for the styles I was thinking about (beats Polyvore), I could save color swatches I wanted to use for my house (design-seed.com is another favorite site), I could build inspirational piles of stuff from glittery makeup to loose braids. One pin I found led me to cut my bangs a different way and I have been getting compliments right and left. I share recipes, store them to use later or just dream of making.

    The reason all of this works for me so well is because I remember visual cues. Each pin is a picture memory that leads me directly to a source or group. It’s better than a list of bookmarks, torn out pages that are just pages, or long forgotten descriptions of boots I once saw on a site I can’t remember.

    Also, and this is a new and fun part that I totally exploit, I pin friends’ Etsy accounts like crazy. I pin postings from blogs that friends write. I pin quotes that I want my friends to read – either to lift them up or give them a laugh. It is a social medium after all. All about spreading the word.

    I love it. It’s just perfect for me. (and actually, I have a few guy friends on it, they pin good stuff)

     

  4. Maybe this explains why I keep rejecting the offer of invitations to Pinterest.  I was never much for clipping photos or ads from magazines and I never kept a ‘someday’ kind of scrapbook.

    If this is a good description of what Pinterest is, meh.  I’ll pass, thanks.

     

     

  5. I have a pinterest account and I mainly have been using it to look at tattoos.  I’m planning a fairly significant tattoo and can’t draw for crap so I plan to bring in several pictures to my first consultation with an artist and explain what I do and don’t like about each.  On pinterest I can collect all my inspirations in one place, see them all together and find more.

    Other than that I do just like the idea that I can pick what I want to pin based on my taste and not have to consult with anyone about it.  I live with my boyfriend and decorating this place is a major source of arguments.  On pinterst I don’t have to compromise on someone else’s ugly posters. It’s a much needed outlet.

    I never did the clip from magazine thing when I was young.  And now I don’t pin much stuff that I don’t intend to actually come back to.  I do follow a fair amount of fashion, cute animals, home design, and nature photography and so on from other people, but mostly I just like to look.  I’m very picky about what I pin and “curate” to make sure everything I do pin represents me.  This is probably similar to the same personality traits that made me recoil at putting up photos of celeb crushes in my lockers, I’m too private.

    1. Also like others have said, it’s much more fun when you follow people and boards that intrest you.  Many of my friends are into cooking and knitting and crafting and I’m just not interested.  The food pins make me hungry, I’m never ever ever going to cook the delicious looking food I see there, I just end up mindlessly snacking in front of the computer, so I unfollowed all the food.  Easy.

  6. I actually find many of the things on Pinterest quite attainable. Sure, I can’t afford a gorgeous, gigantic house right now, but I can always pin for inspiration. I get great style ideas from random street style pics, find interesting nail designs I can replicate, and stockpile recipes that I know I can make. I’ve also pinned several DIY items for future use. Oh, and I see all sorts of awesome geekery! Yeah, it is quite lady mag like with its consumer driven nature and focus on style and homes, but I stay away from what I don’t like. Really, I’m not even sure if that site could be pried from cold, dead hands. I hear rigor mortis gives you quite a grip.

  7. Great article and fun topic!

    I’ve been using Pinterest for quite a while now. I really like it. For me, it’s a master app: I used to have my “books to read” list on goodreads, my research links and recipe links on delicious, my visual research for my writing in a folder on my desktop, and my quilt patterns and craft ideas in binders. Now it’s all in one place.

    I think it helps to 1. only subscribe to smart and interesting people; 2. if someone still pins something you don’t like, unfollow that board immediately; 3. customize your boards to your own needs rather than sticking to the defaults; and 4. pin things only because you find them useful, not because you think it will make other people think you’re cool. I don’t know why anyone follows my writing links, honestly.

    I know plenty of men who use Pinterest, but they mostly work in design, so for them it’s a natural fit.

    I always wonder about the phenomenon of people pinning super-expensive shoes or spaces out of Architectural Digest…is this bad for them? Will it make them dissatisfied with their own lives? Or, do they enjoy the emotional benefit of “owning” something by proxy that they will never be able to afford in real life? Maybe both…

    & hey, here’s me over there! But seriously, unfollow the boards that can only be interesting to me.

    http://pinterest.com/bryn_donovan/

     

  8. I’ve used it to replace my bookmarks. I had a whole slew of recipes and paint colors and tutorials all stored on my bookmarks folder but the names rarely made any sense to me anymore. I migrated a lot of them to Pinterest. It makes it so much easier to find, say, the hobo bag I meant to make, or those cupcakes I liked, or to compare all 40 different gray paint pictures so I can finally figure out which I like.

