Monday, May 2, 2016

Let's get heavy for a moment.

I'm a huge South Park fan. I'm such a huge fan, in fact, that when my brother and I decided to compose our personal "Top 10 Favorite South Park Episodes" lists, I had to ask him if we could bump it up to a Top 15. The very first episode I jotted down was the season 17 finale, "The Hobbit." In this episode, fourth grader Wendy Testaburger encourages fellow cheerleader Lisa Berger to ask her crush, Butters, on a date. When Butters blithely rejects Lisa, Wendy confronts him, only to discover that Butters thinks a "real woman" should be flawlessly airbrushed like Kim Kardashian. Wendy snipes back that Kim Kardashian only looks good in pictures because of Photoshop; in reality, Wendy says, she has "the body of a hobbit." This being South Park, much hilarity follows.

Lisa Berger and her digitally altered photograph.

But it's not all fun and games. At one point, Wendy digitally alters a photo of Lisa Berger to show Butters just how dramatically you can change a person's appearance using Photoshop. Instead of getting the point, Butters suddenly decides that Lisa is beautiful and they should be together, only to find that she's dating another boy who gleefully shows her Photoshopped picture to his classmates. Eventually, every girl on the cheer squad has her pictures altered beyond recognition. Even Wendy, the "biggest feminist at the school," caves to peer pressure and produces a Photoshopped picture of herself as she holds back tears.

And that's it. That's the end of the episode. There's no joke, no satire, no jibe to finish it off, just a little girl giving up on her original ambition to prove that Photoshopped images damage our body image.

I think that's one of the reasons why this is a personal favorite episode for me. The South Park writers are famous for making fun of absolutely everything and treating everyone--regardless of their political affiliation, race, creed, religion, or lifestyle--as an asshole. Really, it's one of the things I respect about the show so much. But by ending "The Hobbit" on that sad note, with none of the characters at fault learning the error of their ways, they essentially make the point that our obsession with unachievable beauty standards really is shitty.

Wendy's Photoshopped picture.

Here's the disconnect that South Park highlights: we know, logically, that magazines, movies, Instagram, and every other influential piece of media currently available today promotes unrealistic beauty standards, especially for women. We know skin has texture, even if it's healthy, but makeup advertisements in periodicals like Allure and Vogue show models with skin so smooth it's almost plastic. The internet has leaked "before-and-after" photos that show just how much celebrities were airbrushed, thinned, and glossed up via digital retouching. Hell, up until the last decade, Barbie's body type was physically impossible. This is not news to us.

We're also aware that the pursuit of beauty is expensive. Many of the actresses and models we fawn over have good genes, it's true, but a good number make mega-million salaries that afford them a nutritionist, pricy facials, and endless trips to the dermatologist. Even B-list actresses will generally have access to free beauty swag from companies hoping to get some cheap promotion. For the most part, we as a society have accepted that celebrities go through great lengths to stay beautiful, extremes we as mere mortals can't usually achieve. And we're okay with it because, well, part of their job is to look good. We ordinary people, the teachers and construction workers and entrepreneurs of the world, don't usually have "look fierce in a Gucci gown at the Oscars" at the top of our priorities list.

And yet we fall for it every time. We know that we will have pimples, that our hair will look like shit some days, that we may carry a few extra pounds on our bodies, that teeth aren't naturally bright white and brows aren't usually on fleek without a dash of product. But we strive for those unrealistic standards, and when we don't measure up, problems ensue. What's more, we're especially harsh on women when they look like...well, regular women. Even if we know that the Photoshopped images in magazines are unrealistic, we compare the real women to the fantasy photo; we pull a Butters and magically forget (or ignore) that people don't look that way in real life.

 Jennifer Lawrence: already unjustly beautiful, yet they still Photoshopped her to create a slimmer waist, longer neck, and smokier eye makeup. This isn't even the most drastic airbrushing on the internet, but it was so unnecessary that it generated loads of discussion.

On a larger scale, we've seen the impact that these unrealistic expectations can have on young women. Studies show that teenage girls are dieting in greater numbers and at earlier ages than ever before. In 2012, plastic surgeons performed an estimated 14.6 million cosmetic surgeries, with botox and fillers topping the "non-invasive" list; in 2015, the number of cosmetic surgeries jumped to nearly 16 million. (This doesn't surprise me, since I've recently noticed just how many of the most popular beauty YouTubers have gotten their lips plumped.) Many young people admit that they spend a good bit of their time comparing themselves to the flawless photos they see on their social media feeds--I know I've had my fair share of "omg I'm a total toad compared to her moments" whilst scrolling through Instagram. The focus on women's bodies and the unrealistic expectations we have for them lead to issues we don't often think about, like lower political efficacy.

