Beauty is in the Eye of the Phone-Holder

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Beauty is in the Eye of the Phone-Holder

Feb 16, 2024

She glistens under the setting sun like a hot dog (I would say glazed cinnamon roll, but there are no “rolls” to be found). Her hair is perfectly crunchy in ringlet curls, nails manicured into stabbing plastic tip. Her teeth have been lined up neatly, polished to shine, and sit politely in place. Her features are almost symmetrical, just tilted slightly to create this charming allure that makes your eyes always flutter back to her face. Her waist seems to be made of soft wax, holding its pristine shape as if someone is constantly smoothing it inward. Her thin frame stretches gracefully along the sand, adorning her shape like a child’s crafting glitter. Or at least that’s what it seems like.

She also has a massive pimple on her shoulder blade that comes back every other week. Her razor inconsiderately nicked her right knee and left ankle last night, and both spots are starting to scab over. Her nose is her biggest insecurity, and her lungs are only half-filled with air; if she takes a bigger breath she’ll sacrifice her stomach protruding over her waistband just an inch too far for her liking. Her hair has dozens of split ends. The routinely applied foundation is making her skin dry and flaky. Her armpits smell just enough to bother her, and the sand has found its way into unwelcome places.

What an onlooker sees and what she really feels are quite different. This is the reality of a woman afflicted by the beauty plague, one that is fed to her in her social circle, by relatives, and arguably most intensely by the cell phone in her pocket. She knows it is the reason she stares a bit longer in the mirror to scrutinize every bump or bulge or blemish. She knows it isn’t an accurate picture by any means of the world around her. All she needs to do is step outside for five minutes and observe, and yet, she lets it rule her mind. And that is why she edits her photos.

It’s not her fault, really. She is a victim of a society that has told her she needs porcelain hairless infant skin and Barbie's hourglass figure. That is what everyone else looks like! Except everyone else also has a relentless breakout or a self-consciousness about themselves or a bump here or a bulge there. Reality has been morphed. She cannot see the beauty in the mirror because beauty has been smoothed over or squeezed in by desperate beautiful people like herself. Photoshop, FaceTune, filters, even video-compatible software that “snatches” the waist in movement: these enablers have assisted social media platforms like Instagram into redefining beauty so much so that hopeless men and women alike feel like they must change themselves to fit the mold.

Instagram has been termed a “beautiful people” platform. Its peers Snapchat, TikTok, X, and even Facebook are not far off. Content creators have even established fan bases around analyzing popular photos and videos and determining whether they have been photoshopped. Almost every young person, if being transparent, could admit having toyed with photo editing software or filters to enhance their appearance. The expectation of social media is to be a highlight reel. Besides, no one is posting their argument with their parents, rejected job applications, or gnarly ingrown toenail for all the world to see (I hope). So people post their summer vacation, or college decision announcement, or best friend’s birthday, or relationship anniversary, because these are highlights. They see the highlights of other people’s lives, and wish theirs were a bit brighter. You get the picture.

So we raise the question: if Instagram prohibited the alteration of photos and required a realistic picture of the world, would it be less popular? First, I wonder how a regulation like this would be enforced. Would it be policed by the community? How many seconds would it take before someone violated the policy and figured out a way to post doctored photos anyway? How would the violations be handled? And what about false accusations? How would these new rules affect user feedback and experiences? Would users feel their content was being censored unnecessarily? Would they comply or migrate to another platform? One rule leads to many problems requiring thought and solutions.

If the Instagram C-suite was able to answer these questions and successfully prohibit altered photos, I am certain Instagram would become less popular. Others have tried with minimal success compared to the behemoth that Instagram is in terms of relevance. BeReal, for example, aimed to create a platform where users could be authentic, where not every post was glamorous, and edits were impossible. Users posted photos when asked to post, without warning and without alterations in an attempt to show their real lives, not the Insta-edited rendition. BeReal boomed, and then it plateaued. People would much rather see perfect bodies than gorey realities. And so the platforms covered with edited photos, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok still dominate with young users.

There is also more to consider than just user satisfaction and compliance. The monetization of content is big business. It has drastically changed both the content and nature of media online. Creators are encouraged with financial incentives to recommend certain products, prioritize certain values, etc. People who spend a lot of time online, which seems to be most young people, are overwhelmed with content inspiring consumerism, beauty, and conformity. These new rules would severely damage the profitability of influencer marketing. Removing edited photos would destroy an entire industry.

Would Instagram become less popular if its content were limited to be authentic-only? What if users were not bombarded with glistening models on the beach, but rather with shoulder pimples and razor knicks? Would they turn away? More than likely, yes. People want to spend time seeing good, not looking at everyday things they could see at home. They want to escape and to see things they aspire to be, even if it makes them less secure or content in their own skin.

I theorize that implementing these new rules could never happen. Now that we have crossed certain lines, they cannot be uncrossed. Social media will not suddenly retreat from the picture and stop influencing young minds. On the other hand, people will not stop creating content, sharing their lives, and tweaking things in the process. Part of the appeal for many is the highlight real-effect. If we have the ability to paint a prettier reality for ourselves and others, why wouldn’t we?

Lydia Smith, a student in Jon Pfeiffer’s media law class at Pepperdine University, wrote the above essay in response to the following question: "Instagram is known as the “beautiful people” platform in part because many of the photos are touched up or staged. If Instagram prohibited the alteration of photos, would it be as popular?" Lydia is an Integrated Marketing Communications and Art major.

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