As the term “snapchat dysmorphia” enters our collective vocabulary, I think it’s time we talked about the way we look and the way we pretend to look on social media. Perfection hasn’t gone out of style, it’s become the bare minimum. As reports of patients asking for cosmetic procedures to make them look like retouched selfies (their own or celebrities’) accumulate, it seems that the digital images we create and consume are affecting the way we see ourselves in an unheard of way. I want to talk about the hyperreal.
Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the hyperreal can be summed up as follows; Contemporary society is filled to the brim with signs and representations of things that are so far removed from the thing itself that the sign becomes more familiar and appears more real than the thing it is made in reference to. One loses the ability to differentiate between the genuine and the artificial. Make sense? Let’s use the facetuned selfie as an example. The image is a representation of your body. It is not the real thing – it does not hold flesh, nor does it function as a body, it is only an image. However, if we subscribe to the idea of the hyperreal, the image is held as more true than the material reality. You see yourself as the image, the image is a truer self.
So then, when you study your un-facetuned, un-made-up face in the mirror, it can seem less like you than the photo. It can even cause emotional distress, or dissociation, or indeed dysmorphia where your idea of your appearance is so far removed from reality that the reality seems sick and wrong and in need of correction through whatever means necessary. Means like, for a start, heavy makeup only to continue on to more drastic remedies like cosmetic procedures. Taking your own selfie to the cosmetic surgeon’s office is an almost laughably accurate illustration of the hyperreal, as the copy becomes the prototype for the original.
Corporations benefit greatly from this obsession with the perfected digital self. Many of the filters published on social media are actually marketing campaigns for beauty brands – for instance, Kylie Jenner’s instagram story filter promoted the Kylie Cosmetics brand by retouching users’ faces to the extreme and letting users “try on” Kylie products digitally. The idea, supposedly, being that upon seeing your face in Kylie-vision, you’ll fall in love and go buy the product to achieve something like it in real life.
Tragically, Jenner herself seems to be a victim of the hyperreal instagram beauty ideal – despite being a wealthy celebrity with access to all manner of beauty products, glam squads and cosmetic surgery, she still can’t meet these beauty standards, and uses filters and editing profusely on top of an already beautified body. In essence, Jenner is both agitator and victim, raking in cash by subjecting her fans to the same level of cosmetic scrutiny that they subject her to.
Makeup – like Kylie Jenner’s now-digitized Lip Kit – plays a role in perpetuating the way the hyperreal takes form in our lives as well, of course. Not only as consumer products, but as tools to modify our appearances – while the digitally-edited selfies are unattainable, the made-up face is somewhat tethered to reality. Makeup is arguably used for self-expression – an expression of a truer self, but it’s often one that aligns more firmly with idealized femininity.
As digital retouching and cosmetic surgery are contributors to and tools of the hyperreal, so is makeup. It alters our self-image in its own right – and on its own, it’s not so sinister. But consider this: isn’t the ever-favored “my lips but better” lipstick a perfect fit for the idea of the hyperreal – it’s you, but it’s more you. It’s not at the level of facetune, lip fillers or rhinoplasty, but it’s in the same ballpark. Makeup can be an innocuous entry point into a world where your self-image can become a fiction ruled by pixels rather than flesh. That lipstick just may plug you in to a beautiful matrix.
Header image: Face the Future by Steven Meisel for Vogue Italia, 2012