Written by Eliza Wierzbinska, M.A.
Is the “Ugly Selfie” Redefining Beauty Ideals? // Eliza Wierzbinska, M.A.
In this digital age technology has dramatically altered the definition of beauty. Photoshop has unleashed a constant pressure on girls and women to live up to a beauty ideal that is untrue, unrealistic, and unattainable. While most girls recognize that the images they see are doctored, they nevertheless continue to live up to these societal standards. Girls as young as ten are displeased with their body image: over 80 percent of ten-year old girls are afraid of being fat; by middle school, 40-70 percent of girls are dissatisfied with two or more parts of their body; and body satisfaction hits rock bottom between the ages of 12 and 15. Yet adolescents are not passive audiences that lack critical and analytical skills necessary to resist media manipulation. Youth bring considerable expertise to their use of mass media products. This makes me wonder if young girls are creating online communities that galvanize other young girls to post unphotoshopped images of themselves to challenge beauty ideals? Or, are young girls using the Internet to support one another in altering their images to reflect societal ideal beauty standards?
I started to investigate this question by taking a look at the “selfie” on Instagram. Taking and posting a ‘selfie’ is a growing trend. According to psychologists, this phenomenon is tied to our innate need to connect with other and receive validation. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that “54 percent of adult Internet users post original photos or videos online that they have themselves created,” with the majority being of themselves. While there is no statistical data for younger users (who are overwhelmingly female) yet, it can be extrapolated to be higher than this given their more active involvement with social media. After usage increased by an extraordinary 17,000 percent between 2012 and 2013, selfie became the Oxford Dictionary’s “Word of the Year 2013.” While there are many benefits of sharing a selfie for adolescent girls, such as facilitating self-exploration, there is the downside of mounting pressure to look good and always be camera ready. This age cohort, for whom social media is influential in molding a sense of self and shaping behavior, are at particular risk. Young girls want to have a presence online but they are also afraid of being judged.
The paradox of young girls wanting to be seen online but also being afraid of being judged for their appearance as led to numerous companies capitalizing on reinforcing social stereotypes of beauty ideals. There has been an influx of “selfie-help” apps targeting young girls’ insecurities. Perfect365 is positioned as a “one-tap makeover.” It allows users to remove blemishes, smooth skin to appear wrinkle-free, apply makeup and style hair. The iTunes description states, “Perfect365 makes it outrageously easy to achieve the look you see on magazine covers and websites with your own photos.” Other similar apps include Facetune, iPerfect, Visage Lab and ModiFace. These apps are increasingly popular with teenage girls. John Herrman on BuzzFeed describes that these apps are going beyond repairing or enhancing photos to “fixing” the subjects: “It is somewhere between classic airbrushing and plastic surgery, except it is self-administered and nearly instant.” Take the photo below for example, using Facetune the girl has whiten her teeth, removed her acne, reduced her wrinkles, shrunk her nose and lightened her skin tone. The aggressive photo manipulation girls are using through apps such as Facetune seems to demonstrate that girls are aware of the unrealistic image put forth by the media and instead of refuting it they have used their media skills to find technologies to make themselves look like an unattainable beauty ideal version of themselves.
Other apps exist that focus on body weight in a selfie. With 92 percent of teenage girls wanting to change something about the way they look – and body weight ranking the highest – this is concerning. The Skinny Booth app has the tagline “Do you think your face looks fat? Make it skinny and thin.” The “after” photos are labeled as “realistic.” SkinneePix trims five to fifteen pounds of virtual fat for a slimmer look. The co-founders of Pretty Smart Woman, who created SkineePix, say it was originally designed to help overweight adults show a leaner version of themselves and has actually motivated people to lose weight: “It is a good reminder to get off the couch, turn the television off and go for a walk.” Teen girls may be using their media skills to conform to beauty ideals by finding and using apps, such as Factune and SkinnePix, to make themselves look like the unattainable version of themselves, just as they know teen models in magazines are manipulating the way they look by using Photoshoped to look more like beauty ideals. But is enabling such digital work the healthiest way to encourage positive body image? What if the improved images, after the selfie surgery, become the new expected norm for teen girls?
