There’s nothing natural about looking flawless 

First there was Instagram face and now, America’s First Lady’s curiously “unblemished” official portrait. Are we hurtling towards a time when no-one can accept how they actually look, asks Laura Craik

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By Laura Craik on

For most people, the past week will be remembered as The One Where She Finally Triggered Brexit. For me, it will be remembered as the one where selfies finally went legit – some might say an only marginally less depressing event. Oft-derided as the sole preserve of the vacuous, selfies are now considered an art form, and have the exhibition to prove it. On March 31st, From Selfie To Self Expression opened at London’s Saatchi Gallery – and it’s brilliant. Brilliant in the true sense of the word: literally dazzling, thanks to the eyeball-searing grid of digital images installed on vast wall-mounted screens.

Featuring work from artists as varied as Tracey Emin, Cindy Sherman and Van Gogh, the exhibition tracks how smartphones have allowed ordinary people to document the world around them, as well as tracing how the ancient art of self-portraiture has developed through the centuries. I didn’t expect to find it thought-provoking, but it was. Certainly, it was more thought-provoking than the average selfie. A cursory scroll through Instagram would suggest that everyone is hellbent on conforming to the same narrow paradigm of beauty: painted-on eyebrows, spider-leg lashes, almond-shaped eyes, contoured face, cute button nose and lips as big as your liner / lipgloss / surgeon will allow. The Kardashian-Jenners have a lot to answer for.

Definitions of beauty change throughout the ages, of course, but never have they felt more narrow. Which is ironic, given that one of the most positive things about social media is its ability to encourage diversity. Everyone has a platform. Who knew that so many would use their platform to try to look the same as everyone else?

The rise of “Instagram Face” has been well-documented. “Social media absolutely perpetuates one aesthetic,” makeup artist Kevin James Bennett told the New York Times last year. “It’s like looking at a bunch of clones. They’re Botoxed, filled and surgeried…. I love how they all say ‘just be you’ when they all look the same.” I’ve already written here about my worries over Snapchat, and how young girls are using filters to fashion “new” faces that can lead to them feeling depressed about their real ones. The trend for heavy makeup feels like an extension of this. All flaws and quirks are erased, but so too is all character.

America’s First Lady put out an official portrait that looks more like a press shot for an X Factor judge – soft focus lense, eyes staring into the middle distance, can’t quite manage a smile, retouched to Kardashian-esque levels of faux

How Instagram Face will affect girls and young women with low self-esteem as they get older, it’s too early to tell. Lest we forget, Instagram has only been around since 2010 (yes, really), even though it might feel like forever. I don’t think Instagram Face is going anywhere soon: how can it, when we’re all so obsessed with social media, and at an ever younger age? Anyone who watched the wonderful Child Of Our Time on Tuesday night (BBC1, 9pm) will be under no illusion about how much time kids spend on their phones. The 25 babies first enlisted by Professor Robert Winston in 2000 are now 16, and Tuesday’s episode explored their addiction, explaining that teens now spend an average of nine hours a day on screens, often sending over 400 messages a day. That many of these are selfies will come as no surprise: nobody is more self-obsessed than a teenager. It comes with the territory. It’s natural.

Only there’s nothing natural about the majority of these selfies. They’re about as fake and stylised as an image can be. Then again, when America’s First Lady puts out an official portrait that looks more like a press shot for an X Factor judge - soft focus lense, eyes staring into the middle distance, can’t quite manage a smile, retouched to Kardashian-esque levels of faux – you can hardly blame girls for being curious to experiment with their own image. If the tools are there, you use them.

Don’t I know it. When my passport needed renewing last month, I was so horrified by what the photobooth spewed out (HOW MANY CHINS? REALLY?) that I toyed with taking my own pics, then digitally manipulating them. How tempting it was to remove the frown lines and the eye bags. In the end, I made myself go back to the photobooth without a scrap of makeup on. For the next ten years, I’ll have to look at the result every time I leave the country. Maybe I’ll stay in London forever. The desire to tinker with that photo and improve myself was so strong that it sort of scared me. We’re hurtling towards a time when no-one can bear to look at how they actually look. In fact, we’re probably there already. So instead of changing my face, I’m trying to accept it. It’s really fucking hard, though.


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Laura Craik

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