I was on the verge of turning 30. I had sold my first book and completed my PhD program. I had married a man I loved and lost my mother. Without a doubt, I was a grown-ass woman and an intellectual. But I was also addicted to Instagram, and I found myself growing increasingly vulnerable to the beauty standards and Photoshopped images perpetuated by models and influencers. I knew I couldn’t be the only person with this problem, and I began to channel my obsession into research for my forthcoming novel about plastic-surgery addiction and Instagram. I wanted to address, through fiction, the dueling possibilities for personal empowerment and ruin I saw on image-based platforms. But I wasn’t sure where to begin, and the worlds of contemporary literature and cultural criticism were of little help, as if social media was too lowbrow a subject to seriously explore, especially from the perspective of an empowered user—an Instagram model who, by virtue of her choice to self-objectify, might be presumed vapid. This didn’t entirely square with what I saw on social media, and I took it upon myself to investigate. I posted thirst traps, interviewed influencers, and experimented with injectables, looking for nuance. And so it was, in the most stereotypically Los Angeles way possible, that I found Paige Woolen.
A plastic surgeon I consulted for research (and a microneedling radio-frequency facial called Profound) suggested I follow Woolen, an Instagram model with more than 256,000 followers. Woolen’s second Instagram account, @dudesinthedm, is dedicated to reposting the direct messages she receives from men, which run the gamut from untoward to violent. @dudesinthedm is also open to submissions: Any woman can send Woolen screenshots of unwanted DMs and have them shared with the account’s 61,000 followers. Recently, Woolen offered to use @dudesinthedm to help women catch partners they suspect of cheating, a move that drew such ire from some (male) Instagram users, that both of her accounts received hundreds of reports and were disabled. Now that they’ve been reinstated, Bitch spoke with Woolen about the wit she brings to responding to her bullies, her activism on behalf of the women of Instagram, and what she hopes to build with @dudesinthedm in the future.
When did you join Instagram? How did you envision your personal account when you started it and how did it develop?
I joined Instagram in 2013. At the time, my posts mostly consisted of pasta dinners and my French bulldog puppy. There wasn’t a bikini photo in sight. But in 2019, I signed my divorce papers, which forced me on a journey of self-discovery and ultimately led me to use Instagram the way I do today. My whole life, I had dreamed of being someone’s wife. Divorce shattered that vision for my future, and I was forced to rebuild myself. I began traveling with my mom and posting photos, often of myself in a bikini with a catchy caption, which I hoped would make people laugh. After a few trips and consistent posting, I saw an increase in followers, as well as some modeling contracts. I felt lucky to have a platform but worried I wasn’t offering real value, which led me to start @dudesinthedm.
When did you create @dudesinthedm? Where did the idea originate?
I created @dudesinthedm in April 2020, when we all thought quarantine would only last two weeks. I was sitting in my parent’s pool, scrolling through my photos, trying to find a thirst trap to post on Instagram. As I was scrolling, I was struck by how many screenshots I’d taken of nasty DM conversations I had with followers. The common theme was a guy would say something mean, and I would respond with something I thought was funny. I started thinking about how many people must receive hate online. Even though I joke with my bullies, it really does bum me out to read so many hateful things about myself. After doing some research on Instagram, I was surprised to see there was no safe place for people to post about the online harassment they receive. That’s when I had the idea to start @dudesinthedm.
How did you expand @dudesinthedm to catching cheaters? Did you ever feel morally conflicted about misleading men in order to expose them? Or did uncovering the truth on behalf of their partners outweigh any ethical dilemma?
The “catching cheaters” part of my account developed very recently. One Friday night [nearly] two months ago, I was scrolling through my DMs, and I noticed that an unhealthy portion of the men DMing me had their wife or girlfriend in their profile photo. This not only angered me, but it [also] made me wonder if these women knew what their partners were up to. I posted, “If you want to see if your boyfriend would respond back to an Instagram model, message me on my main account @paigewoolen.” I should add, this was after [about] two glasses of wine. I received so many messages and wound up reaching out to about 60 men that night. I took two things from that experience: Don’t get tipsy and go on Instagram, and be prepared for all kinds of responses from the public. While I did have an overwhelming amount of support, both of my accounts were taken down from being reported so many times by so many disgruntled men. Luckily, I got them both back.
I absolutely faced internal conflict after exposing men to their partners, but only briefly, and the conflict wasn’t morally based. When the story first went viral, I was shocked at how much hate I was getting (mostly from men). I was called a rat; I received death threats. People were even saying I should be arrested. Naturally, I panicked. But after the initial shock settled and I reread the messages from the women I helped, I knew I had done the right thing. People who bully or cheat want to be kept in the dark. They don’t want the truth to come out, and it angers them when they could possibly be exposed. There were a ton of accounts posting my photos and warning men about me. There were men claiming they are the true victims. But if you’re not being shady, you have nothing to worry about.
