Jessie Sheldon

Hello, My Name Is __

In 2017, Liam surpassed Noah as the most popular male baby name in the United States. The name Emma remained the most popular female name, followed closely by Olivia, Ava, and Isabella. Over the past 100 years, the top baby names have changed relatively little. There’s some fluctuation over which biblical name tops the list, but nonetheless, the trends remain static and fairly arbitrary. Names are an integral part of our identity, but most of us have no say in what name we are assigned—so what role does a name play in shaping who a person becomes? Why do certain people name their kids Apple, Adolf Hitler (as one neo-Nazi couple did in 2018), or even a single letter? Will the Liams of the world live up to their name’s meaning of “strong willed and protective,” or are names simply an easy way to distinguish one another?

Archeologists have traced the first known named humans to Mesopotamia. An ancient tablet found in modern-day Iraq records a business transaction: “29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim.” Archeologists speculate that Kushim was a buyer or seller who signed his name to record the transaction. Names became necessary as humans began to record their communication because they made it possible to differentiate between people and refer to a specific person more easily.

Names serve a similar purpose today. For most of us, our name is an unconscious part of our identity; it’s the first thing we tell new people. Parents today often spend countless hours deciding on the perfect name for their child. Compared to countries like New Zealand, where the state reviews all baby names and prohibits unreasonably long or potentially offensive names, the U.S. has few rules for naming children, though numbers and symbols are still prohibited.  

Having a fairly unique name myself, I’ve often wondered whether less-common names produce any kind of subconscious effect on their owners. This question has proven difficult for researchers to answer. Often, people with unique names form too small a sample size, and it can be difficult to isolate the experimental impact of one name versus another, since individuals tend to only have one name in their life. In 1948, researchers at Harvard University compared the academic performance of men with unusual names versus those with more common names. They concluded that individuals with unique names tended to have lower academic performance. However, more recent studies have concluded that there was no correlation with academic performance.

Searching for answers myself, I talked with several friends and family members about their names. Emily Jane, a Colorado College sophomore with the most popular first and middle names for females in her birth year, says, “I feel like my name is pretty boring, but I don’t think it affects my life or my success too much.” Emily’s opinion was common among the students I talked with. Most people seem to like their names, but discount any unconscious power they might play. Sam, a first-year student who identifies as a woman, said, “I like having a common name because it’s easy for people to remember you.” But, she says, “it makes me feel less unique because so many people have my name.” However, she also felt that “The name ‘Sam’ could be seen as unprofessional,” which is why she applies to all of her jobs as Samantha.” Most people develop an affinity for their own names because they are so familiar. But despite the attachment that we might have to our own names, how other people interpret our names could be more important in determining whether names carry power over our lives.

Just as Sam worried that her name may be seen as “unprofessional” to future employers, names can also be a way for employers to screen, stereotype, and discriminate against job candidates. In a 2003 study called, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Market Discrimination,” Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan examined whether names act as a signaling mechanism that allows employers to discriminate by race. Bertrand and Mullainathan first identified distinctly “black and white sounding names.” They did this “by identifying those that have the highest ratio of frequency in one racial group to frequency in the other racial group.” Emily and Greg became the “white sounding” test names, while Lakisha and Jamal acted as the “black names.” Next, they used these same names to create 5,000 fake resumes responding to help wanted ads in Chicago and Boston. They submitted a series of identical resumes to a variety of companies, half of which were headed with a “white sounding” name and half with a “black sounding” name. Bertrand and Mullainathan were able to isolate the effect a person’s name had on whether they received a call back—since the resumes were identical except for the name attached to them, any difference in employers’ response rate could be attributed to the name’s implied race.

They found that “white names received 50 percent more calls for interviews. A white name yields as many more call backs as an additional eight years of experience on a resume.” Bertrand and Mullainathan’s findings show that names are one of the quickest ways to discriminate. Their findings suggest that names affect employment prospects, and thus have huge real world implications. However, it’s important to note that these findings are more tied to the underlying racial connotations behind names than to the names themselves. Furthermore, this study only looked at the effects of name discrimination during the first stage of the hiring process. Presumably, a discriminatory employer would be equally discriminatory during later stages of the hiring process. However, it’s clear that certain names could help a candidate get their foot in the door.

