As a society, we’re obsessed with looks, often in a way that seems like we no longer can process authentic beauty.
Back when I was a makeup artist I’d laser focus on a person’s best feature and highlight it in a way that made their face look as perfect as possible. In that way, I could transform a face from what others saw as ordinary to what I recognized as being inherently exquisite. That started to become trickier when people increasingly nipped and tucked, and their features became almost too perfect…and not in a good way.
Is a perfect booty worth dying for?
Last week the Daily Beast ran a story called How the Kardashians Changed the Face of Plastic Surgery. The article detailed the sobering ways some usually younger women pursue plastic surgery as a way of achieving unrealistic b̶o̶o̶t̶y̶ beauty. Apparently, the overly generous and likely enhanced bottoms of the Kardashian clan inspired a wave of Brazilian butt lift (BBL) procedures, which come at tremendous risk. A 2017 study found one out of 3,448 fatalities for every procedure. So was it worth dying for a perfect bottom? Historically speaking, dangerous beauty is nothing new.
Let’s focus on treatments related to the eyes for a moment.
In Renaissance Italy, women used belladonna (Italian for beautiful lady) — an extract made from the berries of atropa belladonna a deadly nightshade plant — to dilate their pupils to seem more aroused and therefore more attractive to men. Used too often, belladonna also caused permanent blindness. You’d think in the centuries since then women would have learned their lesson about using dangerous products in or near their eyes, they did not.
In the 1930s Lash-Lure, a product used to dye eyelashes and eyebrows caused severe skin issues and blindness. Since mass-produced makeup and beauty treatments were relatively new, there wasn’t any organized oversight. It wasn’t until 1938 that the FDA passed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act after years of consumer concern. One oft-cited reason for the act was the public display of images of a woman blinded by Lash-Lure at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
Back then women demanded truth in advertising as opposed to being presented with products that could maim them in the name of beauty.
The dangerous allure of unattainable beauty ideals on reality TV
If you look at the incredibly public private lives of anyone on reality TV, you’ll notice a recurring theme – there’s nothing real to see.
Bountiful cosmetic surgery and other treatments render the stars of these shows almost unrecognizable. Though to be fair, I’ve never as much as glanced at a Real Housewife, so I doubt I’d be able to choose between a Giudice or a Vanderpump in a line-up.
Last week was the blessed series finale of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, a franchise that took vapid merchandising to a billion-dollar level. I have no doubt that images from season one look significantly different than season twenty, and that doesn’t begin to take into account the Bruce to Caitlyn transformation.
Along those lines, in April, Khloe Kardashian posted then deleted a photograph that showed her body off in all its un-Photoshopped glory. Fans applauded the idea of her appearing to actually look like herself. The photo was soon scrubbed from the internet though since it was believed to go against the airbrushed Kardashian ideal. Apparently, her momager and sister product pushers were outraged that anything other than their perceived idea of perfection be posted online.
The disappeared image was a stark contrast to an earlier image of Kardashian in which her entire appearance was so radically altered that she was practically unrecognizable (and even I recognize her in photos most of the time, despite there being a Kardashian blackout in my family).
Filters gone wild
We’ve established that more famous faces (and derrieres) seem inclined to drastically filter and surgically alter themselves, but what about the rest of us? As in the ordinary folks who see and comment on the outlandish beauty routines of those in the spotlight, but generally don’t follow suit.
Last week, MIT Technology Review reported that TikTok changed the shape of some people’s faces without asking. Apparently, in late May select usually female users of the apps noticed their faces appeared thinner and more traditionally feminine looking. Users were by turns outraged or annoyed, but no explanation followed.
Do you still own your potentially manipulated face?
We live in a world in which Deepfake manipulated videos can be used to make people believe something is true that isn’t. We also live in a deeply fake world where reality television is heavily scripted and produced, yet presented as being some sort of an alternate reality for the incredibly wealthy.
As we rely on filters and cropping or actual nipping and tucking to make us appear similar to impossible ideals, popular apps have followed suit…only without our permission to do so.
Keeping up with social media
Today I contemplated taking an extended break from social media. Beyond connecting with friends and finding great work leads and new clients, social media has become incredibly draining.
Most social media networks, browsers, and operating systems are already highly intrusive and seek access to our private information and shopping habits. Beyond that, with apps changing our appearance, or laying claim to our faces and voices, one has to wonder how to balance the fun of being online, with the constant fear that we no longer own even ourselves online anymore.
*I also taught a course at Parsons (in association with LVMH) called A Short History of Beauty Culture From Cleopatra to the Kardashians.