In a mini-interview with Maxim Australia, you said Emily Ratajkowski was your “girl crush” because of her interest in women’s rights and her DGAF attitude. This makes me think about women supporting women, both on Instagram and IRL. I imagine you have a lot of men who follow you—we know what your interactions with them are like—but what is your relationship with your women followers like? How has creating @dudesinthedm influenced or altered your approach to interacting with women on Instagram?
Before I started @dudeisthedm, I was having an identity crisis with my personal account. I wanted to create real value for my followers, but I wasn’t sure how. I wasn’t a typical “influencer.” I can’t execute a DIY to save my life, my cooking is hardly ever picturesque, and my landscape-photo skills are subpar. I knew I enjoyed making people laugh, and I wanted to connect to women. But my following is more than 80 percent male. Even when I started @dudesinthedm, I [still] had a heavy male following. But [when I began] posting “trigger warning” content and testing boyfriends, I was able to reach more women. I was astonished at how many women receive hate online and what their experiences were like. I share their experiences on @dudesinthedm (with their permission, of course), and each experience [helps] build a greater community. I feel so thankful that these women feel safe enough with me to share their stories.
I want to talk about thirst traps. I see thirst traps as a ploy for validation but also as a power grab. The world has objectified me since childhood. This remains true even now, but on Instagram, I control my content. I control how I’m seen and by whom. Choosing to self-objectify feels empowering, if only within a larger, patriarchal system inherently based on my disempowerment. It’s different for you because you’re paid to self-objectify, but does thirst trapping ever feel like more than just a job?
Modeling is such an interesting job for exactly those reasons. When you’re doing a “job” for someone else and they’re paying you, their idea of how you look can quickly become everything to you. It can really mess with your brain and your self-image. That’s why I find so much value in social media. On my Instagram or TikTok, I can look any way that I choose, I can say what I want—and that’s ultimate control and empowerment.
I want to expand the thirst-trap question to filters and Photoshop. What’s your personal approach to image alteration? Do you draw boundaries for yourself around touching up and tuning your face and body for the ‘gram?
I try to be as transparent as humanly possible when it comes to filters/Photoshop. With so many editing tools, Instagram photos are sometimes based more in art than reality. I like to constantly remind whomever is following me that I don’t look like the “real” me on Instagram. It sounds silly, but it’s true! I have all of the apps (Facetune, FaceApp, VSCO), and I use them all—even when I’m just posting a story. Is this healthy? Probably not, but it’s the truth. I think we get so attached to seeing this essentially flawless version of ourselves that it’s hard to hold a boundary. I say daily affirmations to myself in the mirror when I wake up, and I won’t check social media for an hour before bed. Having a routine to get your brain out of the social-media bubble is extremely important.
@dudesinthedm is dedicated to reposting the direct messages Paige Woolen receives from men, which run the gamut from untoward to violent.
Can filters, Photoshop, and plastic surgery be tools of empowerment, especially for women who are robbed of the agency to control how their image is consumed?
Social media has essentially assigned creative control to the user/poster. I also believe filters are a great vehicle for creativity, [that they] can enhance the image and alter the way in which you perceive certain moments or landscapes. However, we’ve always had distinctions between real life and art, and now the line between the two is blurred. Unless someone is announcing their editing techniques, how is the user supposed to know the image is altered? This is why disclosure is extremely important. As long as someone is enhancing their appearance for their own satisfaction rather than succumbing to another’s gaze or opinion, that’s what is truly empowering.
I am as open about plastic surgery as I am about filters. We live in a world where literally anything is possible! You can alter anything on your body that you aren’t happy with. I recently got all the fat sucked out of my body and then shoved in my butt. That’s insane! Plastic surgery can be a double-edged sword, though. As I mentioned earlier, if you’re altering something for yourself to feel more confident, that’s great. But if you’re altering yourself to look more like a certain celebrity or because a boy told you to, then that can ultimately lead to dissatisfaction with your body and low self-esteem.
What do you hope for the future of @dudesandthedm? What are you looking forward to in your own career as a model/influencer?
I have big plans for @dudesinthedm. Since I got some press for “catching cheaters,” I’ve had more than 10,000 women reach out to me for help with their relationships. Because the story went viral, my cover was essentially blown, and I’m now in a position where I’m not able to help. I plan to expand my team and have people all over helping [to] catch these cheating men. I hope to help these women find clarity with their relationships. As far as my modeling/influencer life, I have been enjoying posting content from home during lockdown. I’m excited to see where the opportunities of 2021 take me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.