For those fluent in the language of the internet, a much amended image of a human face and body has fast become part-of-the-furniture, says Kate Demolder. But what does this reach for cyborgian beauty do to our minds?
In 1987, a PhD student at the University of Michigan found that his new Mac Plus failed to display grayscale images on its 1-bit black and white display. To solve this weakness, he – a young Thomas Knoll – began coding. His brother, John, a special effects whizz working on the first Star Wars film at the time, also took an interest in the project. He recommended that it be expanded into a full image editing program, which he subsequently named Photoshop.[restrict]
Some 40 years following its release, Adobe Photoshop is one of the most powerful image editing tools in the world. Knoll’s original software has allowed for endless ways in which a person’s appearance can be altered: from lengthening necks and legs to cutting out ribcages, raising cheekbones, filling in hair and changing skin colour. So omnipresent is this process that our subconscious can now be jarred by images on social media that have not been retouched.
Taking that information and capitalising on it are multinationals – the likes of American Eagle, ASOS and Boohoo – all vying to get your eyes on their prize. Most recently, American Eagle’s lingerie line Aerie released the #AerieReal campaign, which features only completely unretouched models, “embracing a more realistic image of girls and women,” according to the brand. Clever? Yes. Without a seedy underbelly? No. A good message in theory, but are these conglomerates merely profiting off of a timely trend currently dictating where our eyes land?
“Nobody wants to be called a fake,” Brooke Erin Duffy, an assistant professor at Cornell University who is studying self-presentation on Instagram told the Guardian. “Influencers very much feel they need to present themselves authentically while getting the best image possible.
“It’s not seen as acceptable to put up a photo with a big spot. So you either put up the spot photo and get hate in the comments or you remove the spot.”
Instagram page @celebface – which, at time of writing, boasts 1.5 million followers – is an anonymous profile which, crudely and without clear motives, sources celebrity-posted photographs and reveals the pre-edited version in haunting before-and-after GIFs. ‘WELCOME TO REALITY,’ its bio greets.
Each adhering to Western beauty norms, the portfolio of shapeshifting GIFs all follow the same pattern: waists shrink, noses refine, arms tone, skin clears, eyes become doe-like and lips plump. The before pictures are beautiful, as they are wont to be when beautiful people are the subjects, yet the aftermath is genuinely transfixing – residing somewhere between the neighbourhoods of steely unattainability and Disney otherworldly.
View this post on Instagram
The profile thrives on an uncomfortable ‘gotcha!’ form of schadenfreude, picking up where paparazzi shots left off – uncovering reality behind otherwise imperceptible acts of augmentation. One could argue its merit, showcasing to little girls the fickle nature of social media, but the process begs to differ – have we really not moved on from catching women out for having cellulite at the beach?
“I laugh when they always deny. Like, we all see it,” a recent comment on a photo of Hailey Bieber reads.
On the other side of the internet, celebrity edits live but under a different guise. Here, we find Instagram accounts dedicated to the lengths to which Facetune can go. Laid out similarly to @celebface, these profiles tweak already beautiful faces to droid-like perfection, creating eerily similar profiles again and again. Except, these instances of editing are lauded. And, they are growing in popularity.
At the time of writing, numerous accounts dedicated to editing celebrity photos exist on Instagram: @goddess.women, @dirtybabiez, and @moneyreigns among them. They boast followers in their hundreds of thousands and they often credit websites like Getty Images and Splash News for the original photos.
Pages like @goddess.women and @dirtybabiez also say in their Instagram bios that you can send them a private message to receive your own edited photo – so long as you also send payment.
View this post on Instagram
What’s interesting about the new narrative on editing is that what was once considered an embarrassing act has taken residence as aspirational. Acting as a phantasmal mock-up of perfection, the new way to edit picks up where Beverly Hills plastic surgeons with Sharpies in-hand left off.
In the 2019 New Yorker article entitled The Age of Instagram Face, Jia Tolentino describes this method as ‘one of the oddest legacies of our rapidly expiring decade: the gradual emergence among professionally beautiful women, of a single, cyborgian face.
“It’s a young face, of course, with poreless skin and plump high cheekbones,” she writes. “It has catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; it has a small, neat nose and full, lush lips. It looks at you coyly but blankly, as if its owner has taken half a Klonopin and is considering asking you for a private-jet ride to Coachella.”
Editing a photograph – much like erasing a line on a drawing – may appear trivially, albeit narcissistically, harmless, but the reinforcement of norms that can only be achieved by surgical intervention seemingly has a lot to answer for by way of insecurity. Studies show that people who are often exposed to such heavily edited imagery believe that what they see is the norm, which makes it more likely for them to suffer from eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia.
