Pay and Display
Selfie culture is merging with the ‘big, modern money’ of the beauty industry to leave women permanently scarred.
Words BERTIE BRANDES
BEAUTY IS EXPERIENCING A REVOLUTION. Thanks to an insatiable hunger for new images there are now millions of examples of female beauty to be found online – if you’ve never posted a selfie you already know you’re in the minority, and a barrage of products and procedures are popping up to complement your most personal moments. Just last night I caught an advert for dental surgery running with the strapline #doitforyourselfie. Self-promotion is ubiquitous and you would be lying if you said you hadn’t engaged with it. To many, this free, global fiesta of self-representation online reflects a democratisation of beauty (everyone is equal in the eye of the iPhone front camera). But not all revolutions are to be trusted. While sparky, modern fashion and beauty websites push on with their big-sister third-wave feminist tone, apparently setting the archaic sexist print industry to rights, the underlying reality is that our online culture seems to preach the same impossible standards as before. Posting a make-up-free selfie to support women’s rights does not feel revolutionary to me; rather it fundamentally reinforces the idea that a woman’s face is the most powerful tool she has in her arsenal. Beyond that, social media has affected our relationship with personal beauty to the extent that it’s being held directly responsible for an increase in non-invasive cosmetic procedures in the US. Body positive? I’m not so sure.
Let’s start with money. Ideas of value – personal and monetary – have been fundamentally changed by the internet. Social currency is now more significant than ever and self-promotion online – judged by your followers, likes and clicks – sells itself as the most class-, race- and age-blind success story since the American Dream. Well, Instagram is free, isn’t it? And so are VSCO Cam and Photoshop for iPhone and whatever else you’re using to smooth out your skin and thin out your waist. If, as Naomi Wolf argues in The Beauty Myth, socially obligatory female grooming rituals were introduced as a capitalist assault on women’s wages, then the online fetishisation of beauty poses a problem. If it isn’t directly capitalising on our income, then how can we argue it’s indicative of an exploitative, profit-driven patriarchal beauty industry? To understand how the internet’s obsession with female beauty is very much exploitative and how it affects our relationship with our bodies, you have to look away from direct financial exchange and explore the cultural value of selfies instead. Why do we post selfies? What’s so alluring about them? Partially because across the broad expanse of the internet it’s human instinct to try and carve out a space for your identity, sure. But increasingly I’m starting to understand the emphasis on personal beauty as complicit with an oddly homogenous global aesthetic culture. And it’s through the trappings of that self-conscious, luxury-obsessed culture that money starts to change hands.
This is a culture which, by virtue of existing wherever there’s an internet connection, refutes specific local and political engagement in favour of trite motivational quotes and an extreme emphasis on individual beauty. In direct contrast to specific, community-driven fashion movements like punk, rave or streetwear, online culture tends to focus in on the only thing that can bind together such a boundless, unfamiliar group of people – beauty itself. And then you have to wonder, what even is beauty? Joanne Entwistle, author of The Aesthetic Economy of Fashion, among other brilliant books, understands it as “a culturally valued look… produced through processes of cultural valourisation”, meaning that what we arbitrarily accept as beauty is more often than not the end product of a series of culturally enforced routines. In other words, if you follow the rules and rituals set out by contemporary society, you too can be beautiful. And those rituals cost money. The value of your selfie can be understood as both a cultural and financial exchange; pledge your complicity to a beauty economy and in return reap the social points. And make no mistake, even though you, the content creator, might not be earning anything, the beauty economy is making cold hard cash – a lot of it. Sales of “prestige” make-up are up nearly 15 percent in the UK this year according to the NPD Group, and they attribute that rise (bringing it up to a £390m market) to “celebrity-inspired selfies”. Your face is the new it bag; from seasonal palettes, face masks, eyebrow threading and microdermabrasion tools to the social value of your diet (#eatclean) there’s more to a selfie than meets the eye. Speaking to Entwistle, she confirms that women now “need a bag of make-up tricks to help create a smooth-skinned, contoured face that can be papped and ‘selfie-ed’ – more products, more celebrities and more images define the beauty market” than ever before.
