Photo Credit: Lim Ghee Yang

The Commodified Face

Continuing on his exploration of surveillance technologies and their implications, Lim Ghee Yang presents a breakdown of the insidious link between plastic surgery and the devices and applications we use in our everyday lives. Should we be wary of how the media can affect the perception of the self? Technology maverick Balaji S. Srinivasan put it best: “If code scripts machines, media scripts human beings”.

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Our culture of convenience may be costing us our faces.

As the technology titans of today accumulate both power and our data, they wield tools that allow them to shape our behaviour. This is far from a conspiracy theory. Entire companies have business models that simplify the extraction and selling of data. We will consume our way to a “better future” – as I had alluded to in my short history of surveillance. However, as I will explore in this article, the domain in which I feel such practices have not fully played out yet is beauty.

On Beauty

The beauty industry fundamentally reflects a core project of mankind — if not that of the rich and elite — to be eternally young. We’d want to look the part, anyway.

Used as an assertion of authority by Jezebel in the Old Testament and as a skin whitener in ancient Rome, cosmetics is nothing new. Now, cosmetics is an ever-expanding industry worth US$532 billion (S$738 billion).

Harold Gillies, a pioneer in the field of plastic surgery, realised the need for World War I veterans to fix their functioning but heavily damaged faces to lead regular lives. From there, they progressed to the idea of “upgrading” healthy people through plastic surgery. By 2025, it is projected to be a market worth US$43.9 billion (S$60.9 billion).

Cosmatae, or slaves that provided cosmetic help, assisting a wealthy Roman woman (Left). Jezebel (Right), its racist depiction is a topic for another day. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia/Barbara Mcmanus/Byam Shaw

Instagram Realities

Swipe through any story feed and you will be hard-pressed to find a face without a filter that thins a person’s face and plumps up their lips. Most of these filters airbrush or lighten the skin and even remove freckles, or “imperfections” as people see them. These filters represent a new standard of beauty. In the age of information, our cameras are an extension of our field of vision and its augmentation will undoubtedly affect how we perceive ourselves.

In western media, big lips, arched brows, and high cheeks are the hallmark of what people are calling Instagram Face. New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino referred to it as a “cyborgian look”.

Snapchat, SNOW, Camera360, and Meitu are prominent applications enabling the digital facial reconstruction of Instagram.

Behavioural Futures

Enter surveillance capitalism. Social psychologist Shoshanna Zuboff lays out a simple framework: Large firms extract data from the services they provide us, tweaking and personalising them, sparking a vicious cycle of fabricated desire.

The Logic of Surveillance Capitalism. | Photo Credit: Shoshanna Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

Although if we are being completely frank, when was the last time you have ever clicked on a Google ad? My theory is that Google suffers from the problem of too much data. Their complex system for serving ads (Google AdWords) has a steep learning curve. Sure, there are marketers who finesse it and work their magic with it, but these people are a dime a dozen. You are more likely to come across an unskilled user than a proficient one. Meta, on the other hand, is a whole other beast. The ads from Instagram, which Meta owns, are so good. The platform forces advertisers to optimise their already addictive interface. Throw that together with the fact that the data they collect is very specific and compartmentalises the niches that users traverse, and voilà, you get a potent platform for pushing products.

If you doubt the efficacy of social media influencing behaviour, don’t. In an unauthorised Meta-led study conducted in 2010, they mobilised 340,000 people to vote. It would come as no surprise that the fact that people can be nudged to do something as considerable as voting has implications for the other things that you can do with the right data.

Surveillance capitalism coupled with plastic surgery is… Not the most principled combination. Should we be wary of how the media can affect the perception of the self? Technology maverick Balaji S. Srinivasan put it best: “If code scripts machines, media scripts human beings“.

AI Beauty

Faces of multiple women from China morphing into each other. | Photo Credit: Lim Ghee Yang

Nowhere is this commodification of the face more prescient than in China, where Meitu, a selfie editing application, has lofty ambitions. In 2018, the facial-editing app led a funding round that raised USD 50 million for Gengmei, a social media platform for plastic surgery. On Gengmei, users can directly contact plastic surgeons and get plastic and cosmetic surgery advice. It also offers services like community management, e-commerce, and financing for plastic surgeries.

The main feature of Gengmei is its augmented reality feature that analyses faces and grades them based on “liveliness, attractiveness, and symmetry”. From there, suggestions are made to redo eyelids or get fillers.

Instagram face in China and her diaspora is that of porcelain-white skin, large eyes, high cheekbones, a long nose ridge, and a sharp chin.

Liu Di, Gengmei’s founder and CEP, speaking at a press conference in Beijing. | Photo Credit: China Daily

With the data from Meitu and the networks and infrastructure of his company, Gengmei’s founder, Liu Di, aims to build the bridge between the offline and the online world of plastic surgery. He says that youngsters are trying to become more beautiful through self-editing apps and that this demand “will herald a golden era for the cosmetic surgery industry in the coming 10 years”.

Zooming Out Of Control

But wait, there’s more! A new player has entered the chat: Zoom. For businessmen who did not like how they looked facing their clients, the answer was simple. “Tweakments”, as referenced in Ruth La Ferla’s reporting, are minor procedures done within the facial region. A filler here, some plasma to promote healing there. Bit by bit, one eventually finds themselves stumbling while running on a hedonic treadmill of commercial beauty. Good news everyone! Instagram does not have a monopoly on making people overly self-conscious.

Admittedly, this has nothing to do with filters. However, it does show how when one is constantly pressured to look at themselves over and over again through a digital image, the perception of the self will change.

Snapchat Dysmorphia

Closer home, this is also an issue. “Snapchat dysmorphia” is a phenomenon where patients bring in selfies that have been passed through filters on Snapchat, Instagram, Meitu, Snow, and Camera360.

Online filters have offline ramifications. In Singapore, Dr Low Chai Ling of SW1 Clinic says, “I just saw a patient who wanted to look like her curated filtered images on her Instagram account because she was worried that people who saw her in real life may feel her real life looks fell short of expectations”. Dr Samuel Ho from Allure Plastic Surgery has remarked that he has also seen a similar uptick of such requests.

Dr Samuel Ho with a patient. | Photo Credit: The Look Book SG

Instagram face is not a phase

Instagram face and the forces that have led to its rise is not necessarily a bad thing. With each new age, comes its own standards of beauty. The problem is that we have inadvertently given the power of coercion to faceless corporations. They will have control over how we look, whether anyone likes it or not. Will they wield that power responsibly?

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