There is something very wrong going on, something that is starting to worry me. It’s something I think has always been around, but in a somewhat more passive way, under the surface of society, only poking it’s head up here and there but never given the chance to fully take hold – until recently. It’s starting to change the way we perceive not only each other but ourselves.
I don’t even know what to name this disturbing new phenomenon masquerading as perfection. It’s a combination of human traits and tendencies we have always had: vanity, insecurities, lies, jealousy, and the search for perfection. What can I even call that? That group of things that have been collectively given the chance to do their worst in this age of social media and digital falsehoods. For all intents and purposes today I am going to call this thing the Perfect Lie.
The Perfect Lie has been enabled in recent years by social media and by digital platforms which allow us to lie in a way never before possible. Undoubtedly there have always been tricks of the trade (the ‘trade’ in this case: being a woman) of making ourselves appear closer to society’s current idea of perfection; all little lies we employ to change our appearance, to disguise what we truly look like. Think corsets to change our figures, wigs and chemicals to change our hair, pencils to draw on beauty spots we do not have, which are actually just face moles that have been labelled thus because they are thought to be beautiful. Look to the many cultures of the world and you will see countless methods used to conform with notions of beauty: feet-binding, neck lengthening, white face paint, lip rings, piercings, the list goes on.
Perhaps considered the world's most beautiful woman, even Marilyn Monroe relied on tricks of the trade to change her appearance, from peroxide hair dye to a drawn-on beauty spot which has since become iconic.
I want to make it clear I am not anti-makeup, there is nothing wrong with having fun, and I know it is virtually impossible to live life devoid of the expectations to look a certain way, no matter what culture or era we belong to. Even if we choose to defy expectations, to go bare, or go bold, we are making a conscious decision of defiance, meaning those expectations are still shaping how we present ourselves.
With the introduction of digital photography, we gained more control than we’d ever had before; we could review a photo taken 5 seconds ago and delete it forever if we didn’t like how we looked. With photo-sharing platforms like Facebook, things changed again, as the power shifted this time to our peers. Being tagged became both a blessing and a curse, and concerns rose over what unflattering photo may arise from that get together with friends last Friday night. I’m not alone, I am sure, in saying I have untagged many a photo of myself.
With the advancement of digital tools and squillions of apps, anyone with a smartphone now has access to sophisticated photo editing software that enables us to completely alter the way we look before sharing a photo with friends and followers. The thing is, often the people who keep up with us via social media are not people who see us a great deal – if at all – in real life. This is especially true of celebrity accounts. Individuals like Taylor Swift, Kim Kardashian and Beyonce have Instagram accounts followed by some 40 million (note: ten times the population of New Zealand) people, all of whom are being influenced by these images they are served in their daily feed.
The problem stems not from the fact that we can edit images before posting – this is what Instagram is all about after all, fun and fabulous filters. The problem comes from the fact that there is a lack of transparency about when edits are made, to a point we think we are seeing something genuine, something perfect, when we are not. We are not perfect, but we can make damn sure we look as close to it as possible.
The above image(s) was taken this evening on my iPhone. The top image is me. Unedited. A photo as all photos used to be, depicting something a lot closer to truth. It clearly shows the yellow bit of my tooth that I’ve had since that tooth came through and I have always hated. It shows the veins under my skin around my eyes, where my skin is particularly thin. Today happens to be an unusually great skin day (they don’t happen often!) but trust me, if I had a pimple or three, you can bet it would show them too. The bottom image depicts the exact same moment in time, only an edited, glorified version. Would you look at that... my yellow tooth has become white! In fact, all my teeth are whiter. My skin looks flawless and my complexion is glowing in a way that is not actually possible. My veins are no longer visible, any signs of wrinkles around the eyes have gone and I do believe there is eyeliner where previously there was none. This image is a lie, and it was created in about 3 minutes.