On the other hand is there a positive dimension to the selfie? By anyone having the power to participate in this act, there may be an opportunity to change the definition of “normal” and “beautiful” as conveyed by dominant media forces. Dr. Peggy Drexler argues that selfies can be empowering: “Girls creator Lena Dunham is a big fan of the selfie, both on social media and her show – which shares with a selfie confessional quality. On television, Dunham’s character often appears naked or in various states of undress; in real life, her Instagram selfies are not necessarily flattering by typical standards. They challenge the Hollywood ideal and that, too is a good thing – especially when size 0 celebrities dominate so much of the modern day visual barrage. The more we see a range of body types, the better.” In fact there is an “ugly selfie” movement emerging, where young girls post “unflattering” photos of themselves to subvert conventional beauty norms. This is the “uncomfortable double chin” said Ruby Karp, 13, in a New York Times article “With Some Selfies, the Uglier the Better”, whose selfie is below.
On Instagram, young girls use hash tags like #ugllieselfie to communicate through facial contortions that “you do not have to send a ‘pretty’ photo.” There is so much time spent in our culture, as with the aforementioned selfie-surgery apps, that the ugly selfie movement is trying promote that young girls do not have to be ashamed if they are not perfect and that they should be much more willing to embrace the ‘ugly’ or ironic. In the same article Harper Glantz, 15, said ‘We’ve created this culture where you’re constantly comparing yourself to other people, or images you see in the media or in the movies. I think that’s sort of where the pressure comes from, because you’re always having to measure up to something that is not of your own invention.” It is impactful and encouraging to see young girls creating and sharing images that are unedited on social media because they are “rebounding from perfection fatigue.”
Selfie surgery is translating into real world implications. A recent survey conducted by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery found a rapid rise in plastic surgery among people under the age of 30 years. In particular, it highlighted that “one in three facial plastic surgeons surveyed saw an increase in requests for procedures due to patients being more self-aware of looks in social media.” Are younger generations even more self-critical due to these selfie-help apps? Teens who are aware of the manipulation of photos in the media have used their media skills to seek out apps that allow them to use similar techniques to make themselves look like the unattainable version of themselves. They have not adjusted the beauty ideal but instead are using apps to adjust themselves to fit the beauty ideal.
On the other hand, teen girls have used technology via social media to post ugly selfies to communicate through facial contortions that they do not want to conform to cultural beauty standards. Girls are creating movements online through the hashtag #uglieselfie and through Tumblr blogs like “Pretty Girls Making Ugly Faces” to make the point that young girls do not need to send pretty photos, as such they are adjusting beauty ideals by not conforming to them and spreading the messages that it is time to stop trying to hide flaws because there is nothing to be ashamed of by not being perfect.
Young girls recognize the use of Photoshop in beauty ads and are using technologies on the internet and social media to both give in to societal pressures of expected beauty standards through the use of apps like Facetune and to also protest how advertising works by gravitating toward images that are authentic and real like through the ugly selfie movement. I hope more young girls will reclaim the public space of the Internet to adjust the existing beauty ideals by stripping the conventional approach to prettiness with the “ugly selfie” movement!
Bennett, J. (2014, Feburary 21st). With some selfies, the uglier the better. In The New York Times, Retrieved Oct 21st, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/fashion/selfies-the-uglier-the-better-technology.html
Drexler, P. (2013, Septemeber 16th). What your selfies say about you. In
Psychology Today, Retrieved Oct 21st, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-gender-ourselves/201309/what-your-selfies-say-about-you
Duggan, M. (2013, October 28th). Photo and Video Sharing Grow Online. In Pew Research Internet Project. Retrieved Oct 19th, from http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/10/28/photo-and-video-sharing-grow-online/
Herrman, J. (2013, October 9th). The rise of selfie surgery. In BuzzFeed, Retrieved Oct 20th, 2014, from http://www.buzzfeed.com/jwherrman/the-rise-of-selfie-surgery
Levine, S. (2014, April 8th). Powerful role models can change how we value girls. In the Daily Beast. Retrieved Oct. 19th 2014, from http://www.thedailybeast.com/witw/articles/2014/04/08/powerful-role-models-can-change-how-we-value-girls.html