      1. I strangely feel more free not having all that stuff cluttering up my bookmarks (which are organized, but still). Its the same amount of information, yet somehow I feel lighter? Its weird, I know.

        However there was also the strange gratification of one of the tutorials I’ve been hoarding for years getting repinned all over the place. I didn’t even create it, but it was basically a pat on my head for my good taste in once thinking I’d sew this skirt.

        1. I’m also strangely ticked when people repin something I put on there. One of the reasons I actually bit the bullet and signed up was to see if my old job has a store board like Sally talked about a couple weeks ago. They don’t, but several people had pinned totes I designed when I was there. Big ass grin on my face. I still can’t decide if I should repin them all or if that would be way too dorky. I did repin the picture of my hand  holding a champagne bottle that Selena posted on the PMag board. I’m Pinterest-famous! (Not really.) And I get vicarious glee from anything repinned from PMag. People like us; they really really like us!

  9. I’m 20, and so I’m still in school, still in a dorm. I’ve shared a room my whole life. Pinterest just consolidates what I was already jotting down in Word and the pictures I’ve dragged off the internet: my dream house. Obviously, I have to start somewhere, and its better to plan it out now then to have some house down the line and not know what the hell to do with it. Or what I’m looking for. Its a way to actively visualize how I plan to live my life, cheesy as it sounds, let’s me dream on a website. Yeah, I’m buying into a fantasy, but I am gonna try my damndest to make it work one day, or at least some of it…my pinterest is relatively simple like that. Pretty dresses, DIY crafts like candles made in mason jars, and how to design a bedroom.

    Also, first post on Persephone! Chyeah!

  10. I just started using it and love it so far. The main issue I see with it is whether I’ll actually use any of the pins or if I’m purely collecting them for the sake of having them. I know I’m never gonna make every single cupcake I pin or make most of the crafts, but it gives me options.

  11. I’ve been thinking about why I don’t like Pinterest quite a bit lately.  Mostly because several friends who are addicts have been bugging me about my empty pin boards.  By all appearances a seem to fit perfectly into the pinterest demographic.  I’m in my 20s, very visual, love interior decorating, flea markets, shoes, DIY projects and cooking.  I’m also a self admitted magazine whore.  I stopped buying magazines and shifted myself over to blogs a few years ago when I started budgeting and figured out I was spending close to a grand a year on magazines.

    But I don’t get it.  Maybe I’ve become so disgusted with the materialism and sexism that exist in mainstream magazines that I’m not longer really interested in magazines and if nothing else pinterest is mainsteam.  I think Pinterest tends to drive people towards uniformity rather than spur creativity, which is what I’m looking for when I browse images, whether in a magazine or online.  Perhaps I just have my own system of storing ideas perfected and don’t want to change.  Perhaps I would like it better if I found pinners like myself that are bit outside of the norm.  I had such high hopes for Pinterest, but for now I think I’ll pass.

     

    1. I think Pinterest tends to drive people towards uniformity rather than spur creativity, which is what I’m looking for when I browse images, whether in a magazine or online.

      That is a really excellent thought. I’m not sure if I agree, but it’s certainly what women’s magazines did, too.

    2. My main issue with the site is that there’s nothing that any of my friends have pinned that I haven’t already seen somewhere else on the web – mostly on Tumblr.

      and they all have things like food and clothes and me? I’d have maps and science data.

      1. I’ve got a Pinterest board specifically for science — like many other romance writers, I’ve found Pinterest is great for finding a picture you can turn into words on a page.

        I get weirded out by the food ones — don’t know quite why. Latent resistance to a Martha Stewart-loving mother, I suppose.

  12. Ah, flashbacks to scrapbooks! I’m pretty sure they’re still in my parents’ attic somewhere.

    At the moment I use Pinterest like Evernote for images – to save images I find interesting/useful/inspiring for later. You curate your own content on there, so you don’t have to follow boards or posters you’re not interested or find draining – avoid the ‘suggestions’ when you first set up your account and it’s all good.

