I have become fascinated recently by a disturbing trend on social media. I keep running across pictures of female friends who have radically altered their appearance in their photographs with filters. These friends, most of whom are in their 20’s and 30’s, are relatively young and almost universally attractive without having to alter a thing. And yet, they still feel compelled to try and “improve” their image.
In these pictures, the women have eliminated all lines and wrinkles from their pictures. The whites of their eyes and their teeth are almost fluorescent they’re so white. These ladies look back at the camera with dewy eyed, unnatural looking faces. They look almost like Barbie dolls with features that are incapable of movement. When I see these pictures, I am immediately struck with a strong sense of something being wrong with them. I then find myself dissecting their features to see what has been changed.
Perfection is also boring. As a figurative artist I am keenly aware of those imperfections that give our faces their individuality. I always know that if I can capture that small, or large, thing that makes us individual, then I can capture the people I am painting. I have tried to paint or sketch people who have worked hard and spent a lot of money to have perfect features. I have found I really can’t find anything to hold onto that makes that person “them” when there’s no uniqueness to their faces.
I do not want to criticize these women who filter their photographs. They are trying to look closer to what society expects of all women. I get it. God knows, when I was getting ready for my 40th high school reunion a few years ago, I kept applying layer after layer of makeup to my face in a futile attempt to look closer to what I looked like at 18. I failed miserably. I looked exactly like what I was at that time: a 58-year-old woman who had lived a full life with all of the attendant ups and downs that are the price we pay to live.
Almost every year I have lunch on New Year’s Eve with a number of girlfriends from high school. We’ve all aged, but all in all, we are still an attractive group. But, we are all pushing 65 this year. As good as we look and feel, we are now officially senior citizens. We have aged far better than many of the generations that came before us, but we’ve definitely aged. Our waists are not as tiny as they once were, our natural hair color is not as vibrant as it used to be, we all have more lines and wrinkles than we like, and our interest in “partying” is almost non-existent.
As we’ve aged we’ve learned time plays some evil tricks on aging bodies. Skin sags, joints ache, and the brain can’t retrieve words as easily as it used to. My mother used to have a cross stitch pillow that said “Old age ain’t for sissies” We are all learning how true that is.
These same friends from high school assure me that I never cared much what people thought of me, but I know that at almost 65 I care even less. I am more comfortable in my sagging skin and ache-y body than I ever was when I was young. My brain might not retrieve certain words as quickly as I’d like, but my heart understands so much more than I ever dreamed it would when I was young.
I have to admit, that when I have to post or submit a picture of myself, there is a part of me that is tempted to play with photographic filters to present a more attractive appearance as defined by our current society. At the same time, it feels ludicrous to me to try to fool anyone into thinking I’m anything but what I am: an aging mother or three and grandmother of five. My wrinkles and grey hairs are as much a part of me now as my blue eyes and fair skin.
Looking at the altered features of the women in heavily filtered pictures, I have found myself wondering what future generations will think of these obviously altered images. Will they look at them and wonder why this generation felt obliged to change their appearances? Or better yet, in the future will they have accepted that, much like Kintsugi, the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with gold, that there is beauty in the aged and worn? Or, maybe, will they perhaps have found ways to not age at all in the future? Or will these images look normal and natural to them because these alterations, both photographic and medically, have become the norm?
Whatever the future holds, only time will tell. For now, I feel bad that our current assessment of attractiveness is so limited that beautiful young women feel the need to radically alter their appearance for the approval of others. If anyone were to ask me, my advice to these younger women would be, “Lean into who you are and what you’ve been through. Live as healthy a life as you can, and hold your head high.”
Beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder. How about we all be a little kinder when we behold ourselves?