Body Modification and Beauty in the Digital Age

Photograph © Chrystal Ding 2010.

Within 16 months of the advent of ‘VIDEO-TELEPHONING’, the demand for such a form of communication collapses. Or at least it does in the fictitious but at times uncomfortably-close-to-home world of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The reasons?

(1) emotional stress, (2) physical vanity, (3) a certain queer kind of self-obliterating logic in the microeconomics of consumer high-tech. (1996, p.145.)

The stress of having to maintain a physical aural-visual presence during interpersonal communications (and therefore being unable to distractedly doodle, wear pyjamas, or covertly paint one’s nails and pick one’s nose) birthed a vanity-based stress that made the civilians of DFW’s world revert back to audio-only calls and a widespread agoraphobia that made any form of physical interaction seem unnecessary.

So far there has been no such decline in appetite in our world for new and increasingly sophisticated forms of communication and self-presentation. Just google ‘Microsoft holoportation’ to see the latest in 3D mixed reality and imagine that being how you call your kids, experience porn, and sustain a long-term relationship. Throw in teledildonics combined with 3D printing and what’s to stop you from designing the ideal sexual appendage for you or your partner’s pleasure?

Never has our ability to control our own appearance been so multi-faceted, so fragmented, and so far-reaching. Between my LinkedIn profile, Instagram, Snapchat, Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp and Tinder photos, I command an army of digital self portraits. Throw in the possibility of bio-hacking (transhumanist body modifications), cosmetic surgery, tattoos, piercings, and I have the options for overriding physical ageing, optimising my body towards physical supremacy, and developing my own physical language for beauty. Professor Pedros Domingos, machine learning specialist, envisages a future where digital alter egos will go out into the cyber-world on our behalf performing job interviews and haggling with car-dealers. And he’s not the only one — medical avatars already exist, enabling us to monitor our physical health in digital form.

In this ever-reinventing age of physical and digital trans-conjugation, what then happens to our old ideals of beauty? What’s the new beauty standard? Can we even have one, or are we simply moving too fast? Is our pursuit of physical vanity going to end in the spontaneous combustion of our egos in the face of untenable emotional stress?

Our current discourse is very much dictated by the terms of the beauty industry where brands and consumers are locked in a seemingly endless capitalist feedback loop of trend creation and consumption, and beauty has become one of the many unconscious biases of which we all stand accused when casting judgements in dating, the workplace, and politics.

“There’s a split in how women are and [how they] want to approach beauty.” says BareMinerals founder Leslie Blodgett in 2015. “On one hand, there are a record number of cosmetic procedures happening in doctors’ offices. On the other hand, there is a trend toward accepting yourself and being more self-compassionate.”

Influencers are here who don’t fit any mould, whose profile is built instead upon advocating self-acceptance and celebrating difference. Think of Harnam Kaur, the ‘bearded lady’ who advocates self-love, Khoudia Diop who turned her story of childhood bullying for her dark skin into a modelling career. Technology and start-ups are also standing up for acceptance and personalisation, with MatchCo App offering you your own personally blended foundation according to your exact skin-tone, and Finding Ferdinand creating custom-made lipstick from a database of some 50,000 colours. In January this year, L’Oreal announced that it was investing in five start-ups to build its digital and social offering. It’s no secret that uniqueness is now mainstream, and personalisation is mass-produced.

But for those who want change and self-augmentation, the British Association of Aesthetic and Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) paints an equally strong statistical picture of an upward trend in adoption and acceptance of cosmetic surgery. From 2014–15 all surgical procedures saw a growth in uptake, and by 2015, the number of men who had opted for cosmetic surgery had doubled over the course of the decade. It’s okay to have botox, and it’s okay to talk about it — everyone could do it now, in theory at least. Against the likes of the bagel head trend practised in Japan (originated in Canada) where participants inject saline into their foreheads to create a temporary swelling of the forehead with a dip in the middle for aesthetic reasons, cosmetic surgery sounds positively boring.

The Business of Fashion has declared an ‘Arms’ Race’ between beauty giants L’Oréal and Estée Lauder as each seeks to stave off disruption and grow revenue by ferocious acquisition. And in beauty, as in war, the body is never simply just a body.

When I open the camera on my Huawei phone to take a picture of myself, I am faced with a choice between ‘Perfect selfie’ and ‘Standard beauty’. There’s no option for ‘As I am’. Just like what we eat for dinner, the choice of how we present ourselves is a quotidian, ongoing choice that we make over and over.

With so much fragmentation of the Presented Self, possibilities of representations of the self by others (think of all the photos you’ve been tagged in across your harem of social media accounts), and frankly having your Presented Self exposed to The Judgement of Others, it is unsurprising that Control Over Self-Image is becoming the chief desire and preoccupation of the netizen-citizen with a public ‘face’ in either world.

There’s that adage in fashion that says that everything comes back round once it has had enough time to become old and therefore new again. One begins to wonder if, therefore, the ‘Real’ might be due a renaissance any time soon. Or whether it will simply be another carefully controlled, filtered, manicured version of the self — the make-up that looks like you’re not wearing any make-up.

Either way, it seems that DFW’s third point holds true. As our appetites and neuroses develop, so will the market grow to develop new ways to satisfy our new needs. Beauty standards will continue to be set by whoever’s inventing the technology for augmentation, aspiration, and alteration, whether in the physical or digital world.

‘…and anyway the new panagoraphobia served to open huge new entrepreneurial teleputerized markets for home-shopping and -delivery, and didn’t cause much industry concern.’