In her Lucknow colony, Razia Zaidi, 85, was popular. Her neighbours considered her efficient, and sought her advice on everything from arranging local events to raising children. Forced to move to New Delhi due to her husband’s ill health three years ago, Zaidi lost friends, but more importantly, “lost the witnesses of her abilities”.”When no one around knows your capabilities, it is easy to forget them yourself. Here, I am just an old woman, sometimes frail, sometimes infirm. That woman who knitted well, argued well, topped her Aligarh Muslim University graduation class exists for no one,” Zaidi said.
However, she found her “witnesses” — and that woman — again. This time on Instagram.
To keep herself occupied, Zaidi had started learning Arabic on Duolingo. She shared her progress on her Instagram profile that a younger relative had created. “Congratulations poured in. Suddenly, I once again had people who knew I was capable, who recognised my salahiyyat (competence). It was very heartening.”
Like Zaidi, many older women have turned to Instagram to share their interests, build a business, to find a community, and an audience. They are not looking for fame or ‘going viral’. With children grown up and finally some time to spare for themselves, these women are using the platform to tell the world: “I am”.
“In India, 73% of Instagram business accounts that self-identify as women-owned business were set up since the start of the pandemic. Reels especially has been a place where women have led movements on body positivity, mental health, diversity, and sustainability, in addition to driving trends in genres such as food, fashion and education,” Paras Sharma, Head of Content & Community Partnerships, Meta, told The Indian Express.
Many of these women have profiles on other social media platforms too, but Instagram has some advantages. First, its algorithm makes it easier to engage only with the subjects one is interested in. Second, for women above 50, an Instagram profile is a fresh start — where, unlike Facebook, they aren’t already connected with their family members and neighbours.
Urmila Bhadoria, 60, has two pages on Instagram, easylivingwithurmila and easycookingwithurmila. Bhadoria walked out of her marriage when her husband cheated on her, with two toddlers to raise on the salary of a nurse in Kanpur. “Initially, I would feel very sad. I would think, I am so pretty, how did this happen to me. Then I read a line somewhere, ‘Forget your face, polish your brain’.” Bhadoriya began reading more, tried to look for people who could teach her new things, but found little help. “Society prefers women cooped up, heads down, brains empty. Joining Instagram broadened my horizons.”
She found like-minded people in the comments sections, and an appreciative audience on her page. “I want to share what I have learnt. That you can train your mind to rise above your circumstances. That everything, from recipes to life, can be simplified. When people praise my posts, I feel seen and heard. I follow pages about history, about architecture, and enrich my mind.”
Her daughter-in-law Kamlesh Singh agreed. “Even when she is alone, she doesn’t get broody and mopey. She uses her intellect and pursues her interests.”
A 2021 study by the University of Alabama Huntsville, titled ‘Baby Boomers’ use of Facebook and Instagram’, said their participants “primarily used Instagram for relationship surveillance, followed by documentation, inspiration, diversion/companionship, and self-promotion”.
For Noida-based Chitra Sanyal, 56, Instagram has been a great avenue for inspiration, companionship, as well as self-promotion. Always interested in cooking, Sanyal started her Instagram page, Chitra’s Kitchen, in 2020 on the urging of her daughter. “I am a shy person who never made too many friends. Family responsibilities anyway hardly leave you with time for yourself. So no one beyond my family circle knew about my cooking talent. Now, so many strangers appreciating me has boosted my self esteem. By interacting with other women with similar pages, I have found friends in Canada, in Bangladesh,” Sanyal smiled. Along with cooking videos, she has started making reels about her day. “Being in front of the camera would have been unthinkable for me till a few years ago. But now I am a more confident person,” she said.
Her son, 32-year-old Pathikrit Sanyal, said his mother “finally doing something for herself” has made her happier. “Mom is doing on social media things my siblings and I did in college. She tells us about the friends she makes, all the cliquey politics in her cooking groups. Her life now has more friendship, more drama, and a lot more fun.”
Padma Kumarswamy, from Bangalore, too joined Instagram upon her daughter’s insistence. After both her daughters got married and moved abroad, time sat heavy on her hands. “Sharing my cooking online gives my days discipline and structure. Also, on my page padmakumarswamy, I share traditional South Indian recipes that can help girls like my daughters, who miss home food abroad. That makes me feel useful,” Kumarswamy said.
Social media usage in moderation can help elderly women lead more fulfilling lives, said Kamna Chibber, head, Department of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences at Fortis Healthcare, New Delhi. “That social media can help you interact with people, show you content you would otherwise not encounter, is true for everyone irrespective of gender and age. For older women, since their mobility can at times be limited, social media can play a critical role in helping them feel connected and in alleviating boredom,” Chibber said.
Ashok Kumar, manager at Noida’s Silver Lining Old Age Home for the past year, agreed. “A lot of people who come to us are parents of daughters, who are unable to care for them at home. Such residents tend to get into the lament loop, wishing they had sons. On Instagram, they meet old age home residents from different countries. When they find people from more developed societies also living in senior care homes, leading a good life, they feel upbeat.”
However, not everyone joins the platform seeking succour. For Jamshedpur schoolteacher Sarika Pankaj, Instagram is a way to “feel like a heroine on stage.” Her page sarikajsr111 has reels of her dancing, of dates with her husband, and snippets from her life.
“Through my reels, I want to show younger people, like my sons, that life can always be lived large, that you can choose to feel like a queen. Also, it is important for women to publicly, visibly have fun, so other women can shed their inhibitions. Earlier, I was the only one in my neighbourhood always ready to dance. Now, other women volunteer to appear in my videos. Everyone has hobbies they gave up in busier phases of life. Instagram is a great way to go back to them and share them with the world.”
She has a word of advice for hesitant women. “Don’t add family members on Insta. If your page stays low-profile, they need never know. If you become a viral hit, they will be happy to own your success.”
For others, Instagram has given their businesses greater visibility. Mumbai-based Sandhya Lad, a fitness and dance instructor in her early fifties, runs her own Instagram page. While she has been giving physical classes for over 20 years, Instagram presence has helped her expand. “During the pandemic, I got clients from as far as the US. Also, domestic responsibilities make it harder for women to go out to network. Now, for corporate gigs, I just send people a link to my profile, which works as my resume. Following other fitness pages helps me upskill and stay motivated.”
For New Delhi artist Tikuli Dogra, 55, joining Instagram not just boosted business, it also brought home the importance of what had till then been a hobby. “My art is an expression of what I am feeling. Once I started sharing them on Insta, many people said they connected to it. The fact that my art could make an emotional connect, help people with whatever they were going through, was immensely satisfying.”
Dogra finds art healing, and Instagram gave an added dimension to it. “When I created my handle in 2020, I was feeling low, lost. Sharing my art here has kept me grounded, inspired me to try new techniques and mediums. It has helped my mental health.”
She feels it is easier to find like-minded people on social media, because “you are not thrown together by chance. The reason you connected was a shared interest or a similar emotional response to a post.”
“I feel people are kinder and more empathetic on social media. It is easier to open up to someone you may never meet. Also, family life can stifle women’s personalities. It is refreshing to be in a virtual family where you are known as yourself, because of your work or thoughts or self expression.”
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