  13. I have a Pinterest account and, initially, it reminded me of just what you described – tearing things out of magazines and pinning them to a bulletin board. When I first joined, it seemed to be mostly crafts and recipes with some fashion and wedding stuff thrown in. I saw some people complaining about all of the “thinspiration” stuff on there but I haven’t really seen much of that, other than a bunch of fitness pins showing up around the first of the year, thanks to resolutions for the new year. So I think it just kind of depends on who you’re following. (And I don’t know how in the hell I ended up following certain people because I really don’t remember following them. I think Pinterest just picks them for you when you first sign up.)

    My problem with Pinterest lately is that the social media people have jumped on it as The Next Big Thing so now it’s just one more place that is no longer as fun for me because it’s filled with self-promotion and spam. In fact, I just saw yet another blog post today telling entrepreneurs how they can use Pinterest to promote their business. NO! STOP THAT! I haven’t spent nearly as much time on Pinterest in the past few weeks because I hate having to weed through (and go unfollow) all of the boards and pins that are nothing more than the promotion of links to articles and blog posts from people telling other people how to promote their business.

    I’m just hoping that the social media people (and I say this as someone who spent the past 4 years working in social media) don’t come in and ruin it for everyone. I like it better when it’s all about crafts and recipes and pretty pictures.

    Also, combining Pinterest with Polyvore is NOT recommended if you have things that need to get done, like sleeping and eating.

  14. I did, admittedly, have a giant-ass X-Files collage on my bedroom wall, made of photos cut from entertainment mags and printed out on an old inkjet printer. I just didn’t have a makeup/clothing interest (arguably still don’t). But I think I’m using Pinterest wrong — I should be searching for things that actually interest me rather than sifting through misspelled Christian aphorisms and thousand-dollar shoes.

  15. This is a really interesting point you’ve raised, and ties in directly to the reason I won’t go anywhere near Pinterest: all the thinspo crap that is on there. Magazines are one of the prime promoters of the unachievable body type we’re supposed try and have, and some of the pinners on Pinterest have taken that unachievable body type aspiration and turned it into something quite frightening, with pithy quotes and photoshopped images of supposedly perfect bodies that they will achieve, usually through unsafe means. It terrifies me that some one, particularly a teenage girl, might think that the thinspo stuff is helpful or good or positive in any way shape or form.

    I don’t read the vast majority of so called “womens” magazines for that reason, and I’m staying far away from Pinterest because of it, despite all the pretty pictures of shoes and interior design.

    1. It’s actually pretty easy to avoid the thinspo and other offensive bs. Right now I’m only following people I know (most of whom you know too!); none of them post that stuff and if they did I’d immediately either unfollow the specific “fitness” board they were pinning it to or unfollow them entirely. The “popular” page usually has a couple rage-worthy pins, but you don’t have to look at that page since the default home page just shows your followers. Pinterest does suggest pinners when you first sign up, but I just immediately unfollowed them all to avoid potentially being annoyed. I use keyword searches to look for recipes and craft ideas, and the “Pin It” bookmark button to pin stuff directly from the web.

    2. Wow, that is a really good point I completely forgot to address. The mainstream mentality of the perfect female body has totally migrated from magazines to Pinterest, in a very uncomfortable way. A lot of it is “motivation to go jogging!” etc, which makes me want to die inside. Thank you for bringing that up.

      1. No worries! I think your article was really well constructed, you can’t write about everything in one go!  It is something that really concerns me, I’ve had discussion with people who have eating disorders and said they found thinspo “comforting”, knowing there was someone else going through their issues. I could appreciate that, but the harm in making the harmful actions “comforting” really sat uneasily on me. However eating disorders are very complicated issue, and I’m not sure how best to address thinspo crap.

    3. Oh yes, that stuff is awful. I mean I almost never see it, because I don’t follow anyone who pins it.

      I do have a board about emotional and physical health, and it’s infuriating how hard it is to find good links to workouts and health things that don’t include perfect-looking models. As I said on one of my pins, I just want to be healthy and feel good, I’m not trying to look like a freaking underwear model. >:-(

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