The beauty algorithm

Photo by Asad Photo Maldives on Pexels.com

As someone who has grown up with the internet, I feel like I have had the privilege (maybe) of being born in just the right generation. A generation older and I would have been out of date. A generation younger and I would have lost whatever little semblance of sanity I have in this day and age of media consumption.

I’ve experienced this with the use of Instagram. Let me give you an illustration. Before I started being active on Instagram, at a time when I would only log in once in a while to upload pictures of momentous events or congratulate someone on their life events (I’m talking weddings and graduations), I had about 3 skin-care products on my bathroom counter at best. I had a basic face wash, a body wash and shampoo+conditioner. Since I have started using Instagram regularly, I have run out of space on my shelf to store all my different (and unnecessary) skin-care products. It started with looking at pictures of pore-less and perfect skin. Even after I found out about filters (and I’m sure the use of make-up) were involved, it didn’t stop my brain from comparing my skin to what I saw online. Stored between these images of unattainable beauty were advertisements for the many products you can buy to look like your role models on screen. I think the first purchase I made was for a toner. Then came the separate water-based and oil-based cleansers. Then the face packs, not to be confused with the face sheet masks which followed suit. Then the night cream (separate from the day cream even though both of them seem exactly the same). The night cream won’t work alone though, and it certainly won’t work on all parts of your face (?!). You need a night / sleeping mask, eye masks and night eye creams. Oh and also, the day cream has to be used before the applying the sunscreen but after you’ve put on your serum. Did I forget to mention that you also need serum? And don’t forget the many, many essential oils you need (the cold-pressed variety too, and that is separate).

Losing track of everything you have to do? Of all the different, but equally important serums and creams you have to lather on to your face if you want even a shot at looking as nice as the people you see on your screen? I did too. Don’t worry. Once you start making your purchases, the algorithm will start throwing beauty gurus in your face. People who will tell you the exact sequence in which these products have to be used in order to be effective. There are variations too. The 3-step skin care routine, the 6-step skin care routine, the 12-step skin care routine. You name it, they have it. AND YOU CAN NEVER SKIP A DAY. Otherwise, say hello to all your old skin problems again. Mind you, we have only covered the off-the-shelf commercially available products you have to use. You may also, depending on your skin (and if none of these work, it is always the fault of your skin), have to use prescription drugs and ointments.

Now, everything I have spoken about is just one example of the effects of active social media can have on your life. There are definitely others, and far more sinister than an extended skin-care routine. And this is just one app. The worst app, from what I hear, is TikTok. By far. I’ve been watching a lot of videos on how TikTok has an in-built ‘beauty algorithm’ which means that only people who are considered ‘conventionally attractive’ are promoted on the app. Now, since most of such algorithms are protected as intellectual property, this claim can only be conjecture. Conjecture supported by some serious experimentation though. For example, one study claims that under the Instagram algorithm, “photos in which the subject is scantily clad are promoted and viewed more in user’s feeds”. TikTok, however, seems worse. Not only does the app promote a certain idea of beauty, certain leaked internal documents also show that, “TikTok instructed moderators to not promote content from viewers with “ugly facial looks.” The document tells moderators that videos of people with “abnormal body shape,” “too many wrinkles,” “obvious facial scars” and “facial deformities (not limited to: eye disorders, crooked mouth disease and other disabilities” are “less attractive, not worthing to be recommended to new users.”

I don’t know if all of you already knew this, but this genuinely came as a shock to me. Having never considered that the oh-so-perfect faces and aesthetically pleasing content was being pushed out by the apps themselves, I had always taken it on face value. In a video I saw recently, the creator talks about how in our everyday lives we rarely see genuinely ‘beautiful’ people (I use beautiful to mean what we consider to be conventionally attractive, or what we have been taught to consider as attractive). Contrast this with what you see online – image after image after video of beautiful people with perfect skin on your timelines / ‘for you page’. That has got to be a recipe for disaster, and it is.

I’ve seen the internet evolve into the behemoth it is. So, at some point down the line, I can still differentiate between what is real and what isn’t. I can still, though it takes effort, convince myself that it is neither normal, nor necessary to look that perfect or be that well put-together all the time. But, for the younger generation – the generation that has only known one way of living, I can imagine how difficult it must be. There is a lot to be thankful for, but I guess one of the things I am most grateful for is that I didn’t have to attend high-school in the age of TikTok.

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