I’m going to go right ahead and say it: social media has been demonized by everyone. It’s popular nowadays to do social media cleanses, to hate on influencers, to even go analog and get rid of screens entirely. It’s in vogue to bash how fake vloggers are, note how artificial their lives are, how artfully constructed their realities seem.
And you know what, I’m done.
I’m not saying these people are wrong. I do believe that social media has harmful effects, especially on younger kids who are exposed to it without restriction. I know I’m prone to letting my mood swing low when I compare myself to the perfectly toned bodies that flood my screen.
I’m just saying it’s ridiculous to believe that the market of fake lives and perfect people sprang into being in 2010. We’ve long been invested in buying up the enhanced and retouched lifestyles, and it didn’t start with Instagram.
So when yet another influencer “scandal” broke, this time accusing a travel blogger of photoshopping the same clouds into all her travel pics, I read the article with mounting annoyance. Not at the influencer, who readily admitted to adding the same cloud to all her skies because she liked the shape of it. She can add whatever clouds to whatever pictures she wants for all I care.
No, I was annoyed at the hypocrisy of all the people who shook their heads sadly, sanctimoniously, and decried this “end of truth” as we know it and said that they just didn’t understand why people would be so sad as to stage pictures like this.
Honestly? I lost my patience.
Are we just going to pretend the print industry has never retouched an image?
The truth is that as long as we’ve had digital media, there has been retouching. What, you really think those models on the glossy pages have hair that thick and voluptuous? You think their skin is actually that poreless? You think they don’t have stretch marks?
No, of course not. Whether TV, movies, magazines, billboard ads or any other form of visual media, you can bet that the picture you’re seeing has been “fixed” of flaws.
And they’re not even shy about it! Magazines don’t try to pretend the models come in like that. We’ve all seen Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign video, where they not only put on literal pounds of makeup and hair product on the model, but lengthened her neck, pouted her lips, and fluffed her hair up even further digitally.
Digital airbrushing and retouching are as common as can be in all other forms of media. Why do people get so bent out of shape over it happening on Instagram?
As long as we’ve been consuming images, those images have been enhanced.
What really gets me is when people start waxing poetic about the “good old days” before folks could change the way people looked in pictures,
It even didn’t start with computers. No, people have been making pictures look better than reality for far longer. You really thought everyone in the 50s had perfect skin? No — they mastered the use of lighting, they used a softer focus on the cameras. This created the illusion of clear and smooth skin.
They packed the women into corsets, pinned clothing to fit the way they wanted it to, and they manually airbrushed the heck out of all the pictures they created. Those techniques didn’t start when computers were invented: they had a long and rich history before. Christ, even portraits from the Renaissance and long before weren’t realistic depictions of their subjects.
It’s ridiculous to say that social media is responsible for our voracious appetite for the unrealistically perfect life.
Even if all the images were raw, they still wouldn’t be real.
Let’s say we did away with all that. Let’s say we used normal lighting, we didn’t pinch and pin the clothing to fit just right, and there was no special focus. Images were taken with a special human eyeball camera that made them look like they do in real life.
It still wouldn't be real.
The people that appear on these images, whether on Instagram or in Victoria’s Secret promotions? They have eyelash extensions. Their eyebrows are microbladed. They’re fake-tanned. They’re vaselined. They have a $450 eye serum and they’ve had nonsurgical tummy tucks.
Money can buy things other people just don't get. It’s disgusting that’s the case, but it’s no different on Instagram pictures or on print ads or on billboards. These are never depictions of reality, even if they’re completely unretouched.
Yes, social media influencers scam people.
I won’t take that fact away. Social media influencers are literally in the businesses of selling us their perfect lives. And those lives are often just…lies.
Whether by adding the same cloud to any number of holiday snaps, to face-tuning a zit out, to saying the only reason they’re thin is because of the dehydrating, diarrhea-causing tea they drink, they lie.
They tell us that the magical, inspiring lives they lead are perfect and real and attainable. Just as cigarettes rose to popularity by tying themselves to a cool image, and just as Marilyn Monroe marketed herself as a sex goddess, they market their lives as beautiful, where the skies are always blue and their skin is always evenly tanned.