This same discrimination is the reason many immigrants feel the need to use anglicized names. A 2009 Swedish study looked at how immigrants can improve their economic outcomes by changing names. Mahmood Arai and Peter Skogman Thoursie, economists from Stockholm University, found that immigrants who changed their names to Swedish-sounding ones earned an average of 26 percent more than those who kept their Slavic, Asian, or African names. Researchers speculate that candidates with Swedish-sounding names seemed more trustworthy to employers. In this way, familiar names helped them land higher-paying jobs. This pressure to assimilate represents underlying racism in the job market. Names are not the cause of such racism, but they provide a tool for discrimination to occur.

However, research from another 2003 study challenges both of these previous findings. Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, and his partner Roland G. Freyer, Jr. produced a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research that analyzed California birth data. Levitt and Freyer compared birth records of children with distinctively black and white names. They isolated the impact that names played in life outcomes by running a regression analysis and removing the role of socioeconomic factors, parental education level, and race. Since the records were available for multiple generations, researchers were able to evaluate whether names helped people advance over time. Although names may signal determining factors, like a person’s wealth, they found that names themselves played no role in how successful people ultimately turned out to be.

In contrast to prior research, Freyer and Levitt found “no negative causal impact of having a distinctively black name on life outcomes.” In other words, their study shows that names have a negligible impact in how others treat us, and thus have little impact on success. They attempt to reconcile this finding with earlier research, arguing that if distinctively black names really were a detriment, we would see people changing their names more often.

Maybe they’re right. Names might just be an interesting, while fairly meaningless, part of who we become. However, when I was wrapping up my research, I noticed one last part of Levitt and Freyer’s study that interested me. At the start of their article, they tried to explain why black and white names diverged in the first place. They argue that segregation in the 1960s and 1970s, coupled with the Black Power movement, led to a profound shift in naming patterns. They write, “The median black female in a segregated area went from receiving a name that was twice as likely to be given to blacks as whites to a name that was more than twenty times as likely to be given to blacks.” Instead of looking at the impact of names on individuals, maybe we should consider why individuals’ parents choose certain names in the first place.

Names don’t conclusively change who we become, but they do tell us a lot about a child’s circumstances at birth. Eric Oliver, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, described his interest in names: “They are highly related to taste and fashion but largely free from market effects.” Names can tell us a lot about social, cultural, and political trends. Yet unlike other signals of culture, names are free for anyone to use. Oliver looked more into what names can revealed about parents. He and his colleagues found that liberal, educated parents are more likely to give their children unique names that serve as conscious or unconscious signals of their “cultural taste.” Conservative parents tend to name their children more popular and traditional names, like John or Mary. The authors presume these conservative names can signal economic capital.

Although a child’s name is unlikely to affect who they become, names are an interesting signal of their parents’ backgrounds. For example, one person I spoke to mentioned how her name “has prompted [her] to learn more about Scottish history.” Names can connect people to their family’s history, culture, or story. For some, this connection can serve as a positive link to a larger community, but for others, the connotations of a name can become a burden that instantly shapes how people perceive you. The studies that I reviewed show that names can certainly provide a basis for judgement. Although Levitt and Freyer discount the impact of distinctively black names, I find the research on discrimination in resumes quite convincing. Names provide a foundation for people to hold racial bias, often before ever meeting face to face. By understanding these studies, we can better understand the bias that surrounds names. A person’s name may indicate something about where they come from, but it doesn’t necessarily describe who they become.

Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019

Beautiful, Ordinary People

It seems like every fourth photo on my Instagram feed is of a beautiful woman—a beautiful woman I don’t know. Being from New York, a lot of the Instagrammers I follow are glamorous city girls with an affinity for sparkly clothing and NYC rooftops. Others live in suburban America, posting pictures of themselves impeccably done up in their girlish bedrooms. Others live in entirely different countries, live entirely different lives.

