Ideals of female beauty attainable only through long and painful processes of physical training and ‘improvement’ have always existed, from using toxic lead face powder to whiten the skin in the 1700s, to wearing corsets that deformed the ribcage in the 1800s, to binding the feet of Chinese women to keep them ‘tiny.’ The 21st century has seen the rise of new forms of visual self-improvement that go hand in hand with the success of reality TV and social media.
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Say No To Photoshop. On the cover of @graziauk today interviewed by my loves @munroebergdorf and @jessica_barrett about activism, learning during lockdown, and love.Out now. ❤️ ? by @joshinfilm styled by @luxurylaw wearing @ninaricci Ps. @munroebergdorf is my brilliant guest on my podcast.
In The Beauty Myth Naomi Wolf argues that as women stopped being legally and economically dependent on men, they started feeling more pressure to adhere to unrealistic standards of beauty. The result? As Naomi Wolf argues, ‘More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers.’
Sometimes, when I scroll down my Instagram page, passing picture after picture of unnaturally thin girls with heavy-make up and round butts, my boyfriend sits next to me and looks. We open a couple of pictures, watch girls pose in very similar ways, wear eerily similar clothes, until my boyfriend asks me if they are the same person. I look at him, trying to figure out whether he is joking or not, but he honestly cannot tell the difference. I don’t blame him. Many of the young women that fill our Instagram feed today look the same, whether thanks to the use of filters and make-up, or because of cosmetic procedures. Instagram can be fun, wonderful and creative, but it can also be deceptive. In order to be visible you have to perform: your identity has to be monetized and commercialized. And nothing performs better than the ‘effortlessly’ hot woman who shows off her perfect body, perfect clothes and perfect life. Instagram beauty filters in particular are not just deceptive but deeply damaging: they show you how you could look rather than how you actually look, inevitably suggesting that there is something about you that could, or even worse should, be improved. They show you a reality that is ‘perfect,’ pushing you to attain it, while knowing that ‘perfection’ in itself is unattainable. You can just keep trying.
The editing of celebrity photos to match unrealistic beauty standards is nothing new. But with the advent of Instagram filters as well as the proliferation of cheaper surgical interventions, the idea is that anyone can now look like celebrities. Cosmetic procedures come in all forms; plastic surgery isn’t a dramatic intervention as it used to be: Botox and hyaluronic-acid fillers are used to restructure cheeks, jawlines, noses. And it isn’t only older people that get Botox today; it’s millenials or even members of the Gen-Z. In an article for the New Yorker, writer Jia Tolentino talks to famous plastic surgeons to investigate the emergence of ‘a single cyborgian look’ among women on Instagram. According to one of these surgeons ‘Kim Kardashian West is the patient zero for Instagram Face:’ with her 190 million followers, Kim has inspired an army of cosmetically (and surgically) altered doubles. But Kim isn’t the only beauty goal: Kylie Jenner, Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, as well as younger celebrities like Alexis Ren, have all streams of followers who aspire to look exactly like them.
The obsession with this unnatural, cyborgian beauty has dangerous psychological consequences. The average young woman today can be smart, charming and attractive, and still get overwhelmed by toxic beauty expectations. One of my best friends summed up the issue perfectly when, a few weeks ago, she told me: ‘It must be hard for the girls who get plastic surgery because they are surrounded by people who don’t make them feel good about themselves, but it’s hard for us too. If every girl just starts “improving” herself, then the standards for every other woman aren’t real anymore.’ She’s right of course. You can feel beautiful all you want, but when you start being surrounded by girls with breast implants, unrealistically high cheekbones and minuscule noses, you start feeling weird. And even if you’re attractive and glamorous, there will always be someone using a skin filter looking even more glamorous. It’s a never-ending circle, one where young girls start over-analyzing their bodies and compare themselves with women whose pictures make them look less human and more computer-animated. In an interview for Channel 4 News activist and actress Jameela Jamil talks about celebrities and influencers using Facetune and surgical interventions as ‘double agents for the patriarchy’, who ‘perhaps unknowingly are still putting the patriarchal narrative out in the world and still benefitting off and selling it to other women.’
In another interview Jameela points out how our obsession with beauty damages our daily routines: ‘I manage to get more things done in my day when I’m not thinking about my figure.’ Not thinking about your body is hard these days, especially in a world where women are still rewarded for youth and beauty more than they are for professional achievements. And we can’t just ignore Instagram and every other social media in a society where technology is everything. But what we can do is choose what to follow, what to watch, what to talk about. We can follow what makes us feel good rather than what tells us we’re not enough; we can like posts and pages in line with interests and hobbies that make us unique, rather than people who all look the same and will eventually make us aspire to look like them too. Rather than thinking too hard about beauty, we could make beauty matter less.