A new indie film that emerged at the Sundance Film Festival last month was entitled "Selfie". It featured 18 teenaged girls who were asked to capture (during a 1-day workshop) the physical imperfections they'd normally try to hide - say if they were taking a selfie to send off to a friend. The images included accentuation of their double chins, freckles, upper arms, and pimples. Cynthia Wade, the film maker, said the point was to start a conversation about cultural beauty standards. and self-esteem.
According to Ms. Wade, quoted in The NY Times (Feb 23, p. 12-ST):
"We spend so much time trying to hide our flaws because the culture has set it up that you have to be ashamed if you're not perfect. I think girls are tired of it. They're suddenly much more willing to embrace the ugly or ironic."
In this context, it is natural for cute or pretty girls to rebel from the image dictators and strike back, often with the deliberately ugly selfie in which the face is contorted, teeth bared, mouth twisted. The effort is to dispel the "pretty girl" image. This is fully merited given the media is focused on dictating pose and appearance for any one who's already pretty. According to Nancy Etcoff, a cognitive psychologist quoted in the piece:
"Modern day beauty images have maintained a particularly rigid definition: ladylike, small, modest unthreatening and virtually emotionless."
The piece goes on to reinforce this perception, observing:
"It takes little more than a scan of any red carpet to see that idea in action: a sea of toothless smiles, frozen foreheads and hunched shoulders, the uniform that every young woman has learned to mimic. And while this generation may be more tech savvy than any other, that beauty ideal can still be crippling."
Let's be clear this "beauty ideal" can also be exclusionary, merciless and rife with bigotry. Who can forget the stunning outcry last year after Nina Davuruli was named Miss America? Her victory was met with outcry from racist troglodytes via social media backlash. Why the rampant hostility? Because Nina didn't meet the unspoken beauty standard. She wasn't white enough, too "foreign -looking", according to her Twiteratti critics.
This is why any girl who seeks to break out of the hobbling beauty standard deserves to be applauded. Thus, as one quoted expert put it, "One of the things ugly selfies do for girls is to strip the conventional approaches to prettiness."
But what if a white woman, or girl, finds herself with an appearance at the cusp of the standard cultural beauty idiom? By this I mean that her appearance emerges as ambiguous and can't be immediately defined as "beautiful", say as it might for a Marilyn Monroe, Kate Upton or Pamela Anderson. Such appears to be the case for Olympic figure skating star Meryl Davis - whose face has been variously described as "non-human" or resembling a 'N'avi alien" (from Avatar), a Disney cartoon character, and a "Grey alien". Some of those comments can be seen here:
Scarcely able to accept this, I played back some of the figure skating scenes on the DVR, and especially the close ups of Meryl afterward. It immediately became clear that her facial features diverged from those normally deemed "acceptable" according to the beautyist promoters. Her eyes were very wide apart, for one thing, and her face extremely flat. In some ways, but perhaps only because I'd read some of the comments on Topix.com, she did appear to be like a Disney cartoon character come to life.
What was the problem? Not just in my perceptions, but those of others'. It was that our evolutionary formed vision (and brain) detected divergences from a symmetry typically associated with both normality and "beauty". See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facial_symmetry
Excerpt: "Evolutionary theorists in biology and psychology argue that more symmetric faces are preferred because symmetry is a possible honest sign of superior genetic quality and developmental stability"
Was she "ugly" as some of the commenters claimed? No, but she didn't meet the acceptable symmetry standards biological science associates with how most humans perceive beauty either. Indeed, on examining her images - paused on the DVR- it occurred that making a selfie might not be a good idea, unless sent to personal friends. If done beyond that circle, she would risk creating a "Poe" of a Selfie. In that instant, I appreciated and realized the extent to which I also had become ensnared in the cultural-media prejudices of what constitutes female beauty. I had also fallen victim to my evolutionary visual prejudices, i.e. in subjectively preferring a more symmetric female face. I ought to have been able to see Meryl's beauty as singular and unique to her, as opposed to supposing she risked creating a "Poe" of any selfie!
As we know, the "Poe" emerged from "Poe's law" originally formulated by Nathan Poe in 2005. Poe's take was that in any confrontation with a creationist - or reading his material- one had to be wary because in the absence of a 'smiley' it would be utterly impossible to distinguish a parody of the creationist (or fundie) from the real statement or real person.
Since then, the usage of the term "Poe" has come to be synonymous with almost any parody on the internet. Indeed, it could be extrapolated to include a certain subset of selfies. This would include selfies of all those females, for example, who are at the cusp of cultural beauty standards, like Meryl Davis. For this subset, then, doing a selfie would risk creating a Selfie Poe. In line with the definition of Poe, it would be impossible to distinguish a parody of such - say a girl deliberately creating an "ugly" selfie by artifice, from a girl whose appearance comes over as 'strange', or at least unconventional, doing one naturally and seeing it confused with the former category.
This is why one might advise Meryl Davis not to do selfies outside her circle. (Apart from the fact if some of those on Topix.com ever got hold of them, they'd have a field day).
What does it say about our culture that an unconventionally attractive woman like Meryl Davis - at the top of her game in the Sochi Olympics - could be regarded as an "alien" or odd, or even having a deformity ("frontonasal dysplasia" cited at Ask.com)?
It means that our culture has become too superficial, too obsessed with appearance and "good" looks. It means that females especially, have been cajoled to submit to a cruel cycle of self-condemnation and magnifying imperfections. The "ugly selfie" then emerges as a kind of playful slice of authenticity in an age and culture where everyone and everything seems airbrushed to perfection. One psychologist actually said the teen girls were "conducting a visual coup d'état" against the perfectionist standards inherent in beauty imperialism.
Let's hope their coup d'état succeeds!
If not, it means we are a long, long way from being ready to meet and greet actual extraterrestrials. And if there are such, their best strategy remains avoiding planet Earth.