Some may call them “Instagram baddies” or “art hoes;” they post hundreds of pictures of themselves, but also of their art, fashion choices, thoughts and feelings, and glimpses into their inner lives. It seems the only commonality among all these Instagrammers I follow—who aren’t really famous and who I don’t really know—is that they are all beautiful. Incredibly beautiful.

I’ve spent the last few months talking to beautiful people on the internet—some of the very people I used to see when scrolling through my feed. I chose to do my sociology thesis on Instagram influencers because I find beauty fascinating, which is at least partially why I spend so much time on Instagram. On Instagram, beauty is more than just beauty. Beauty is a tool that social media users employ to gain influence—literally to become an “influencer.” And to have influence is to have power on the internet. I’m sure we all know the story of the Fyre Festival and the handful of bikini-clad influencers who posted a simple orange square leading the fraudulent festival to completely sell out. The aggressively marketed Hulu documentary about Fyre claims that “the Fyre Festival proves that the power of influence is real.” But I believe, more importantly, the power of the influencer is real. I wanted to know about the influencers. Who are they really? What do they get from Instagram? Money? Power? Fame? What I found is that the line between an influencer and a follower is a blurry one.

Naturally, I found the influencers for my interview sample on Instagram. Being the semi-famous individuals that they are, it took a while for me to get in contact with anyone. I would just shoot DMs off into the abyss hoping for a reply or two. The influencers that did reply were always friendly and enthusiastic. After all, they are just ordinary people. The biggest question I initially had was a nosy and simple one: how much money do you make? But I quickly found that Instagram creates many avenues of success, and money is only one of them.


The influencer @akiralopezg is one such success story. They’re (They use they/them pronouns) a 19-year-old from Australia with a slightly edgy and very trendy feed. They post a mixture of professional model shots and pouty selfies. Out of all the influencers I interviewed, they were the bluntest about their success on Instagram. As they put it: “I like to see it as a game. You play the game to win likes.” The bluntness fits effortlessly into their aesthetic. @akiralopezg told me they wanted to use their Instagram to expand their world beyond Australia, especially considering they have aspirations to be a filmmaker. Remarkably, they were scouted by a modeling agency in LA that found them from their Instagram account, which brought @akiralopezg closer to both their modeling and filmmaking aspirations. The “game” is more extensive than Instagram.

Another influencer I talked to, @maitreyabrooks, had recently finagled a job through Instagram as well. @maitreyabrooks is a young professional from Portland, Oregon with a chic, Portland-y feed: earthy but modern. Her posts have a neutral color palette, alternating between pictures of outfits, food, and restaurants with impeccable interior design. Often the businesses she visits, coffee shops or ice cream stores, will know who she is, or at least who she is on instagram. Knowing her potential to reach an audience, they’ll offer her free stuff: a free coffee here, a free pint of ice cream there. The brand Outdoor Voices contacted her, asking her to promote their product, but @maitreyabrooks decided she would see if they could offer her more. She asked if they had room to hire her in an advertising role, and they agreed. Benefits from Instagram seem to follow @maitreyabrooks everywhere. She, like pretty much all influencers, also receives a lot of free products delivered to her doorstep. She’s very thankful for the fact that she receives, “a lot of benefits … I haven’t had to buy clothes in a while or jewelry or beauty supplies.”

But aside from receiving nice gifts, how much money do influencers actually make? Understandably, nobody really wanted to straight up answer that question. However, @maitreyabrooks explained what a collaboration with a brand looks like. She works with Urban Outfitters despite having only 6,000 followers, making her what they call a ‘micro-influencer.’ In her recent collaboration, she was asked to choose $1500 dollars worth of clothing from the Urban Outfitters website and was then given another $1000 in cash in exchange for 25 photos delivered to UO. @rohinielyse, a blond Glossier representative and influencer located in Brooklyn, told me, “I don’t feel comfortable revealing the exact amount but it’s enough for me to live on.” The influencers who responded to me tended to have a smaller following, so I imagine influencers with more followers make even more money.


