Over the past several days, many Instagram feeds have been overrun with black-and-white images of women both famous and not.
These photographs are often posed and filtered, taken from flattering angles and accompanied by benign captions about “supporting women.”
“Love this simple way to lift each other up. #challengeaccepted. Thank you for nominating me @vanessabryant,” the model Cindy Crawford posted on Monday along with a black-and-white photo of herself strolling on a beach that looks ripped from a Calvin Klein advertisement.
The premise of the “challenge accepted” trend is that these photos promote female empowerment, and that nominating friends to take part in the campaign is a way for women to support each other.
So far, more than 3 million photos have been uploaded with the #ChallengeAccepted hashtag; many more have appeared without it.
“The trend is still picking up with usage of the hashtag on Instagram doubling in the last day alone,” an Instagram spokeswoman said on Monday. “Based on the posts, we’re seeing that most of the participants are posting with notes relating to strength and support for their communities.”
Many women have included the hashtag #womensupportingwomen in their posts. “Challenge Accepted,” Khloe Kardashian wrote in an Instagram post on Sunday. “To all my Queens- Let’s spread love and remember to be a little kinder to one another. #womensupportingwomen.”
This is not the first time Instagram users have leveraged black-and-white selfies in support of a vague cause. Back in 2016, black-and-white photos with the hashtag #ChallengeAccepted were meant to spread a message of “cancer awareness.” Over the years the photo trend has also been used to “spread positivity.”
The challenge has circulated like chain mail. Participants nominate at least one other woman (and often several) to post her own black-and-white portrait. Celebrities including the actresses Kerry Washington, Jennifer Garner, Kristen Bell and Eva Longoria have helped the campaign gain visibility.
Cristine Abram, a public relations and influencer marketing manager for Later, a social media marketing firm, said that a video of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking out against Representative Ted Yoho’s sexist remarks against her on the floor of Congress last week led to a spike in social media posts about feminism and female empowerment, which may have contributed to the latest round of black-and-white photos.
“That was the spark that led to the resurgence of the hashtag challenge,” said Ms. Abram. “It’s all to do with female empowerment. There was this hashtag that already existed to raise awareness around other large issues. Tapping into that allowed participants to gain traction a lot faster because the algorithm was already familiar with the hashtag.”
A representative from Instagram said that the earliest post the company could surface for this current cycle of the challenge was posted a week and a half ago by the Brazilian journalist Ana Paula Padrão.
Though the portraits have spread widely, the posts themselves say very little. Like the black square, which became a symbol of solidarity with Black people but asked very little of those who shared it, the black-and-white selfie allows users to feel as if they’re taking a stand while saying almost nothing. Influencers and celebrities love these types of “challenges” because they don’t require actual advocacy, which might alienate certain factions of their fan base.
“Ladies,” Alana Levinson, a writer, tweeted on Monday, “instead of posting that hot black-and-white selfie, why don’t we ease into feminism with something low stakes, like cutting off your friend who’s an abuser?”
Other women have spoken out about the backlash they have faced for critiquing the trend. “Currently getting hate mail on instagram from complete strangers because i said black and white selfies aren’t a cause,” tweeted the podcast host Ali Segel. “Apparently i hate women and don’t love myself!!!!!! I’m minding my own business for the rest of my life!!!!!!”
“I think that if this ‘movement’ featured trans women or differently abled women, or showcased female businesses or accomplishments or women in history, it would make more sense,” Ms. Segel explained further, in a direct message on Twitter. “But the idea of this as a challenge or cause is really lost on me.”
Brooke Hammerling, 46, the founder of the New New Thing, an advisory to technology C.E.O.s, questioned the trend’s efficacy in her weekly pop culture newsletter on Monday.
“I just don’t know what it stands for,” she said by phone. “Virtually everyone in my life has done the challenge, a lot of my friends and a lot of people I love. I’m 100 percent for women supporting women and I’m grateful to the women who nominated me, but I don’t understand how a black-and-white vanity selfie does that. If we could do portraits of the women who inspired us, that would be a little bit more in line with what this is trying to accomplish.”
Other women online suggested that, instead of a black-and-white selfie, women should share photos of books, articles, products and charities that benefit women. A few people wondered whether the trend was started by men.
Camilla Blackett, a TV writer, suggested that the campaign was little more than a vehicle for attractive photos. “What is the point of this #ChallengeAccepted thing?” she tweeted on Monday. “Do people not know you can just post a hot selfie for no reason?”