I use Instagram every day and it’s starting to remind me of eating sweet-and-salty popcorn. It can be difficult to use it mindfully and thoughtfully. It’s super samey, but there are just enough surprising variations to keep you chewing or scrolling. Consuming it is compelling, and I’m not always sure that I’m enjoying myself, but it has an addictive quality that makes it difficult to stop. Ultimately, I’m not sure if it’s nourishing me. And I think that some people might be sprinkling poison on the popcorn.
Increasingly, every time I open the app I’m directed to engage with sponsored, promoted, heavily filtered images that sit alongside the posts of my friends, with tables I’ve eaten at and puppies I’ve petted. One of the models that has popped up, unsolicited, in my feed is the Brazilian "influencer", Lil Miquela. She’s been in V Magazine, she wears Vetements and Maison Margiela, and she has over 950,000 followers. She isn’t real, either. She is a computer-generated cyborg and, at the time of writing, no one knows who is responsible for creating her. Rationally, I realise that wanting a particular piece of clothing because she has it makes as much sense as playing The Sims and then wondering where you can buy your character’s handbag. Yet, when I saw her thank a haircare brand for her imaginary glossy fringe, I still found myself clicking the link.
Have we reached Peak Perfect? Lil Miquela’s rise follows that of Shudu, the first virtual supermodel. After Shudu appeared on Fenty Beauty’s Instagram account at the start of the year, Harper’s Bazaar discovered that she was created by the photographer Cameron-James Wilson, who said, “She represents a lot of the real models of today. There’s a big kind of movement with dark skin models, so she represents them and is inspired by them.” It is jarring, at best, to hear that a white man has created a fake woman of colour in order to capitalise on a “movement”.
Dazed writer Dominic Cadogan asks, “Shouldn’t we be celebrating the fact that a dark skinned black woman is gaining popularity in fashion, even if she isn’t real? [It] could help promote conversations around diversity in fashion.” I think we need to answer the question with another question. Who are these images serving, and what are they selling? Are we nourished and inspired by images of Shudu and Miquela, or are they raising an already unreachably high bar and preying on our insecurities? Many have pointed out that Shudu has a striking resemblance to the model Duckie Thot. If you hire a fake dark-skinned model made by a white man, are you simply paying lip service to diversity instead of hiring an actual woman of colour? Or is Cadogan right and is Shudu’s visibility a positive factor in an industry that has a serious diversity problem?
When a brand chooses to work with a computer-generated model, they’re saying that they want to hire a woman who is easy to manipulate and won’t answer back
Shudu and Miquela are works of art. Their pictures reminded me of Amalia Ulman, the artist who invented an Instagram persona, in which she posed as a troubled model. Her series, titled Excellences and Perfections, has been shown at the Whitechapel Gallery and the Tate Modern. I would argue that Ulman’s work occupies a queasy space and the social nature of Instagram means she was manipulating unwitting followers, some of whom, presumably, became deeply concerned about the character she had created. When your image is on the wall of a gallery, your viewers are immediately afforded distance, context and perspective. When you post your work guerrilla-style, in a space that brings it inside the homes and minds of millions, without explanation, your responsibilities change. Your image becomes potentially dangerous and you need to at least consider that what you create could have consequences.
Throughout my teens and beyond them, I have struggled with anorexia and bulimia, and I have always argued that it is simplistic and wrong to blame fashion magazines for the rise in disordered eating and body-image issues among women. The mechanism of a magazine means there is a useful barrier between the reader and what lies within. Magazines present fashion as art and every image is filled with clues of falsity, hallmarks of unrealness. Models dance with CGI butterflies or fall from the sky. Everything we see is a lovely lie. Perhaps we could argue that computer-generated models are the only logical conclusion to something that is inherently false. Yet, in the context of Instagram, which is full of friends, celebrities and spokespeople – a growing number of whom seem to be celebrating the space as a platform for their unfiltered realness – images of Shudu and Miquela seem disquieting and downright exploitative. They can only really exist on Instagram, unless someone sends a robot down a runway. They can only be successful and useful to their creators if other women want to be like them – essentially, if other women embrace a beauty standard that is not possible for humans.
One extremely positive aspect of Instagram is that it gives living, breathing models the chance to take control of the way they are seen and express themselves. Models aren’t just mannequins and the ones with the biggest followings are the ones whose personalities shine through. Those numbers lead to jobs. With that in mind, the CGI models seem not just dangerous, but dated. Women across all industries are shouting out and making it clear that they’re determined to be heard. When a brand chooses to work with a computer-generated model, they’re saying that they want to hire a woman who is easy to manipulate and won’t answer back. I believe this attitude is becoming unfashionable. Miquela and Shudu might be the last word in perfection, but looking perfect can only hold our attention for a finite amount of time, especially in an industry that is built on the pursuit of the novel and new. The creation of successful CGI models makes me wonder whether our narrowest beauty standards have been taken to their logical conclusion. There is nothing left to look at now, unless we start to celebrate faces and bodies that are authentic, human and unique.
Perhaps Miquela and Shudu could bring about the backlash that ushers in the first wave of true fashion realness.