Never miss an opportunity to see something beautiful,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “because beauty is God’s handwriting.” The American essayist has probably failed to endorse the advent of Twitter, where the divine is seemingly sought harder and where everyone from Hollywood actors to real-life babies has been eagerly dousing about their looks over the past few weeks. 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 crash into the wall” but “flew in on a kite at full speed” or a perfectly normal photo of Paul Mescal with the caption “27 years old ‘ if nobody was born with a mustache and a tired face in the mid-90s? Where else could you delve into the psyche of a person who’s spent long enough analyzing a picture of Rihanna’s nine-month-old son to conclude that “his forehead and face make him pretty unsightly”? How does one land a role in the Celebrity Baby Beauty Calculations department?
While there’s nothing new about people being mean online, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s been a dramatic rise in this particular type of playground bullying recently. Married men are also apparently a popular target. It’s not just public figures, either, as featured in last month’s proposed “Ugly Husband Off” contest that pitted the seemingly unattractive husbands of stars like Cate Blanchett and Michelle Yeoh against one another. Just look at the instantly viral feature in the Times last weekend with the headline: ‘My husband used to be hot. If I met him now, would I still like him?” While the play itself contradicted the far more sensational setting of the story—said husband is still hot, as both the author and the internet at large rightly acknowledged—felt It sounds bizarre that we’ve gotten the audacity to judge the looks of a stranger, let alone someone you. I have shared three children and a life together for over two decades.
Obviously, it’s not just vulgar bullying, but — especially when it’s so often directed at conventionally attractive people as much as anyone else — it’s a diminishing ability to see what normal human faces are supposed to look like in the first place. The most obvious culprit is digital distortion: growing accustoming to a world curated by Photoshop and filters has led us to imagine that flawless skin and bright eyes are universal standards. In other words, when perfection goes unnoticed, the backlash to variance gets louder.
dr Sarah Bishop, a clinical psychologist who works with people struggling with body image issues, agrees that this can be an important factor. “The overexposure of filtered photos means we see more and more images of people who appear to look the same; we then become less sensitive to and expect to see images that are actually unnatural or even abnormal,” she explains. “This reinforces a very specific set of standards, and as human beings we tend to either criticize or celebrate what falls outside of those standards.”
It’s not just the way faces are cosmetically enhanced that has changed. Despite the struggle for diversity on the runway and beyond, the kind of faces and bodies that are considered beautiful — or indeed “perfect” — have shrunk. “Rigid and narrow standards of beauty create a greater compulsion to criticize anything that falls outside of that little window,” Bishop says. Appearance of age can be a big part of this; Just ask anyone under 40 to guess the ages of the Cheers cast in their 1982 debut season. Aging isn’t necessarily a problem for online trolls: looking old is unforgivable.
We tend to criticize to defend ourselves; Pointing out the faults of others diverts attention from our own
If our brains are now hardwired to find dissonance in anything that doesn’t match the Instagram facial aesthetic, the logical result seems to be a society plagued by self-doubt about its own looks. So why do so many people lash out at celebrities for their perceived flaws when we’re so keenly aware of our own? Are we really all convinced we’re hotter than Normal People’s Daenerys Targaryen and Connell?
The answer seems to be just the opposite: it’s a defense 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 youth. “We tend to criticize to defend ourselves; Pointing out the faults of others diverts attention from our own,” she says. “These feelings of insecurity are often rooted in a sense of inadequacy or a fear of not being able to keep up with others.”
Add in the relative anonymity that social media offers, fed into algorithms trained to love celebrity photos and gossip, and the mix becomes even more intoxicating. Where the internet briefly felt like a place to list your favorite things — whether it’s your eight best friends on MySpace or the top five Alisha’s Attic songs on Geocities — there’s a reason frequent Twitter users are there refer to as “hell side”. Vitriol is running high, and the resulting mud-slinging means the folks who stay and engage are likely to be the ones with the biggest fists for a fight, as well as an unsavory appetite for critique of celebrity infant facial dynamics.
As with most ills attributed to social media use, the problem is not just the quality of the content consumed, but the sheer quantity. Whether users agree or disagree with the touted values becomes almost academic when knee-deep for several hours a day; Eventually, the psychological damage of participating in a virtual community that makes Mean Girls look like a happy age of civility will take its toll. “The kind of prolonged or excessive television viewing that today’s social media is leading us to likely lead to a misperception of what is ‘normal’ and attainable,” explains Bishop, saying that these habits lead to “feelings of hopelessness and depression can lead to “self-esteem”.
Emilia Clarke’s performance was criticized in a viral tweet last month
What then becomes of those of us whom fate has cruelly destined to be both incurably online and really, really, ridiculously average-looking? According to Bishop, we should focus our attention on fixing the former rather than the latter and avoiding facelifts in favor of reducing Facebook. She also advocates a bigger step toward “educating young people about the impact of social media” as well as teaching them how to set realistic, meaningful goals to improve their lives and chances of happiness. “In order to feel better and not feel the need to criticize others, we need to be honest with ourselves, which helps us feel really good and motivated,” she adds. “It’s unlikely we’ll be able to find that by scrolling through photos or commenting on strangers’ posts.”
There is still hope. Social media’s recent descent into normal-face shame has largely gone viral due to the wave of people reacting with hideous horror. This cohort still reliably outperforms those people who cringe at the sight of someone who, to date, seems too old for Leonardo DiCaprio, or not thin and handsome enough for the same purpose. If we can make that one of the more important ratios on Twitter this year – and learn to shut up when someone looks a little tired on the red carpet – it could be something really nice.