Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I think it was Professor Elaine Scarry who defined beauty as the quality that inspires the desire both to possess and to replicate.
It’s always struck me as a very good definition. And, living the way I do, I constantly see the idea in action. At every scenic spot, every brilliant sunset, every famous castle or palace, hordes of tourists snap photos of the same things. In the age of the smartphone, one marvels at the thought of how much of humanity’s collective data storage capacity is taken up with endlessly repeated (and mostly bad) photos of the same sights and things and places. But unlike many other seasoned travelers, I do not judge too harshly the amateur photographers. First of all, I’m not sure I’m in any position to throw stones. Secondly, they do no more than what beauty requires of them: taking a photo of something is at once an act of possession and of replication.
But a recent piece in the New Yorker by Jia Tolentino on the “Instagram face” has me revisiting this concept of beauty. Scarry’s definition applies to human appearance as much as it does to sunsets and paintings and vistas. Beautiful people inspire eros, and sex is at once an act of possession and of replication in its possibility of multiplying the species — which was why Freud equated it with the will to life itself.
But Tolentino points out a fascinating and “obviously terrifying” trend: “the gradual emergence,” as Tolentino puts it, “among professionally beautiful women, of a single, cyborgian face.”
It’s a young face, of course, with poreless skin and plump, high cheekbones. It has catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; it has a small, neat nose and full, lush lips. It looks at you coyly but blankly, as if its owner has taken half a Klonopin and is considering asking you for a private-jet ride to Coachella. The face is distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic—it suggests a National Geographic composite illustrating what Americans will look like in 2050, if every American of the future were to be a direct descendant of Kim Kardashian West, Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and Kendall Jenner (who looks exactly like Emily Ratajkowski).
The trend plays out online, where Instagram and SnapChat offer filters like FaceTune to make your look that much more like the cyborgian ideal in your selfies. One shudders at the thought of millions of young women around the world FaceTuning themselves better to resemble the celebrities they look up to, and those same celebrities applying the same edits to their own photos.
One shudders even more upon considering that it’s not only online but also in real life that the trend plays out, something that Tolentino goes on to chronicle. Now that a strain of mainstream feminism has taught women that “self-objectification is progressive, because it’s profitable,” Millennial women are flocking to plastic surgeons’ offices with pictures of Kim Kardashian on their phones ready to show the doctors.
Beauty is that which inspires the desire both to possess and to replicate. Undergoing surgery so that your face better resembles the societal ideal is at once an act of possession and of replication.
But what was that she said about the face being distinctly white?
For a couple of years in the mid-to-late-2000s, Google tried very hard to convince me to get plastic surgery.
This was when they still ran ads within Gmail accounts. Half the time the ads that popped up on my account were for plastic surgery specifically meant for East Asians, specifically for the purpose of altering their faces to look more white, particularly by cutting extra creases into monolid eyes.
I naturally have high self-regard. I think my face is just fine. Quite nice, actually. But I did grow up with a good many boys who would not stop going on about my Asian eyes. And I did come to learn, as inevitably I must, the Western cultural code that designates a white male face as that of someone worthy of attention and even attractive, and an East Asian one as inscrutable, negligible, invisible, the impassable visage of someone polishing white ladies’ nails in a salon. Or in my case, the kind of face that, even after months of living in the same building, your doormen and neighbors would try to bar you from entering your own apartment — the same doormen your tipped at Christmas.
“Because physiognomy is a powerful thing,” writes the Korean-American essayist Wesley Yang:
It establishes identification and aversion, and all the more so in an age that is officially color-blind. Such impulses operate beneath the gaze of the supervisory intelligence, at a visceral level that may be the most honest part of us. You see a face that looks like yours. You know that there’s an existential knowledge you have in common with that face. Both of you know what it’s like to have a cultural code superimposed atop your face, and if it’s a code that abashes, nullifies, and unmans you, then you confront every visible reflection of that code with a feeling of mingled curiosity and wariness.
Beauty inspires the desire to possess and to replicate. But so does power. The powerless wish to possess power, and the powerful wish to replicate their power and themselves. So when is beauty simply a reflection of power? Are not the millions of young women filtering themselves online or even going under the knife simply trying to tap into the power of the officially beautiful?
Keats famously (or infamously, depending on the critic) wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all.” But what truth is there in this all-consuming, totalizing beauty? What truth is there in the colonial legacy of the worshipping of the white face? What truth is there in this imperious desire to conform? What truth is there in FaceTuning? What truth is there in Botox and nose jobs?
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."