Deviant Beauty: On the Fraught Nature of Selfies

Maria Penaranda // Arts & Culture Editor 

Taking a good selfie can feel so validating. It had been months since I had a photo taken of myself that I was happy with, but finally I got one. I took it under a bus shelter which diffused the harsh, early September sunshine. I was bare faced (after a three-step skincare routine of chemical exfoliant, moisturizer, and sunscreen) because I didn’t have time to put makeup on that morning, and had curled my hair. I was testing one of those sci-fi filters that everyone’s been playing with on Instagram, this one added a minimalistic little shimmering snake around my right eye. I extended my arm, tilted my chin up, tapped my screen and: bam! I got it. All it took was one shot, way less than the 20-30 images I usually end up taking for the selfie.  

This is a big deal for me. It had been so long since I’d felt happy with myself in a photograph, and when I saw that image I felt at ease again. It’s almost as if the images of ourselves that we post seem to validate our own beauty into existence. That selfie was the proof I needed to reassure myself: yes, I must be pretty. The evidence is the photo. But what about all the unsatisfying images of myself I had taken since then? What are they evidence of?  

Not too long ago, I set out to take some top-notch selfies on a summer afternoon. I sought out the best lighting, curled my hair, put on my best bra and favourite blouse, did my makeup to sun-kissed, dewy perfection—I even got a smartphone extension for my tripod. I must have taken over 40 photographs, with variations in posing, framing, and facial expression. I stayed outside for over an hour trying to get a good photo but no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get it.  

Two years ago I downloaded Facetune out of curiosity, thinking I’d delete it that same day. Then I found the reshape feature. If you know me, you know my nose is my deepest insecurity, and I wanted to see what I would look like with a nose job. I used the refine and resize tools to whittle my aquiline nose down to normative feminine perfection, using my index finger to shrink my large, bumpy bridge and lift my drooping tip. I didn’t just do this once, or even just a few times—I did it almost everyday on bus rides to school and work. It’s been two years, and I still do it today.  

Occasionally I’ll also toy around with my body. I pinch my waist in and push my boobs and butt up. I cycle through the before and after images, dwelling on the afters. I never post them, but I do contemplate them. I contemplate the person I would be if I had a normal nose, if I was a little thinner, if I had a perkier butt and boobs.  

I think I over-simplified the ethics of photo-retouching as a young photographer. I thought, (and I still somewhat do), that photography is deceiving whether we retouch or not. Cameras have a tendency to capture and freeze every detail. When I’m taking a portrait of a friend, I don’t notice things like acne, pores, and patches of facial hair in-person, so I never had a problem removing these from my photos. This can be acceptable within the pages of a fashion magazine or portfolio of a photographer, but Instagram is different. Instagram is perceived as a representation of the “reality” of who we are and the life we live, and although we know that this representation is inherently distorted, putting this skepticism to practice is far more challenging.  

The Instagram page @celebface is one of my favourite accounts. With over one million followers, the page ruthlessly exposes how celebrities and influencers manipulate their bodies and images, whether it’s through retouching or plastic surgery. Many of the posts feature before and afters of manipulated images, revealing waists that have been nipped, lips that were plumped, butts that have been inflated, shrunken tummies, faces that were lifted, narrowed shoulders, adjusted hairlines—the list goes on. There are also a ton of magnified facial images that reveal acne, pores, facial hair, and wrinkles; these images have been so blatantly over-sharpened by @celebface it’s comical.  

It’s a bit strange that @celebface has been my go-to body positivity page, considering how it’s essentially a vicious take-down platform where people flock to criticize the appearance of (mostly) women. I think I get so much value from it because, unlike the body-positivity pages I follow, these images communicate everything I need to remember about the nature of self-representation for women on Instagram today. The influx of @celebface posts documenting high-profile women who’ve retouched themselves is steadfast and extensive, as are the comments of shame and disgust beneath them. Yet despite the bleakness of it, looking at the page alleviates some of my body dysmorphia. 

I’ve come to realize that the reason that all those not-right selfies terrified me was because, essentially, they are the overwhelming, contradictory evidence that exposes me as not pretty—as awkward and ugly, as imperfect.  

When I said I never post the afters, I wasn’t being 100 per cent honest. In the last photo I posted of myself, I blurred my face to smooth out my pores and hair follicles, and I still feel uneasy and guilty about it. A few months ago I saw a post captioned, “p.s. I retouched my skin in these.” This small disclaimer felt tremendously brave. I think this kind of transparency will be fundamental in navigating this world of hyper-perfection that seeps out from our screens and into our consciousness. I want us to collectively face and articulate our unique experiences of body dysmorphia without any of the shame that comes with inhabiting a body you’re not happy with. I crave honesty about how we distort our bodies, online and off. 

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