“The entire fashion industry is ethically highly problematic,” renowned German media scholar Thomas Knieper told DW. “By stretching the legs of stars, shrinking their waists and removing their wrinkles and skin blemishes, people admire them even more and try to emulate them.
“It drives people into depression because they can’t meet the requirements of the beauty ideals that are set by the media, not even if they undergo extreme starvation and beauty surgeries, because what is presented to them is anatomically impossible.”
This format of extreme reworking has even shocked those who are used to industry edits. A 2019 project entitled Selfie Harm – part of a project by photographer Rankin, M&C Saatchi, and MT Art Agency called Visual Diet, examining how images can affect mental health – saw 15 British teens aged 13-19 asked to spend five minutes editing photos Rankin had taken until they thought it looked “social media-ready.” None of the teens Rankin worked with chose to leave their photos unedited. “I found it disturbing how big even the small changes are,” Rankin told Insider. “It’s so simple, almost like creating a cartoon character of yourself.” He added, “It’s time to acknowledge the damaging effects that social media has on people’s self-image.”
What’s more damaging, still, is the perpetuation of this robotic falsehood by the very celebrities being edited. A number of celebrities such as Kylie Jenner, Pamela Anderson and Sofia Richie have reposted a number of the overly edited images fans share with them. While, former Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whitely went one further and requested a copy of an edited photo of herself from the source –this time without a watermark, so that she can share on her page.
Bratz Doll beauty
As Instagram has grown in popularity, so has its polished, computerised aesthetic. And once again, those with the financial assets to capitalise on the opportunity have benefited. The plastic surgery and filler industry are now part of a grooming and maintenance routine for millennials and increasingly, Generation Z. In 2018, over 10 million people went under the knife for aesthetic reasons, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. And over 12 million people had non-surgical injectable procedures.
The obvious alteration of images may be something those with life-before-the-internet experience can brush aside, but for those whose lives have grown parallel to social media, the eerie symmetry of Bratz Doll beauty is the only face they’ve come to recognise.
In Perfect Me, a book about the perils of our current global beauty ethic, British academic Heather Widdows attributes this growing preoccupation to a “forensic gaze” fuelled by visual culture and the omnipresence of hi-def screens and cameras that require us to look smooth and luminous “not just when our picture is likely to be taken (on holidays or at weddings), but increasingly all the time… given that we can imagine ourselves (or our failings) being photographed in almost any context.”
The book’s first chapter sets out the main claim, that beauty is an ethical ideal. That the failure to merely produce beauty is a moral vice, i.e. a failure of the self. She gives the example of being urged “to be your best self” or alternately being warned against “letting oneself go.” The language of shame attaches itself to all areas of appearance: negative moral properties such as lazy, and slow are associated with fatness and positive moral traits such as being disciplined or hard working are associated with slimness.
There are also rewards associated with attaining the beauty ideal, both in terms of material and relational goods. Widdows notes that this assumes that bodies are malleable and that with enough hard work and discipline that beauty is attainable for all.
On that basis, are we ethically required to meet a certain minimal beauty standard? Many women are criticised for paying too much attention to beauty – but is that simply the way we’ve been wired?
It’s neither vain nor foolhardy for anyone to want to look their best at any given moment. Studies have shown that if you look good, you feel better, and most of us have at some point experienced the inevitability that those who are deemed ‘better looking’ and therefore arguably more confident will obtain opportunities not available for everyone. But the pressure Gen Z faces by comparing themselves to pixels is both dangerous and unsustainable.
Ideals of female beauty have always been met through painful processes of physical manipulation – corsets, feet-binding, the Hollywood wax – but social media has supercharged the idea to a further standard. To refrain from ‘touching-up’ virtually prior to posting a photo, your motive is questioned rather than accepted, and often jeered by those in the opposite corner.
The patriarchal society in which we live has evolved many women to be preoccupied by what they look like – our bodies change far more consistently than our male counterparts, leading us to consider and compare in a natural setting. In a world where, albeit unfairly, women are rewarded substantially for youth and beauty, the process of making oneself look better is seen as opportunistic and lucrative. Especially in such a screen-heavy time as this one.
What’s alarming, however, is the likeness to the old adage: ‘beauty is only skin deep’. What happens when that skin is rewritten beyond recognition? Perhaps now is the time we should grow to consider our genetically-decided faces as rites of passage – rather than starting points.