What I can’t help but worry is if this eager willingness to enhance our appearances foreshadows a willingness from taking more drastic action. Kylie Jenner is the youngest sibling of the Kardashian/Jenner clan; she has a sister who is a supermodel, and another who is considered one of the sexiest women on the planet. Kylie, despite appearances, is 17 years old. Regardless of any outward image, I have no doubt she is full of the same insecurities and worries about what people think of her as any 17 year old girl. More so, most likely, as she has the eyes of the world on her (she’s another with 40 million plus followers on Instagram) and a serious reputation to uphold. Like so many who use social media, she is a fan of taking selfies, and it is not uncommon for her latest Instagram picture to make news headlines in women’s sites around the globe. Only a couple of months ago she said in an interview, "Today I posted my Instagram picture three different times. I kept deleting it and re-posting it because I kept looking at the comments and they were bad comments." I think it's fair to say then that yes, she definitely has insecurities too.
Kylie Jenner in 2014 on the left, and 2015 on the right
You may notice something a little alarming when comparing the above images, taken a year apart. Kylie’s face has changed completely; most noticeably, her lips have ballooned. This was the cause of much media scrutiny until recently when the starlet admitted to having temporary lip fillers. It has had a lot of coverage, people are almost sick of hearing about it – I imagine eyes rolling as some of you read this now.
What worries me is what it was that people were saying about Kylie’s lips. People couldn’t understand how she had achieved such a perfect pout – was it makeup? People started referencing 'Kylie Jenner lips' and how to get them. There was a particularly concerning phase of people sucking desperately on cups or bottle caps for a prolonged period to get a plump pout. This often resulted in people’s lips bleeding and blistering, all in the hope of getting 'Kylie Jenner lips' (it was in fact called the Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge – just Google it). When it finally came out that it was a cosmetic procedure, people were relieved to have the answer. No one seemed to think, "Hold on, why is a 17 year old girl getting cosmetic enhancements... should we be a little worried about this?" People didn’t seem to think it was worrying that they were literally making themselves bleed to get Kylie Jenner Lips when Kylie Jenner doesn't even have them herself.
I know that by discussing this I am only adding to scrutiny over a young girl’s appearance, and that may not be a good thing, but I am scared by what I am seeing. Kylie is 17... 17 is awkward. You should not be expected to be perfect at 17, and you definitely should not feel the need to get cosmetically-enhanced lips at 17. If you do feel that need, I think we need to address that and ask why rather than think “ah, that explains it.” Kylie’s lip fillers should be causing people to ask questions rather than feel they have the answer.
The above flawless picture was posted recently to Kylie’s Instagram account and – to my eye – has clearly been airbrushed in the same way my image above has to create an illusion of perfect skin, a perfect face. Comments on the image are full of admiration, fans gushing about how “perfect” she is. Photos like these are a lie but they are genuinely accepted as truth and it is leading people to extreme measures to achieve something that is impossible.
I have watched with an element of sadness as others have started editing their photos to achieve this same lie of perfection. Jennifer Lopez is one who’s photos are becoming increasingly smooth and flawless, almost Days of our Lives-esque. Take the below image for example:
This woman celebrated her 46th birthday this week and looks hotter than ever (seriously check out the below pics from her birthday bash – what?! This is 46?!) and yet she is editing her Insta selfies to look fresh-faced, smooth and impossibly flawless. Worse, people are buying it. Why does one of the most gorgeous women in the world feel the need to do this? I know that looking good often results in feeling good, and I am all for being the best you can be – I would say that the below is definitely JLo at her best – but I am not for trying to be something you just aren’t, something that none of us are. Creating an illusion of perfection does not create a feeling of confidence, it ultimately is going to create a feeling of disappointment because the reality does not match the image you have put out there. Essentially, a lie.
So, what’s the solution? Is there one? I’m not sure there is. I don’t think people will stop editing their images, I just wish people would see it for what it is – would recognise that it is not the truth. It’s funny, as we have become more sceptical about the validity of anything that comes to us via the internet, we have let ourselves be fooled in this area. As I said, we have always had standards of beauty to live up to, but the fact that we are now capable of creating these standards on and within ourselves is what’s warping our sense of reality. It’s OK not be perfect – nobody is!