what is beauty in the age of technology?

It was easy to vilify the first wave of web vanity: the downward camera angles, the pouts, the filters. Yet this was little more than a free enterprising forerunner to Instagram’s full-blown Reaganism. A complex economy of concealed vanity, faux self...

by Nathalie Olah
28 November 2014, 11:20am

Marte wears coat Céline. Jumpsuit Topshop Unique. Bra Kiki de Montparnasse. Earring Delfina Delettrez. Sunglasses A-morir. Necklace Alex Monroe. Bag Sonia Rykiel. Shoes Phiney Pet.

Last month, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced plans to quadruple the maximum prison sentence for internet trolls from six months to up to two years. Virtual bullying is being taken increasingly seriously, and while this might seem like a frivolous use of resources, the impact of social media on our collective psychology cannot be denied. In fact, I would argue that social media's modus operandi of self-promotion is substantially more damaging than its trolls.

In its best and most democratic application, the internet is a place of free speech, a land where professional and financial status, nepotism and social cliques are irrelevant. Yet the rallying of factions from the broadsheet commentariat is slowly suffocating this freedom. Rather than the medium itself being regulated by a collective democracy, media workers with the authority of a 10k+ following are in control. For the first time in history the broadsheet crowd has been able to ingratiate itself with young people and reshape youth culture in its own, downright passé, image. This has given rise to a normcore trend that refuses to die. In years to come its sinister influence will become more apparent, in the use of "cool" to justify resistance to subcultures and street wear, levelling trends and breeding conformity to a style that is oppressively white - or worse still, touting "chola", "naija" and "valley girl" as if they are emerging trends, subject to the seasonal rotations of the fashion world.

The internet is a place of free speech, a land where professional and financial status, nepotism and social cliques are irrelevant. 

The narrative is always the same: the Western European woman is an enlightened free thinker, vaguely androgynous and above the crass, overt and high-maintenance practices of an exotic "other". Of course, this is far from true and we only have to scratch the surface of "natural" looks peddled by fashion magazines to see that they conceal thousands of pounds spent on Brazilian blow-dries, manicures, subtle plastic surgery, make-up and stringent exercise regimes. How many documentaries have appeared in recent years exploring the "weird world" of modern beauty practices? How many sympathetic think pieces must we read about the culture of self-grooming by artfully dishevelled writers wearing COS? How often must we read online, via Twitter or otherwise, that another broadsheet writer doesn't "get" waxing, manicures, hair dye or slimming? It's written for the ostensible purposes of opposing a patriarchal, profit-driven system, but in reality it carries a tone of superiority: the author themselves being above such petty and vain concerns.

It might sound counterintuitive, but the Kardashian model is perhaps the most honest. By making no secret of the smoke, mirrors, contoured make-up and vaginal codpieces that go into constructing their looks, they maintain the full disclosure promised by the breakdown of the fourth wall, rather than seeking to reverse it by using ever more deceitful tactics. Kim and Kanye's efforts to be acknowledged by the fashion world, while being mocked universally, were nothing compared to the efforts of their detractors in creating their own carefully-studied, nonchalant personas. Kim Kardashian offers an invaluable service to us all insofar as her presence draws attention to the absurd hordes of grown adults employed to critique her. There's beauty in sincerity, but sincerity is what's at stake in today's social-media dominated landscape. The media class has tried to create a facsimile of sincerity - indeed, it often tries to be our "friend" - while patronising our habits, slyly ridiculing our insecurities and seeking to assert its own, enlightened authority. It has done so through faux deprecation. A new breed of first-person writing designed to resemble the "common man" (cheers guys!) while subtly promoting itself. As if there's something down to earth about the media craze for writers who admit to putting on weight, or wearing big pants, or farting as a means of self-publicity.

Take the self-deprecating selfie (crossed eyes, magnified cellulite, no make-up), presented as an antidote to ego, this is as much a quest for likes as what existed before it. Via silly faces and memes, the brave warrior standing up to corporate oppression and skewed body image in 2014 is asking us to see that they are "normal". The face of normal no less, in the self-obsessed age of the internet. The irony of which seems to elude them time and time again.

It's fine for a supermodel to promote an image alternative to the one that appears in global ad campaigns. For the rest of us, Instagram really is the only avenue.

