Discover more from very public secret society
beauty fails as a reason for being: on aesthetic + the presentation of the body
What's behind our obsession over appearance as an end in itself?
“She hated strangers staring, hated the thought of people making judgments about her. Yet at the same time she couldn’t dress down and drab, like Lee usually did. A part of her had to be seen and heard, to know she was real.”1
We the people, in order to form more perfect personas, establish artificial guidelines of physical appearance by which all must abide.
We the people have been lost to our personas.
“He didn’t even talk to me! I put this make-up on for nothing,” I once heard an acquaintance complain after being ignored at church by the guy she was pining for.
We’ve all done it: crafted ourselves before facing the public, whether a general public or a specific one. Hair, make-up, clothes, jewelry, whatever—we can’t just “go out like that.” We have an audience, even if it’s only our fellow grocery shoppers. In the end, no one might notice. But the work has already been done.
And the work is constantly being done, thanks to the internet. It’s being done so much that it’s exhausting to think about. How we perform via appearance (especially on the internet) is a theme I’ve partly focused on in research for my master’s degree. I want to know: Why are beauty filters so popular on social media apps? Why are men being targeted by mini-infomercials “proving” that a particular t-shirt style or shoe heel thickness makes them more attractive? Why do we allow social media to ‘subject girls’ physical appearance to the hard metrics of likes and comment counts2, taking the worst parts of middle school and glossy women’s magazines and intensifying them’?3 Why do we spend so much time and energy on the presentation of our bodies?
The cosmetics industry raked in over $93 billion last year. The fitness industry is currently worth $96 billion. The global apparel market is worth $1.5 trillion. It’s easy to measure cash, especially in such obnoxiously large amounts. It’s harder to measure the toll all that takes on our collective psyche and how organizations ostensibly concerned with promoting social well-being behave in detrimental ways.
One huge culprit is augmented reality (AR) filters, aka beauty filters, which are not just popular, but the norm on much of social media. The first iterations of these “face filters” were seen as gimmicks, something silly and fun used to create exaggerated floppy noses or plant dog ears or devil horns on one’s head. But filters have become increasingly normalized as a mode of earnest self-expression, especially for young women. Girls “see AR filters primarily as a tool for beautification”4 and feel a need to craft the “ideal self-presentation.”5 Studies have found that those who use beauty filters admit to a desire to present an “ideal self,” but not the “true self.”
Even more horrifying is a new industry where people are taking cues for their physical appearance from artificial intelligence.6 Not only do social media platforms edit faces to make them look more attractive, but algorithms using AI are determining what makes a face attractive. Now companies can show you what the algorithm looks for by pointing out computer-detected “flaws.” Such “beauty scoring algorithms” have led to the phenomenon of “Instagram face” where computers dictate how we the people should look if we want to be liked, and many are going under the knife to force their bodies into an unnatural, digitally defined configuration.
I know I’m focusing on the presentation of the face, especially on the internet. That’s because this is the new thing and the next thing; it’s where the concern and much of the research lies. However, the underlying issues are the same when it comes to other aspects of physical appearance, such as body sculpting and clothing.
Also, we have been doing this for ages: almost since the beginning of time, people used make-up, body markings, jewelry, and clothes to indicate social status or project authority. It’s aesthetic all the way down and all the way back. Social media just brings into focus the aggressiveness with which we chase an aesthetic framework for the presentation of the body.
Thanks for reading very public secret society! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
it all comes down to beauty
“Images are raising our baseline of beauty,” Anna Haines writes.7 Deep in our psyches, we have this idea that there is a way we should look. And whether overtly or subconsciously, we pursue that aesthetic ideal.
Recent scholarship has observed that the idea of an absolute aesthetic standard comes to the Western world from the ancient Greeks who carved statues of Apollo and measured moral worth by how closely one matched the visage of the Adonic sculpture. In later, especially European, cultures, it was taken as a given that a generally attractive appearance accompanied a morally and socially upright person while an ugly appearance indicated a person of inferior moral or spiritual status. Thus, one can understand the drive to appear within acceptable bounds of aesthetic beauty.
It should come as little surprise that a statue carved by a European man out of white marble should differ wildly in appearance from most individuals whose descent is geographically removed from that region, but it was taken for granted by many, nonetheless, that the ideal that this statue represented would be shared and appreciated by all, regardless of what features might be more common in their own region.8
Ultimately, we all want to appear beautiful. We’re just confused about the standard by which beauty should be measured, so we have begun pursuing beauty as an end in itself, as if the way things look is the sum of what they are. This is the extreme end of aesthetics, by the way: a focus on appearance as the reason for being. In such a context, beauty becomes “as detached from humanity as possible”9—and detached from a whole load of superior ephemera.