The term “influencer” comes from business scholarship and simply means a consumer who is socially situated to easily influence other consumers to buy a product. Brands are a crucial part of the influencer industry. And with influencers having a return on investment 11 times higher than traditional advertising, brands are not likely to let up. Brands and influencers work hand in hand in a mutually beneficial relationship; influencers promote brands and brands promote influencers. @akiralopezg said they gained a lot of success from working with the brand Unif. After Unif reposted them, they got 17,300 likes on one post. @rohinielyse had a similar success story after working with Glossier, which happened after she “went to their showroom and posted a few photos … and then they emailed me.” Promoting brands can help you get more followers, and brand promotion is status in itself. This explains the trends of influencers or even regular users tagging brands who aren’t even paying them.

Unlike @akiralopezg, influencer @isabelleestrin didn’t initially have any grand plans for her Instagram. She remembers first downloading the app in a high school math class. Her feed has an airy, almost French feel despite that she’s from Brooklyn. She has an affinity for romantic mirror pics taken in her all-white apartment while wearing lacy white outfits. Despite her 38,200 followers, she thinks of her Instagram as a personal account, because she believes her success came naturally: she started gaining followers without really trying. Still, @isabelleestrin does work with brands. She explained to me, “usually a brand will reach out to me about collaborating, or vice versa, and that’s always really nice and fulfilling.” This comment represents the sort of relationships influencers and brands have on Instagram. Brands comment on influencers posts and they DM them: they’re friendly. @isabelleestrin only works with brands that she aligns with “ethically and aesthetically.”

Many influencers subscribe to @isabelleestrin’s standards. Brands and influencers can have a lot in common: they have high standards for ethics and aesthetics. Many influencers refuse to work with brands that have bad sustainability practices or are not expressly body positive. In this way, the influencer industry can actually encourage better business practices. The “aesthetics” part is why influencers and brands work so well together. Just like businesses, influencers create a branded aesthetic for themselves; that’s how they gain followers (and how they make profit). Businesses, then, need only ensure that the brand of an influencer they hire matches their own. Some feminist scholars have argued that influencers engage in self-objectification, but I believe it’s closer to self-commodification. Influencers can work with brands because they are brands.

@maitreyabrooks points out that part of why influencer marketing works is that it’s more personal than traditional advertising, she says, “A lot of my followers are in Portland … we run into each other around town … people really do trust what you’re talking about because you wouldn’t be doing it if you didn’t mean it. That’s the whole wave of micro-influencers. It’s just more personal and more organic.” The personal touch explains why the behemoth brand Urban Outfitters, with 8.4 million followers, would enlist an influencer with only 6,000 followers. On Instagram people have a relationship with their advertisers, but often that relationship is one-sided. Instagram doesn’t just blur the lines between influencers and brands, but also between everyday individuals and brands.


Glossier is perhaps the best example of an Instagram brand. All of Glossier’s product are clean, white, and Instagrammable. Seven days after the release of their product Cloud Paint in 2017 there were 1,700 user-generated images of the product. In four weeks, there were 6,368. The company almost exclusively uses Instagram influencers to advertise. But Glossier’s involvement with Instagram goes even further than collaborations with influencers. One of Glossier’s major strategies is to take the “customer is always right” philosophy to the extreme with the aid of the internet. The Glossier team takes time to respond to comments and messages sent to their social media profiles, and the business then creates products directly in response to what followers say they want. Again, Instagram brings individuals and brands closer together. @maitreyabrooks even thinks influencers are the entire future of advertising:

“Traditional advertising is not worth it anymore. Because a company can release, say, a line of pants and you can either spend $200,000 advertising it, and you don’t know who it’s being advertised to. Or you can have a budget of a couple thousand dollars send to influencers have them post it and it sells out the line in like a day.”