Not since Posh Spice sang the words "Girl Power" in a leather mini, has a call to arms been as ineffective. Breeding a generation of cross-eyed pretenders scrambling over likes, it's hardly the rabble-rousing gesture needed to get young people off their phones, into the world and feeling beautiful. On top of that, most people do not have a body of glossy editorials to their name as proof of being good looking. It's fine for a supermodel to promote an image alternative to the one that appears in global ad campaigns. For the rest of us, Instagram really is the only avenue, and why should we be dubbed vain for wanting to use it to look good?

The anti-beauty trend is further fuel for the fire of inadequacy that burns inside all of us and is quelled only by a cool few hundred likes. We can continue to deceive ourselves in this way or finally face up to what we know already: that beauty never has and never will be a numbers game. The volume of likes you rack up is an unreliable indicator of popularity. Sympathy, for a person desperately seeking approval, plays a large part in the psychology of pressing "like". As does social visibility - the "liker" themselves trying to appear generous. Even if we assume that someone is pressing like, or making a kind comment out of genuine admiration, you have to ask yourself: for what, exactly? For an atomised self, reduced to a series of still images - people liking "holiday you" over "toilet you", "art gallery you" over "post office you". We have become the prophecy of Cindy Sherman: a mutable being, shifting in pose and get-up from one mass produced ideal to another.

The love of those close to us no longer stands up next to the empirical feedback loop of social media likes and comments, and how do we reconcile that with the very persuasive argument that attractiveness is entirely based on self-belief?

Look instead to models like Edie Campbell, who uses Instagram as a way of sharing her passion - horses. Having escaped the clutches of today's self-promotion epidemic, she emerges liberated and better equipped to deal with the frankly innocuous culture of online hate.

What's in a like? Put simply, it's an expression that we have pleased someone else. As Joan Didion wrote in her 1961 essay, : "We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others is an attractive trait." If, in fact, the very opposite is true - that seeking the approval of others is itself unattractive - then the instantaneous return we get on posting flattering pictures could be stifling our chances of long-term happiness. The cumulative effect of seeing somebody post hundreds of self-portraits is off-putting, and as Didion elaborates, we see why: "The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others - who are, after all, deceived easily enough; it has nothing to do with reputation, which as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O'Hara, is something which people with courage can do without."

Look instead to models like Edie Campbell, who uses Instagram as a way of sharing her passion - horses. Having escaped the clutches of today's self-promotion epidemic, she emerges liberated and better equipped to deal with the frankly innocuous culture of online hate. "Comments are likely to be from someone I will never meet, have never met, so far removed from me personally and geographically that it has very little power," she tells me. The importance we place in online hate is directionally proportional to the amount of importance we place in online likes. Remain indifferent to both and the whole thing begins to look pretty silly, as does using social media to promote good self-esteem and confidence. Like hosting an AA meeting in the pub.

Aspiring photographers pore over early pictures of Kate Moss, trying to decipher the science behind her mass appeal. It is the same dilemma Rick Owens' wife Michèle Lamy recounts, describing an afternoon spent with photographer Bruce Weber trawling through old photography books from the 1950s. In a conversation earlier this year she explained to me that they were lamenting the "loss of interesting faces".

There is no substitute for life. Trying to curate, package and promote ourselves for the purposes of social media - no matter who your audience might be - will never be conducive to feeling beautiful and creating genuinely beautiful work. Increasingly, self-awareness, exacerbated by the immediate feedback loop of the internet, is destroying beauty. Kate Moss in those awkward, doe-eyed portraits by Corinne Day delivers something that had not been seen on camera since a young, strawberry-blonde Marilyn headed to the seaside years before: a girl on the precipice of adulthood, awkwardly navigating the ways of the camera and laughing with each failed attempt to replicate the poses and gestures of fully matured women. We are laughing with her and being reminded of our own, much younger optimism. We are looking at a small slice of real, unfettered life. We can replicate the look, the feel, the pared-down style but we will never recreate the spirit. Not until we stop assessing our own existence as we live it, constantly weighing up the potential return (or lack thereof) of each decision, each statement and photo we post. True beauty will reign again, but not until we put down our phones, get off Twitter and start forgetting that we ever gave a fuck about what a group of faceless strangers - themselves flawed and scared of disturbing the culture of conformity - said about us online.

You cannot do the job of Corinne Day with an iPhone camera and a quest for likes. At that point self-awareness has already seized control. True beauty instead happens when you're not thinking about it. Only then do you become the vibrant, active, fascinating person you are capable of being. You might not have the Google analytics stats to prove it, but you're going to have to trust me.



Text Nathalie Olah
Fashion Director Charlotte Stockdale
Image from The Street Issue, i-D No. 326, Pre-Fall 2013

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Nathalie Olah