They lie by staging “candid” photoshoots, by telling us untrue stories, by selling us products that they know don’t work. But how, exactly, is any of that different from any advertising? How is that any worse than telling us that if only we purchase this bra, or go on this holiday, or buy this concealer, that we’ll be universally desired, eternally well-rested, or have a flawless face?
All advertising sells us a lifestyle. Social media is not an exception. No, those images are not to showcase the gorgeous natural scenery. It’s not to let us into secret hidden realistic beauty, to show us that corner shop we would have missed, to give us fitness inspiration.
No. The point of social media, of TV, of print ads, of movies, is to sell us, the consumers, a lifestyle. It’s to tell us, the lowly animals grubbing in the dark, lit only by the glow of our screens, that we too can achieve this travel-tanned skin if only we just believed in ourselves. We could be microscopically thin, too, if only we worked hard enough.
Really, our dry skin, dull hair and flabby muffin tops are our own fault. Because here are the flawless, perfect people — just like us! — who manage to do it.
It’s not even their fault, because that’s what we ask for.
The reason they show us these carefully curated images from their perfect lives is because that’s what we want. That’s what we like, what we engage with, what we respond to. We like pretty people and we like to think that we too can be famous, influential, pretty, just like them. But it’s all fake.
Show me one influencer who doesn’t have a negative comment — they’re too fat, or they look old, or they didn’t frame the picture just right. People don’t like perceived flaws — can we blame the influencers who try to artificially enhance and conceal?
People ask for candids, but you really think those artfully taken shots aren’t staged and posed? It’s all staged! Influencers don’t sit around posing like that naturally or normally. In everyday life, they let their bellies out and don’t wash their hair. If they put those pictures on Instagram, they wouldn’t be well-received. It takes so many tries to get the perfect picture, but it has to look effortless. Not just on social media, but all fake “candids.”
Even taking a break can be hard. On any form of social media, there are rumors about the algorithm that rewards consistent posting. But the problem is that obviously people aren't consistently happy, consistently traveling, consistently smooth-faced and glowing and ready to show their face to the world.
But there’s still pressure to do that, to continue posting even when you’re sad, zitty, or greasy-haired. What do people do? They retouch. They stage. They lie, in effect.
All of it is tied up with the idea that perfection is equivalent to virtue.
The reason we’re so invested in this idea of “real beauty” is because deep down, we equate beauty with virtue. Beauty is a shorthand for goodness .We love the pure, clear-faced virgin. We hate the old, warty hag.
That’s why we love these allegedly candid images, where the thin pretty people aren’t even looking at the camera. Truly good people are effortlessly beautiful.
And that’s why we’re so offended when people reveal a portion of their life is fake. Because we’ve been tricked into thinking that their beauty (and inherently, their virtue) is real when in reality it’s all a facade. We feel like we can only trust natural beauty.
People who are fed up with social media aren’t wrong. But they’re hypocrites.
Where is the outrage aimed at the magazines, printing glossy images of poreless, ageless, hairless women? Where is the outcry at runway models and their employers, where women have prepubescent features because they’ve been starved their whole lives? We still read the magazines, we still buy the clothes, and we still watch the shows.
Social media influencers are guilty of adding the same clouds to skies. They’re guilty of smoothing a wrinkle, of extending a curve, of erasing a blemish.
They also lead highly unrealistic lives, with millions of dollars more to spend on serums, personal trainers, nutritionists. Is that no less unrealistic than a damn cloud showing up in every image?
These influencers are guilty of perpetrating the lie we’ve all been told: that only perfect, flawless lives with nary a mistake to see are worth following. That only those beautiful, happy, problem-free lives are the ones we want to see. If you’re protesting about that, but still buying McDonald’s because you like how their burgers look in the ads, you’re a hypocrite.
There are billion-dollar industries aimed at selling us impossible lies and telling us we’re the crazy ones when we pitch a fit. It’s absurd to say social media is the culprit.
None of it is new. In a hundred years, there will be the same types of people talking about how back in the good old days when there were only two-dimensional images, it was impossible to fake beauty.
Until we move away from only consuming perfection, of equating a pretty face with true goodness, of believing that only natural beauty is the beauty worth emulating? We’ll be stuck in the same loop, still saying how much we hate “fake” media, never realizing how much of it is fake.
Social media is a problem, but it’s the symptom of a broken system. Not the cause.
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