Instagram, let’s not forget, is a platform deeply imbedded in capitalism. It is the top social media for advertising. Influencer marketing is, like data-mining, a step further into intrusive advertising methods because Instagram influencers are the people we choose to follow, not the ads that interrupt our television programming. On Instagram, there’s no “cut to commercial.” It’s easy to forget you’re being sold something. Often, influencers don’t even discuss the products they are selling; they just wear them and tag them. And yet, it’s an incredibly effective advertising technique. Instagram influencers are like the cool kid at school who shows up carrying a particular backpack: the next day everyone else comes in wearing the same thing. Instagram allows companies to harness the power of the “cool kid at school” on a global scale.

Instagram influencers often use their beauty as a huge leg up in attaining influence. Instagram is undeniably a platform that glorifies beauty. If likes are the currency of Instagram and beautiful people get the most likes, then on Instagram beauty is power. I call this power “beauty capital,” a form of capital which can be turned into economic, cultural, and symbolic capital. But if beauty is power, then it becomes crucial to consider the ways we define beauty on Instagram.


The final sample for my research included 70 influencers, and I ensured the sample would include influencers of different races and body types. Given that everyone’s feed is so hyper-tailored to their interests and tastes, it is impossible for me to say whether everyone or even most people’s feeds reflect a wider range of beauty standards. As @isabelleestrin said when I asked her about shifting beauty standards on Instagram, “It depends on what content you’re consuming and what you’re taking from it.” I can say that there are plenty of very popular influencers who fall outside of Eurocentric beauty standards. Because Instagram is a platform that anyone can engage with, it enables people to broadcast themselves without needing to get through the narrow gates of Hollywood or the modeling industry or any other mass media. Instead it is up to us, the Instagram users, to pick a feed that represents the kind of beauty we want to see. We have the ability to curate a feed that expands our norms and assumptions not just about beauty, but about everything.

However, while more types of beauty are celebrated on Instagram, influencers still create impossible standards within their types of beauty. Using Instagram analytics software (usually used by brands to find influencers to work with), I found that in my sample of 70 influencers, 62 of them had a predominantly female follower base. By selling an idea of beauty to women, the influencer industry mimics the traditional advertising world. In many posts, nearly everything an influencer wears on their body will be tagged, from their hair extensions to their colored contacts to their lingerie. But unlike traditional advertising, on Instagram, women choose their own models. If you’re goth you can follow all the goth girls; if you’re curvy you can create a feed with influencers that look more like you. Of course, the influencers you follow will still be incredibly beautiful. On Instagram, women choose their own impossible beauty standards. The recent backlash against photoshopped mass media popularized the idea of “real” women (versus model women) in advertising. But what does ‘real’ even mean? Beauty capital is a major avenue for women to gain power on the internet, but it is a double-edged sword: you still must be (impossibly) beautiful.


Instagram fame, beauty, and the influencer industry all may seem like rather shallow pursuits, but they’re the future. I think about @breughnuh, a 15-year-old from New Zealand, started her Instagram in October 2018, and when I interviewed her in January she already had 8,000 followers—Now she has 22,900. I also think of the bluntness with which 19-year-old @akiralopezg told me: “I go through explore and change my aesthetic according to what is exploding on explore [the explore page of Instagram].” Generation Z grew up on smartphones—they understand social media. While Instagram fame may seem like a young and frivolous interest now, as Generation Z ages it will likely become more serious. Shallow or not, Instagram and the influencer industry represents a major way that young people, and especially young women can gain power in the internet age.

The influencer industry has an estimated value of $1.8 billion, and it’s growing, not because of influencers with millions of followers, but because of influencers with thousands or even only hundreds. As @maitreyrabrooks points out, micro-influencers are successful precisely because they don’t have millions of followers. So the connection feels more personal. As the number of followers someone needs to become an influencer keeps shrinking and the desirability of working with brands keeps growing, I can imagine a world in which every single one of us is an influencer, all selling each other products. Glossier CEO Emily Weis welcomes such a world: “What’s very motivating to us is the idea of every single woman being an influencer.”

If we’re all influencers, it’s worth asking yourself: what are you selling?

Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019