Anybody who’s talked to me in 2019 has probably heard me gush about Jia Tolentino, a staff writer at the New Yorker. Each week when I get the magazine, I flip to the contents page to see if she has a feature. Any millennial woman who cares about the intersections of selfhood, culture, and technology should read her work. Last week, she wrote something that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about.
The Age of Instagram Face: how social media, FaceTune, and plastic surgery created a single, cyborgian look.
It’s a young face, of course, with poreless skin and plump, high cheekbones. It has catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; it has a small, neat nose and full, lush lips. It looks at you coyly but blankly, as if its owner has taken half a Klonopin and is considering asking you for a private-jet ride to Coachella. The face is distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic.
It’s Instagram Face, duh. It’s like an unrealistic sculpture. Volume on volume. A face that looks like it’s made out of clay.
Cyborgs. Cyborgs! Immediately, my mind turned to the three of the biggest Mormon influencers on Instagram:
Amber Fillerup Clark, 1.4M followers:
Rach Parcell, 1M followers, whose personal cyborg serf militia comes armed with balayage and Nordstrom affiliate links!
AND I SWEAR I AM NOT MAKING UP THIS PERSON OR HER NAME: Cara Loren Van Brocklin, 1M followers.
As a tomboy who sees gendered, regressive “ideals” peddled as self-care or personal improvement, beauty is fraught territory for me. I am constantly conscious of the time, money, and energy I spend on it—or want to spend.
When it comes to the motivations (and manipulations) of women today, nobody hunts truffles better than Jia. In this article, she describes her research visits to plastic surgeons in LA, and everything—down to her description of a Beverly Hills cafe—reads like science fiction.
It wasn’t hard for me to understand why millennial women who were born within spitting distance of Instagram Face would want to keep drawing closer to it. In a world where women are rewarded for youth and beauty in a way that they are rewarded for nothing else—and where a strain of mainstream feminism teaches women that self-objectification is progressive, because it’s profitable—cosmetic work might seem like one of the few guaranteed high-yield projects that a woman could undertake.
On Kim Kardashian West, who is described in the article as “patient zero” for Instagram Face:
Kardashian West, who has inspired countless cosmetically altered doppelgängers, insists that she hasn’t had major plastic surgery; according to her, it’s all just Botox, fillers, and makeup. But she also hasn’t tried to hide how her appearance has changed. In 2015, she published a coffee-table book of selfies, called “Selfish,” which begins when she is beautiful the way a human is beautiful and ends when she’s beautiful in the manner of a computer animation.
On the early conditioning that all women receive:
I had worn makeup at sixteen to my college interviews; I’d worn makeup at my gymnastic meets when I was ten. In the photos I have of myself at ballet recitals when I was six or seven, I’m wearing mascara and blush and lipstick, and I’m so happy. What did it mean, I wondered, that I have spent so much of my life attempting to perform well in circumstances where an unaltered female face is aberrant? How had I been changed by an era in which ordinary humans receive daily metrics that appear to quantify how our personalities and our physical selves are performing on the market? What was the logical end of this escalating back-and-forth between digital and physical improvement?
And the paragraph that is perhaps the crux of it all:
We talked about the word “addiction.” I said that I dyed my hair and wore makeup most days, and that I knew I would continue to dye my hair and spend money on makeup, and that I didn’t consider this an addiction but a choice. I thought about a line from the book “Perfect Me,” by the philosopher Heather Widdows: “Choice cannot make an unjust or exploitative practice or act somehow, magically, just or non-exploitative.”
Go read the entire article. It’s not terribly long—maybe 7-10 min?
My other 2019 Jia favorites include:
Her book, duh.
Outdoor Voices Blurs the Line Between Working Out and Everything Else (if you’ve been targeted by their IG ads, you have to read this)
Thanks for reading Gemini Mind! Elsewhere, you can find me as @yokizzi 💫