Everything, then, becomes wrapped up in beauty: happiness, success, self-esteem, and a sense of fulfillment and purpose. But focusing on achieving beauty is like trying to build a pyramid and putting all our energy into the apex. The apex is nothing without the base and all the brick and mortar in between. The apex falls without the rest of the pyramid.
Beauty fails as a reason for being.
Beauty does not leave a mark. The work done to achieve beauty leaves a mark. “If you’re focusing on the look instead of the labor,” DeFino says in her essay about Madonna’s new face, “you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The outcome is not the central issue here; the input is.”
Even if we achieve an aesthetic beauty ideal, the labor is the thing that leaves scars on our souls.
redeeming the pursuit of beauty?
Is it actually so bad to pursue a beautiful appearance? Is it wrong to use make-up, hair dye, tanning beds, skin lighteners, suits and ties? What about putting our bodies under knives and subjecting them to other-than-biological procedures and adornments? Is it beauty we’re pursuing, or is beauty our interpretation of perfection? Is beauty the way we aspire to something higher than what we are?
We can’t be perfect, but we’re nearly killing ourselves trying to be.
Despite the growing movement around body positivity and the united cultural effort to norm diverse body types, the presentation of the body is subjected to consistent scrutiny. We appeal to an aesthetic standard even as we loudly proclaim every body to be good. The only ideal that can support this concept and prevent us from falling into arbitrary (or AI-driven) beauty frameworks is the concept of imago Dei, the image of God.
While imago Dei is regularly understood to describe our intellectual, spiritual, and moral dimensions as reflecting the qualities of deity, it stands to reason that the body itself, the flesh that makes us up, is also an aspect of the divine image. And that is why it’s rooted in us that our physical dimensions are meant to adhere to a set of superior and universal standards.
Know thyself, say the philosophers.
Be thyself, says a creator god.
When Christ incarnates, there is no remarkableness in his appearance. He discards divinity and is enfleshed, not just in a human form but as a man. God condescending to our form is no small matter. Our form is his form too. He embraces this standard of beauty with all its seeming flaws, diversities, and inconsistencies. The Greeks had the right idea: there is an absolute aesthetic standard bearer, but he’s less like Apollo and more like us.
The way we pursue beauty standards today is a perversion; we aren’t even trying to be like God who embraced human form. We’re making unseemly gods with inhumane standards and enslaving ourselves to them.
In the old days, people made images of the gods they conceived. But we’ve made gods of the images we’ve conceived of ourselves. Like the mythic serpent eating its tail, this self-consuming, self-referential religion is an endless descent. It plays out in higher levels of depression, anxiety, division within communities, and excessive mutilation celebrated as body modification. (I recently viewed images of someone getting their tongue split. “A week of pain for a lifetime of awesome,” she said.)
The desire for a flawless appearance is good, but how we go about it (and the way we define a flaw) is all wrong. We wear our bodies outside of ourselves and treat our physical matter like performance art. None of this is to say that crafting and cultivating a presentation of the body is wrong. But before we continue down the road of self-referential attempts to achieve beauty—an effort metastasized thanks to the internet giving us the ability to instantly modify the presentation of ourselves—we must reclaim the unmodified body as an aesthetic good.
asides + signal boosts
The new season of Black Mirror is out and it’s terrifying. As it should be! I love Netflix’s awareness of itself as a near-cypher for some of our post-modern dilemmas. The warnings in this season—AI actors, companies owning our lives via those T&Cs that no one reads—are less future fantasy and more overshadowing of reality. It feels like someone, somewhere is probably doing these things already. The episode “Loch Henry” concerns our addiction to crafting life as story and the toll it takes when we sell our story-bound souls to the public. It provided some very good brain matter for the next entry in the aesthetic series—on the individual as self-curator.
I finished reading Everything Sad is Untrue, by Daniel Nayeri. And if you haven’t read it, it deserves all the accolades it gets and more. It’s not so much a true book as a book that deals with true things. 💛 I’m grateful to my friend Jaclyn, who writes A Sojourner’s Garden, for the recommendation last year.
“ASTROTURF,” the new Royal & the Serpent song, also made up some of the soundtrack as I was mentally drafting this essay.
From The Doors of Eden, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
While this obsession with the way we present our bodies affects everyone, most of the research that has been done surrounding this issue focuses on the young female demographic, which tends to be affected at a higher rate.
Tate Ryan-Mosley, “Beauty filters are changing the way young girls see themselves,” MIT Technology Review, 2021. This is an excellent overview of the crisis caused by beauty filters.
Ana Javornik, et.al., “‘What lies behind the filter?’ Uncovering the motivations for using augmented reality (AR) face filters on social media and their effect on well-being,” Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 128, March 2022
PODCAST: “In Machines We Trust: The AI of the beholder,” MIT Technology Review, https://megaphone.link/MIT3184912056