1,800 Pixels: How Many Are Real?

An article examining the portrayal of beauty by celebrity culture versus the conscious consumption community.
A line-up of women representing different body types and races.
Will the growing appreciation for diverse beauty topple the traditional standard?
Image Source: Jean Hailes

In the digital sphere, our perception of beauty has become the fraying rope in a new age battle of tug-of-war. Taking Instagram for its playing field, an established circle of celebrities is pitting against a rising throng of people using their squares to promote beauty diversity and conscious consumption.

The question for those watching it unfold is this: Who will consumers side with?

Modern Media's Influence on Beauty Standards

For those living in this age of social media, the beauty standard is only a search, refresh or profile away. That is if it isn’t already imprinted on our minds potently enough to contort what we see in the mirror. Sociocultural researcher, Savannah Greenfield, describes how the “pervasive reach” of contemporary media means that beauty ideals are being transmitted on a larger scale than they have previously.

This widened scope translates to elevated consciousness of the standards they imply across today’s population. Alongside this, the ‘transmission’ of these ideals grows all the more lethal through their unification with the concept of lifestyle. In an age where lifestyle content and influencer culture are becoming all the more prevalent, our exposure to how we ‘should’ look is gaining an ever-present quality.

But just what is an influencer, exactly? And how does influencer culture shape my feelings towards myself?

The Impact of Influencer Culture

The influencer is an evolution of the archetypal celebrity that first emerged with reality television shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians and Paris Hilton’s The Simple Life. The magnetism of the influencer is based on neither talent nor merit, but a lifestyle- and with programming like this for a conduit- the diets, beauty routines, and exercise regimes of the rich and famous have come to capture public attention and influence collective thinking.

There is a desire, as ever, to emulate that projected as being a ‘step above the rest’ – to match the standards set by the idolised and elite in our own lives so that our existences do not pale in comparison. This gap between the idolised and idoliser has only widened with the introduction of social media, where the lives of celebrities and influential figures are finetuned for public consumption.

A scroll through the Instagram explore page will bring you to Kim Kardashian’s birthday vacation to Tahiti, where she poses in a luxurious villa whilst the rest of the population is locked down in the wake of a deadly pandemic. A swipe in the other direction will bring you to Emily Ratajkowski, holding her three-month-old son to the side to reveal the supermodel body she has maintained postpartum.

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A post shared by Kim Kardashian West (@kimkardashian)

How are we supposed to match these snapshots of perfection, of luxury, that we’re made to consume on a daily basis? What can we recognize as real between these 1,800 pixels?

It’s no wonder that the prevalence of social media has spawned the invention of software like Facetune, where a person’s appearance can be manipulated to reflect whichever beauty standard they’ve become tethered to.

Why would the average person choose to advertise their reality – their struggle to acclimatise to a world dominated by restrictions and a rampant virus, the labour they’ve undertaken to tone their body whilst raising an infant - when it has been modelled for them that one’s palatability depends on their proximity to perfection? When they have learned that it’s the end product, detached from the blood, sweat, and tears taken to get there, that’s the standard to be met?

As remarked by socio-cultural researchers, Tiggeman and McGill, the gap between the ‘ideal’ and ‘realistic expectations’ that can be placed on people is continuing to grow larger. This is only fuelled by influencer role models that refuse to reveal what’s behind their perfect orchestrations of life.

When we consider that these are the figures dominating not only our social media feeds but the advertising that surrounds us daily, it becomes clear why 1 in 4 girls in the U.K. have avoided leaving the house due to concerns over their appearance. We have been conditioned to believe that our natural appearances, our fluctuating emotions, and changeable lives, are inadequate – that these unappealing truths of existence must be painted over, that we must be made fit for consumption.

In a climate where 89% of young people feel pressured to mirror these social media paragons, the following question emerges: Is society capable of recovering from alienation by beauty standards? 

Change Through Conscious Consumption

Pioneers of the conscious consumption movement would argue that yes, progress is possible – but it begins with confronting realities of our existence that history has distorted.

What is conscious consumption? Conscious consumption is an awareness that much of what we engage with online has been manufactured for our viewing. To consume consciously, we must acknowledge that what we see online has not been produced for us as individuals, but to perform under the scrutiny of the collective gaze. This means that the majority of content entering circulation has been produced under the same rigid beauty standards that we, the consumer, feel pressured to conform to – creating a cycle that keeps everybody trapped.

Representative of the body and skin positivity movements, Joanna Kenny, uses her captions to deliver insightful commentary surrounding this toxic mechanism – waking her followers up to the external bases of their shame.

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A post shared by Joanna Kenny (@joannajkenny)

Heading over to Kenny’s profile, the first caption I’m met with reads:

“Stop shaming women for something which makes them human.”

I like it. It’s confronting, it’s frustrating – it’s real. Kenny is a woman who has reached the end of her tether with damaging beauty standards and now, is using what once restrained her to empower and educate others. 

Great emphasis is placed on personal choice in Kenny’s corner of the internet and teaching her followers to realise autonomy over their appearances is a recurring theme.

Savannah Greenfield reiterates the importance of this positive role modelling across the beauty industry. Greenfield states that, due to our frequent exposure to unrealistic ideals, many people ‘accept’ these standards as their own and ‘internalise’ their inability to meet them. Kenny is serious about changing this, however – and is using her own body to illustrate that we do not exist to satisfy external expectations but to experience life.

Beneath a video of her powerful, slow-motion strut, Kenny writes:

“This is my body. I’m thirty-two. I’m not a mother. I don’t have a medical condition. I have a balanced diet. I don’t drink or smoke. I have cellulite, fat, body hair, stretch marks, and visible pores."

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A post shared by Joanna Kenny (@joannajkenny)

Kenny’s response to demands for justification when a person’s weight, shape, skin, or body hair doesn’t align with society’s expectations is stark and unflinching. Kenny is not ashamed. Kenny is not immobilised by criticism. Kenny has integrity – she is defiant and principled, paving the way for others to accept themselves without hesitation.

Do Unrealistic Beauty Standards Benefit Anyone?

But what of the opposite side, do we cast them the villains in society’s tale of redemption? Perhaps not. When we think of figures like the Kardashians and today’s circle of top Instagram models, we’re disposed to conceptualise them separately from their humanity.

We’re primed, lenses cast with envy, bitterness, and intimidation, to blame these people for the way that we feel about ourselves. If they’re upholding the standards that teach us to resent our appearances, shouldn’t they be held to some account? 

Savannah Greenfield argues that our anger should be concentrated on another target. Greenfield remarks that whilst those who satisfy society’s standards are able to ‘maintain positive self-views’ on a ‘conscious’ level, their identities are still threatened by the ‘unconscious’ absorption of beauty ideals.

This means that singular standards of beauty impact everybody negatively, whether a person is capable of perpetuating them or not. 

We live in a world populated by such diversity that expecting conformity to a single notion of beauty is as senseless as it is damaging. Representatives of acceptance on social media are channelling their awareness of this fact into actionable change and, for those under the influence of their content, healing the world square by square.

When you are next challenged by your feelings about your appearance, self-doubt ushered in on the wings of comparison, you might ask yourself this:

“Who does this feeling serve?”

If your answer doesn’t direct you back to yourself, the proprietor of your own unique beauty, maybe it’s time to pull up your search bar and look for something more conscious to consume.

Hi! I'm Leah and I'm passionate about mental health, wellbeing and the ways in which these are influenced by what we consume online.

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