While Instagramming pictures of the products themselves is also massively popular, ultimately it’s too impersonal or perhaps too brazenly aspirational; at the time of writing, the top-five most liked Instagrams posted by celebrities all include their faces. Entwistle relates that to the value of individual cultural significance. Anyone who works hard enough can splurge on a Tom Ford lipstick, what’s really celebrated in the global beauty economy is ‘authenticity’. “We are always putting on a public show of self that may or may not involve all sorts of beauty products,” she explains. The key aspect here is ambiguity – it’s incredibly clever; capitalism has moved beyond the fetishisation of objects and on to the fetishisation of an arbitrary concept it can determine however it likes. Crème de la Mer used to be that classic beauty product everyone would gape at the price of, but how much does authenticity in 2015 set you back? Well, how long is a piece of string? I recently added up the cost of every beauty product used in a Get Ready With Me sponsored video uploaded by vlogger Fleur deForce – it came to an astonishing £572.50. June Jensen, director of UK beauty for the NPD Group, is quoted on the BBC website stating that “face, eye and lip make-up is vital to achieving a photo-ready finish” and that brands are responding with products that promise to make wearers “camera-ready and HD”. Beauty and style videos on YouTube pull in around 580 million unique views per month according to OpenSlate, and 17.2 percent of those viewers are teenage girls under 18. This is big, modern money. Recently Susie Orbach, speaking on a panel called Selfie: The High Cost of Low Confidence described a generation of young girls being taught that “display” is the fundamental way they can “engage with the world”, as opposed to “contribution”. When Jensen finally adds that social media channels have spawned “a new sub-sector” and are “driving sales”, it’s hard to comprehend just how booming this industry is and will be.
So, there is money involved, of course, but beyond the creamy globs of petroleum jelly there still remains an incredibly tempting aspect of social media – one that promises to redefine beauty as ultimately more diverse and unbiased than ever. Websites are crammed with stories about unlikely supermodels and conventionally “flawed” women breaking the 90s and 00s Barbie doll mould. In fact, flaws have become a bit of a trend in their own right. Topshop recently stocked a set of gold temporary scar tattoos aimed at encouraging “a greater appreciation and personal ownership of [the wearer] through highlighting imperfections and celebrating difference”. This (absurdly) plays into ideas of authenticity and extreme individuality, sure, but it also brings us neatly to the idea of performative gender roles and expectation. In 2015 you are virtually obliged to display yourself online. Women are goaded into exposing themselves to a seemingly benevolent online community, which in turn promises to accept them, “flaws and all”. This becomes a process of solicitation by which we are lulled into a false sense of security over our own self-worth. When the internet tells you to “post a picture of yourself because whatever you look like is beautiful”, the most important part of that sentiment is actually to “post a picture of yourself”. Everywhere we are bombarded by the innate importance of self-image and with that the oppressive tropes of the beauty myth remain as bolstered as ever – this time shielded behind a façade of self-confidence. This is also a culture that requires its icons to perfom their individuality, regardless of its truth, and you can see this obsession with relatability reflected across fashion and beauty creatively: for their September 2015 issue, Interview magazine used selfies of the world’s most famous celebrities for a set of covers conveniently hashtagged #instagang. There’s a kind of attainability to the self-taken celebrity portrait that makes it relevant in a way high-fashion editorial shoots have never previously managed to be. In a sense we’re encouraged to understand the selfie as the great aesthetic leveller – the iPhone front camera as fundamentally disrupting impossible beauty standards. Oh my, no.
Before we even get to the plastic surgery figures, it’s crucial to outline just how easy it is to conceal elitist, racist and ageist standards within an apparently liberated medium. If we look to the art world, another industry obsessed with the apparently emancipatory (almost exclusively female) selfie, Betsy Stirratt and Catherine Johnson tell another story. In the introduction to Feminine Persuasion, their brilliant book on female sexuality in art, they write of an “abundance of young women artists making photographs, paintings and installations about female adolescence”. They argue this overwhelming emphasis on “the young, attractive female in charge of her sexuality” simply reflects “our focus as a society”. By failing to acknowledge the further stifled sexuality of, say, older or pregnant women these artists are largely complicit with a public and media “conditioned to expect images of youthful and beautiful bodies”. I’m convinced this illusion of equality applies just as easily to online beauty culture. Entwistle also identifies “a tendency for [online] images to gravitate towards conventional standards of beauty”. The world’s most famous models still fit into the traditional beauty mould. Need we say more?