So why am I rambling about this? I think it's because of a particular line from the aforementioned South Park episode: "The problem with having fake pictures of yourself is that you start to believe in your own bullshit." As a beauty blogger, that really struck home for me. Do I Photoshop out all of my blemishes, retouch my makeup, and thin my body down to a size 0? No, I generally think that product reviews are only helpful if they really demonstrate how a product looks. But when I review a product, I take hundreds of photos. I try different angles, different facial expressions, different lighting settings; then I meticulously comb through each and every one to find the photo I seem to look the best in. If I feel like I didn't get a single decent-looking photo, I'll still publish the review, but with endless apologies about how doofy I look. This is relatively normal for bloggers, though, and it seems harmless on its surface.

The problem is that this has begun to affect the way I view myself. I've been dealing with some skin issues for the past few months (primarily sensitive and rashes, but also a few unusual breakouts), and the dip in my self-confidence has been palpable. I'm so used to being relatively blemish-free and even-skinned on this blog that two pimples or a bit of rosacea-esque flushing makes me want to crawl in to bed and never come out. Beautiful Instagrammers and flawless YouTubers have left me with an incredibly warped sense of self, but so have pictures of me when I was younger and had tougher, smoother skin. I do not feel attractive, adult, or useful unless my skin is totally clear and well behaved. Even with makeup on, I will become distracted thinking about whether or not the person I'm talking to is noticing my newest zit, or I'll briefly panic at the mere thought of my foundation wearing patchy.

I don't want to be the person who reinforces those insane standards, either. Logically, I know that I have pretty decent skin. In fact, this is confirmed when I post pictures of myself on makeup forums and message boards: I always get at least one very kind comment along the lines of, "Oh my God, your skin is perfect!" My immediate response is usually, "Well, a lot of that is the foundation," which I've been told is not a gracious thing to say. I don't mean it to be dismissive or snobby. Rather, I want people to understand that real skin is not perfect, and my face definitely doesn't look the same without that layer of makeup on it. Yet somehow, I can't seem to remind myself of that fact. When I get a few pimples because I ate too much cheese the night before, I look at photos of myself wearing makeup and grumble, "Ugh, I look so much worse right now."

Jkissamakeup, a popular YouTuber who doesn't wear foundation.

It's not a standard I hold other people to, by the way. I've seen plenty of students and acquaintances who wear bright lipstick and bold eyeliner while letting their blemishes show, or they wear no makeup at all, and I think, "What a pretty young woman!" "She's so intelligent, what a great response." "She's always so upbeat; I want to be that positive, too." I never think, "Ugh, what a hideous cow; she needs to cover that shit up." I reserve those thoughts for myself. I don't think people with pimples showing on their skin are hideous, I just think they're human, but I am apparently unable to think that way about myself these days.

This isn't to say that skin issues should be ignored, or that anybody who is concerned about their skin is a vain jerk. Our skin can visually mark illnesses and intolerances our body is experiencing; for example, many people break out in hives when they encounter an allergen or flush just before an illness takes hold. I know that my breakouts have, in the past, been a signal to stop eating certain foods or start focusing on my mental health more. And there are many people who deal with skin conditions that are painful and embarrassing, as my friends and family who experienced intense cystic acne will tell you.

Rather, my point is that most people are not going to have totally blemish-free, super smooth and poreless, forever glowing skin...and that should be okay. If all else is well in our lives and we still get the occasional pimple or scar, it should not be our emotional end of the world. I need to learn that again.

So here's my solution: I accept that my utterly warped self image will not change overnight. But I will strive to re-examine how I view my body and what I spend my time obsessing over. It'll be tough to do that while still blogging, since this hobby kind of necessitates staring at my pores in a mirror to see how a foundation is performing and staring at my own Photographed-in-HD face for over an hour at a time. I'm coming up on a brief break from work, though, and the last thing I need is too much time to myself. So I'll be looking in to new hobbies and trying to spend more time thinking about what exists besides my epidermis.

