The Plastics

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I should be studying for my upcoming GRE. Instead, I have spent the last hour and half watching a YouTube video on dirty money and fame. It is about the Kardashians.

Growing up, I used to be obsessed with the Kardashians. I used to watch their show (including all spin-offs) religiously (except when my mother was around, because it wasn’t allowed). I don’t know what it is about that family, but everything they do is addictive. I saw an episode of the ‘Late Late Night Show‘ recently which had on Kendall Jenner as a guest, and that specific episode was being hosted by her ex-boyfriend Harry Styles. In one of the segments (I think the one where they either have to answer controversial questions or eat some ‘disgusting’ food item) Kendall asks Harry if he ever saw Keeping Up with the Kardashians. He replies by saying, yeah he did, the one where they all sit around eating salads talking about something inane. Kendall jokingly replied to this by saying that is essentially what happens in each episode, and so if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. True. That is all they do. At least I thought so.

In the video I saw today (Part 1 and Part 2), the creator talks about how the Kardashians have bullied themselves into being famous. As in, actually bullied themselves on screen for the many insecurities modern society has taught women to have and made money off of it. I thought that was a brilliant way to talk about it. I remember, even as a kid, how many times they would reference beauty standards. Kris constantly (even till date) bullied her daughters about their weight, their skin, what procedures they should get done – all on camera. These are things all of us think about – at least I do. Admittedly, our obsession with these things has increased with the growth of the Kardashians, but it is kind of like a self-perpetuating vicious cycle. They talk about it because they know a lot of people are insecure about it, then they have the money to get it done, which in turn changes the goal post for the beauty standard every single time, making all their viewers even more insecure.

There was one bit in the video that really got me. There is a part where the video insinuates that Kim’s famous Paris robbery was staged. He doesn’t say this directly, but the facts, as they are presented, seem to point to this conclusion. Apparently she was seen to be wearing jewellery she claimed had been stolen a couple of months after the incident (Kim says it is a fake, but I don’t think that convinced anyone). Also, the entire incident – including the robber’s viewpoint – was commercialised within a year. The guy who kidnapped her has a book out in case any of you want to check it out. This seems to be the norm with that family though. They generate controversy because that is what sells. At every point when the show hasn’t been doing too well, they always come up with something. The 72 day wedding, the Tristan – Jordan scandal, the robbery…the list goes on. I’m just fascinated by their capacity to lie. I read somewhere that Kris made sure Kylie got pregnant before the launch of ‘Kylie Baby’. I don’t know if that is true (and I hope it isn’t) but I wouldn’t put it past them. Because if you can lie about such things, I’m sure lying about the smaller things – like how natural your body or skincare routine is seems like small-fry.

And the thing is, they do lie. They have entire businesses based on beauty products to make us look like them (which is the ideal I hear). But none of those are used by them. They’ve constructed their bodies artificially, and continue to lie about it. Isn’t that awful when you stop to think about it? The shamelessness of it. And ok, that is one level of it, where they convince you to buy their products in order to try and look like them (even if all of us know it is a lie). The other thing is the rise in the popularity of plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures. There are entire procedures named after the Kardashian sisters. The BBL is now one of the most popular plastic surgeries in the world, even though it is also one of the most dangerous ones. I see that body type – the one inspired by Kim and her sisters – all over my social media feed. If I’m being honest, I feel like my entire content is saturated with images of people trying to look like the Kardashians, who in turn end up looking exactly like each other and nothing like a natural person. Sad, really.

I’m not even saying the really mean things I want to say right now because it wouldn’t be fair. I’ve wanted to, at some point or the other, get those exact procedures done – and the inclination has increased a lot in the last few years. I’m not used to being someone who obsesses over how they look most of the times. Yeah, sure, I enjoy looking good and I have fun when I get compliments. But that is a once in a few months’ event. When I feel like putting in the effort. There are things I never used to think about that have become an almost instinctual reaction to seeing my face nowadays. Like my eyebrows. I constantly think about how much nicer they would look if I could just get them lifted a bit (I think it is called a brow lift, and this is the procedure you get if you want the foxy eyed look popularised by Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid – both of whom claim, I think untruthfully, that it is natural). I’ve started stretching skin under my jawline to see how I might look if I got my jaw re-shaped a bit recently. I know I won’t get anything done – mostly because I am scared to death of needles and my mom – but it still alarms me – the frequency with which I consider going under the knife when I have nothing better to think about.

And apparently, this is how it works. Mass manipulation that is modern advertising. If you are constantly told something is desirable, you can’t help but want it. Like diamonds. They have no inherent value, and were never considered a precious material. That was of course, till the DeBeers stepped in and declared to the world that diamonds are forever. No looking back then. That is how they were advertised and that is how they are treated. The same thing is happening in the beauty industry – and at the helm of it all are the unnaturally made, carefully calculated Kardashians. Seriously, if you have any free time today, check the video out. I guarantee it’ll be worth your while. Meanwhile, I’m going to try to stop obsessing over the many plastic surgery procedures I absolutely do not need.

The beauty algorithm

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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.