Establishing the clear issues of under-representation online is important, but within the relatively rigid parameters of celebrated beauty there are other, equally serious problems. We’re all familiar with the mantra pushed by modern beauty advertising: for us to love ourselves just the way we are, with just a little touch of “flawless, radiant, natural-looking coverage”. Well, online that tenuous line between natural and artificial is blurred beyond recognition. When celebrities cashing in hard on social currency start pumping their faces full of hyaluronic acid (described on many plastic surgery websites as a “natural substance”) that revolutionary, relatable beauty we’re all supposed to be celebrating is totally undermined. The extolling of individuality on platforms that simultaneously applaud surgically enhanced bodies is surely simply the latest ploy in a century of impossible standards for women. And herein lies the final problem; not all is fair in love and selfies. Instead of helping us feel more comfortable in our own skin, social media is being directly linked to an unprecedented rise in cosmetic surgery. The following is an excerpt from an article at New Beauty website called “Is Plastic Surgery the New Instagram Filter?”
With just a quick tap of the finger, women can instantly
hide imperfections, deemphasize pores, brighten skin
complexion, smooth texture, and even alter their features on
Instagram. And now they’re bringing those enhanced pictures
to their doctors. “Selfies have absolutely revolutionized plastic
surgery,” says Chicago plastic surgeon Dr. Steven Dayan. “It’s
completely changed how we perceive ourselves and how we
want to be seen.” A recent report by the American Academy
of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery shows that the lack
of filters on certain social media platforms also contribute to the
growth of procedure requests. Since it’s not easy to airbrush or
filter a video, more people are going the surgical route to better
their looks. “This means that erasing your least favourite feature
won’t be as easy as changing the filter on your still shot,”
NYC Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon, Dr. Andrew
Jacono explains. “In my practice, I saw a 15% increase in
requests for Botox and fillers due to self-awareness from social
media in 2014 and expect this number to increase in 2015.”
If you needed any further convincing of how social media is fragmenting and re-defining female value, the proof is in the plastic surgery. Inspired by the icons of internet beauty, women are starting to consider permanent cosmetic procedures as just another fashion choice. The growing desire to alter their bodies to fit a global standard of beauty exposes a direct financial exchange hiding under all the self-love mantras. Buttock augmentation surgery rose by 86 percent in the States last year – fashion trends are becoming physical. Clearly the global beauty economy is no longer content selling aspirational products, so it’s started selling aspirational bodies instead. It seems macabre, but have we really any right to be horrified? Will we look back in 30 years at women who haven’t had lip fillers in the same way that my mother looks with disgust at my unshaven armpits? “Ultimately our bodies are products of both nature and culture,” says Entwistle, “they are flesh and blood but they are always and everywhere cloaked in cultural signs and symbols from the moment we’re born.” She adds (and I wholly agree) that “there is no way to strip the culture from the natural body”. Sartorial fashion has always been tribal; wearing certain colours, designers or brands identifies you with a trend, a movement and essentially a world-view. Am I missing the point on all of this? Is plastic surgery just punk with fewer safety pins? It can be dangerous to demean extremeness because you run the risk of belittling a political message, which does in fact run through it. While someone like Katharine Hamnett was happy to literally spell out her objectives on a t-shirt, perhaps this is DIY identity politics for the postmodern: demonstrate the pervasiveness of consumer culture by literally becoming that cultural ideal. Maybe it’s not so different after all – the practical consequence of shifting the focus up on to our faces means the wearer simply identifies with their chosen tribe in the appropriately modern way. We are now encountering Extreme Beauty Solutions for a detached global community.
Except, I just don’t believe that’s okay. Obviously it’s worse. Obviously it’s horrifying to think that women are being encouraged by a duplicitous and omnipresent anti-culture to alter their bodies. Why is it horrible? Because it’s permanent. It creates a cage of culture under the skin, which cannot be slipped off or unbuckled or washed away. As women, our bodies are the final battleground between the inner self and external systems of power desperate to exploit and undermine us. When we let scalpels peel away at our flesh, we sacrifice ourselves to the gods of materialism, consumerism and capitalism. When we accept that our bodies are born lacking, the process of trying to perfect them to a set of arbitrary, temporary standards places our cultural complicity over our faces like a blindfold on reality. But reality remains, whether we’re seeing it or not. And the fact is, it isn’t all virtual.