I'm also hoping to reinvent my previous "No Foundation" challenge. I've stumbled across a few beauty bloggers who wear full faces of makeup but no foundation, perhaps just a touch of concealer. And I admire them. Sure, most of them have great skin to begin with, but it's helping me remember that there's more to makeup than being utterly "flawless." I'd like to revisit that look myself.

Is this an issue anybody else has struggled with, particularly as they've gotten more and more in to blogging? I'd love to hear about your experiences.


  1. I think always separated my personal, private life and the persona I have in front of the camera. I do want all my glamour portrait shots to have flawless skin (although not airbrushed - really good photographers/retouchers touch up the blemishes or unevenness but leave the actual texture of the skin.) And of course i think we all tend to look for shots that show us at our best when posting to various social media platforms. Somehow or the other, this doesn't translate to my daily life, which I am glad for. I don't bother covering up blemishes (granted, I don't have that many) and I only use concealer on my undereyes. And I have a couple of spots of hyperpigmentation, from old scars, that I never bother hiding.

    I know that a lot of young, impressionable people will look at instagram photos and think that they need to look like that IRL, but honestly it was modelling that made me realize and understand that photos are just photos, and they can always be made to look good, and it's just one veneer of who we really are. It's not just photoshop, it's expensive equipment, great lighting, great angles, and lots of practice. (and some people are naturally more photogenic than others, I have seen models that look completely plain in person and look amazing in photos. I happen to look worse in photos than IRL.) Being behind the scenes of what actually goes on in a photoshoot really hammers that in.

    Nowadays, I'm practicing admiring beauty without guilting/shaming myself or jealousy, and I'm getting better at it. I make sure I have no thoughts of 'I wish I had her eyes/nose/whatever' running through my head. (It's easier for me because most gurus/celebs are white/Westerners so I won't ever look at all like them ever.) Or I just reduce my consumption of celebrity/guru stuff. It makes for an overall happier life :)

    1. I think that's part of the problem: most of us don't see models or celebrities in their natural habitat, without their makeup and their carefully chosen outfits, on a daily basis. And I wonder if that would help most people even if they COULD see it. I remember reading that even when labels were tagged with things like, "This image has been digitally altered," women still said they felt insecure looking at the picture. It's like we have some logical disconnect.

  2. I've struggled with weight my whole life and when I was in my 20s I went up and down quickly and in fairly significant amounts a couple times. I always carry a lot of chunk in my neck and chin, the first time I lost the weight the skin snapped back but not the second. So since my late 20s (36 now) I've had loose crinkly skin with my double chin. It's the only place on my body with such drastic loose skin and it's right up at face level. Unless I commit to scarves and turtlenecks, I can't hide it. When I first started making videos I would meticulously edit out every profile view, now I don't nearly as much. But it bothers me more than ever and I have considered plastic surgery, but it would likely require a very invasive procedure and with two small children that's not happening, not to mention justifying the expense. It's a difficult thing and I still find myself envious of ladies much heavier than I am that have a smooth neck. Honestly I just hope that one day there's a way to make a significant impact to it without a face/neck lift because there's only so much accepting I think I can do.

    1. I think that's one of the frustrating things about weight loss: you spend all of this time working to get the weight off, and then the new and expensive issue of loose skin arises. I don't mind it at all, and I accept that it's part of some people's bodies, but our society can be really cruel.

  3. I'm about as fair as you so when I do break out, it's painfully obvious and glaringly red. It's a real killer on how I feel. I also have a habit/compulsion, like other people bite their nails, to scratch and pick at my face. Foundation not only covers that, but suppresses the urge. The downside is that I'm then even more aware when I have scabs.

    Professionally, I color grade video footage and while it's fun and great and I love it, one of the other things I can and am often asked to go, is airbrush women's skin. Yes, you can Photoshop away blemishes and texture and pores on moving footage. It's not even hard or time consuming. Post-production houses have started offering face changes for actors and actresses in films. You want that actress to have a smaller nose or that actor to have a firmer chin? No problem. You want her *even thinner*? Done. It's bringing up not just the ethical issues of unrealistic standards and "racial changing", but the legal side of image ownership.

    1. It's certainly true that blemishes are almost blindingly red on lighter skin; I also find that the pigmentation from breakouts tends to last for a while on my face, even though I never pick or pop pimples.

      And you're right about videos! I always forget about that. Even before Photoshop, people would use all sorts of techniques to mask perceived imperfections.