Melissa Juried Kriebel
Never lose an opportunity of seeing something beautiful,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “for beauty is God’s handwriting.” The American essayist presumably failed to countenance the emergence of Twitter, where divinity is seemingly harder sought, and where everyone from Hollywood actors to actual babies have been zealously dunked on in recent weeks for their physical appearance. God help the world if my graduation photos ever make it online.
Where else could you read the takedown that a beaming Emilia Clarke “didn’t just hit the wall” but “flew into it full speed on a dragon”, or see a perfectly normal photo of Paul Mescal captioned “27 years old”, as if no one rocking a moustache and looking a bit tired could possibly have been born in the mid-Nineties? Where else, indeed, could you dip into the psyche of a person who spent long enough analysing a picture of Rihanna’s nine-month-old son to conclude that “his forehead & face alone make him quite un-handsome”? How does one go about securing a role in the department of celebrity baby forehead handsomeness calculation?
While there’s nothing new about people being mean on the internet, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s been a dramatic uptick in this particular brand of playground bullying lately. Married men are also a popular target, it seems. It’s not just public figures, either, such as those included in last month’s proposed “ugly husband off” contest, which pitted against one another the apparently unattractive husbands of stars including Cate Blanchett and Michelle Yeoh. Just look at last weekend’s instantly viral feature in The Times, headlined: “My husband used to be hot. If I met him now, would I still fancy him?” While the piece itself contradicted the story’s far more sensationalist framing – said husband is still hot, as both the author and internet at large rightly acknowledged – it felt bizarre that we’ve become this brazen about scoring a stranger’s looks, let alone someone you’ve shared three children and a life with for over two decades.
Clearly, the issue isn’t just one of mean-spirited bullying, but – particularly when it’s so frequently directed at conventionally attractive people as much as anyone else – a vanishing capacity to recognise what regular human faces are supposed to look like at all. The most obvious culprit is that of digital distortion: the growing acclimatisation to a world curated by Photoshop and filters has led us to imagine that immaculate skin and bright eyes are universal standards. In other words, if perfection becomes unremarkable, the backlash to variance becomes louder.
Dr Sarah Bishop, a clinical psychologist who works with people struggling with body image issues, agrees that it can be a major factor. “Over-exposure to filtered photographs means we see more and more pictures of people who seemingly look the same; we’re then desensitised to what are in fact unnatural or even abnormal images and start to expect to see it,” she explains. “This reinforces a very particular set of standards, and as humans we’re inclined to either criticise or celebrate what falls outside of these standards.”
It isn’t just the way faces are cosmetically enhanced that has changed. In spite of the fight for diversity on the catwalk and beyond, the type of faces and bodies deemed beautiful – or indeed, “perfect” – has shrunk. “Rigid and narrow standards of beauty create greater compulsion to criticise anything that falls outside of this small window,” Bishop says. The appearance of age can be a massive part of that; just ask anyone under 40 to guess the respective ages of the Cheers cast in its 1982 debut season. Ageing isn’t necessarily a problem for trolls on the internet: it’s looking old that’s unforgivable.
If our brains are now hardwired to find dissonance in anything that doesn’t conform to the Instagram face aesthetic, it seems the logical outcome should be a society wracked with self-doubt about their own appearances. So why are so many people lashing out at celebrities for their perceived flaws, if we’re so acutely aware of our own? Are we all really convinced that we’re hotter than Daenerys Targaryen and Connell from Normal People?
The answer seems to be quite the opposite: it’s a defence mechanism. Bishop points to research showing that exposure to highly curated images on social media can lead to feelings of inadequacy and lower self-esteem, particularly among vulnerable groups like adolescents. “We tend to criticise as a way of defending ourselves; pointing out someone else’s flaws draws attention away from our own,” she says. “These feelings of insecurity are often rooted in a sense of inadequacy or fear of not measuring up to others.”
Throw in the relative anonymity afforded by social media, fed into algorithms trained to love celebrity photos and gossip, and the mix becomes headier still. Where the internet briefly felt like a place to list your favourite things once upon a time – whether it was your top eight friends on MySpace or top five Alisha’s Attic songs on Geocities – there’s a reason why frequent Twitter users refer to it as a “hellsite”. Vitriol is at a premium, and the resultant mudslinging means that the people who stick around and engage are likely to be the ones with the biggest fist for a fight, as well as an unsavoury appetite for critiquing the facial dynamics of celebrity infants.
As with most ills attributed to social media usage, the problem isn’t just the quality of the content being consumed, but the sheer quantity. Whether users agree or disagree with the values being extolled becomes almost academic when you’re knee-deep in it for several hours a day; at some point, the psychic damage of participating in a virtual community that makes Mean Girls look like a halcyon age of civility is going to take its toll. “The type of prolonged or excessive viewing that we are led to by today’s social media is likely to lead us into false perceptions of what is ‘normal’ and achievable,” Bishop explains, saying these habits can lead to “feelings of hopelessness and low self-esteem”.
What becomes of those of us, then, who fate cruelly cast to be both terminally online and really, really, ridiculously average-looking? According to Bishop, we might do better to focus our attentions on remedying the former rather than the latter, eschewing facelifts in favour of cutting down on Facebook. She also advocates for a larger-scale move towards “educating young people about the impact of social media”, as well as teaching them how to establish realistic, meaningful goals for improving their lives and chances of happiness. “In order for us to feel better about ourselves so that we don’t feel the need to criticise others, we need to be honest with ourselves about what helps us to feel genuinely good and motivated,” she adds. “It’s unlikely we’ll be able to find that by scrolling photos or commenting on strangers’ posts.”
There is hope yet. Social media’s latest descent into having-a-normal-face-shaming has largely gone viral due to the wave of people responding in abject horror. This cohort still reliably outnumbers the people who recoil at the sight of anyone who appears too old for Leonardo DiCaprio to date, or not thin and pretty enough for the same purpose. If we can make that one of the more important ratios to maintain on Twitter this year – and learn to keep our mouths shut when someone looks a little tired on the red carpet – it might be something truly beautiful to behold.