This morning a friend shared a Huffington Post article by Amanda Duberman about a project by Esther Honig, a human interest reporter, who sent a photograph of herself to photo-editors in over twenty-five countries. She asked them simply “to make me beautiful,” and through their photoshopping efforts she would examine the standards of beauty, and concepts of the “perfect woman,” to see how cultural values had affected the outcome. The results were stunning.
While my initial response to the amazing variety of images emanated from my artist self, a comment by a male friend about the article really got me re-thinking the thrust of her project. My friend stated flatly that make-up (both face paint and computer paint) was all the same. I re-read the article, which is when my cringe factor began to tingle, thus compelling me to write this essay.
First of all, a word about make-up. Make-up has been around since Egyptian times or earlier, so the desire to enhance and dramatize seems to be an inherent tendency in the human condition. That much is true.
However, the thing about “computer make-up” and “mannequinesk” alterations is that for decades young women have been bombarded from all sides with a fake, unattainable ideal as represented in the media, advertising, and the entertainment industry. Today, corporate exploitation of human frailties, the mindless obsession with celebrity idolatry, and the dangerous pursuit of everything artificial has caused a hysterical rejection of our “flaws,” and an epidemic of dysmorphic perceptions and attitudes about the natural human form and its outer appearance. Anorexia, bulimia, Body Dysmorphic Disorder, extreme plastic surgery – all betray a crisis of self, and a crisis of identity that has exploded in recent history.
In examining the array of images, I couldn’t help but observe that the American version of Honig’s face, featured in the Huffington Post, underscores our society’s current obsession with the infantilized woman (usually devoid of pubic hair) as a desirable sexual object. In any case, Honig appears undeniably pubescent in this doctored photo. A second American photoshopped image (on her website) is an unabashed rendition of Angelina Jolie as the model for idealized feminine beauty. These are obvious western constructs that I’m already familiar with and can easily identify. It would be interesting to be able to spot how the other images reflect different aspects of popular culture in their respective countries. And out of curiosity, I would especially like to know which images were shopped by men, and which ones were done by women. I suspect that a pattern would emerge suggesting possible gender bias or preferences in rendering the female face, but a controlled study group would be essential for this kind of research.
Nevertheless, I admit that viewing the Before & After gallery vis-à-vis the country of origin is intriguing. And I do applaud Honig’s personal growth and cultural awakening, her openness to “the concept of religion and custom, not just aesthetics,” her realization of how uneven her natural skin tone is. BUT the fact remains that her thesis is shallow, disappointing, and does nothing to address cultural stereotyping or the pressure on men and especially women everywhere to “measure up” in the beauty department somehow, some way. After all, foot binding, invented to achieve the coveted (albeit crippled and pus-oozing) lotus foot, was the pinnacle of Chinese status, beauty, and sexiness not so long ago. And let’s not forget the rib-cracking corsets with the 16-20 inch target waistline… but I digress.
What’s most frustrating is that she hints at the problem of “unattainable standards of beauty,” but then superficially glosses over it by stating, “when we compare those standards on a global scale, achieving the ideal remains all the more elusive.” She never says, just be yourself and forget the brainwashing you’ve been subjected to. She never wonders about women around the world and their struggles to negotiate imposed patriarchal values and standards. She never talks about the consequences of buying into the beauty myth or asks how we even got to his point. All of these things scream out to be examined and have everything to do with her project, but are ignored. This could not be better illustrated than by her failure to comment on the two American versions of her image discussed earlier. Even worse, how is it helpful or even acceptable to stereotype tastes and trends in different countries based on individual and subjective photoshopped ideals of feminine beauty in this day and age? If nothing else, it’s problematic.
Honig has missed a golden opportunity to dig beneath the surface and actually say something – that striving for artificial, exterior beauty (some cultures may be more afflicted than others) is a soul-numbing endeavour, where we as humans can never win, and all the while risking losing touch with the essence of our inner being, where our true strength and beauty resides. As Duberman concludes, perhaps the myth of a singular beauty norm has been dispelled (for whom I wonder), but nothing in her article or the project questions, educates, or enlightens. It saddens me to realize that Jean Kilbourne’s message in the Killing Us Softly series has been lost and trampled under the feet of new generations eager in their relentless quest for physical perfection.
In closing, I skimmed through enough of the extensive comment section of the article to get a sense of overall reactions to the Before & After project, which only served to prove my point. There was an overwhelming amount of criticism, scorn, and ridicule over the quality of the photoshopping and retouching, which tells me that most did not bother to skip over to Honig’s website to gather more information about the project, or to even ponder and reflect on her motives and the bigger picture. It was all about skill and appearances. Maybe if I dig a little deeper I might find a few kindred souls searching, like me, for actual meaning and discourse. I know you’re out there… somewhere.