Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"Unobtainable Standards for Beauty"

This story has been circulating for a while, but just when I thought it had died an appropriate death, internet tastemaker George Takei resurrected it today.

"My project, Before & After, examines how [beauty] standards vary across cultures on a global level," writes the woman in the photo, Esther Honig. Photoshop "has become a symbol of our society's unobtainable standards for beauty," and she believes collecting Photoshop work from around the world will tell us something about those standards.

I admit it was fun to click through the photos. My son and I had a great time gasping at each attempt, in all its terrible glory, and noticing what each freelancer did or didn't do to the photo. (The Indian freelancer removed her collarbones. The Moroccan guy put her in a hijab. Argentina corpsified her!) What I do not believe is that Honig's project comes even remotely close to its intended purpose. The results tell you nothing about beauty: not the unobtainable nature of it, nor the cultural assumptions of it. All they tell you is how good at Photoshop each individual freelance artist is.

I guess I'm not surprised Takei bought into the the shallowest possible read of this non-story. But actual media outlets also jumped on board.  (I'm lookin' at you, The Atlantic.) They all repeat the mantra that the media (hello! That's YOU, media!) perpetuates unobtainable standards of female beauty, and that Honig's experiment dismantles or shines a new and needed light on this problem. Or, they trumpet the notion that you can learn something about, say, the Indian standard of female beauty by looking at one guy's five-minute snip job of one woman's selfie. Each story goes on to repeat, smugly, "Esther Honig is already beautiful," like that's a brave and revelatory observation. Of course she's beautiful—would this story have even passed the editors' desks if it didn't feature a bare-shouldered beautiful woman?

The manufactured outrage at this story seems to rely on one presumption: that the freelance artists who took on the project did something wrong by doing their job and fiddling with the photo. They may have done hack work, most likely because Honig found them via fast-and-cheap freelance website Fiverr* (these weren't exactly professional photo editors), but they literally had to do something to the photo in order to be considered "doing a job." Their only other choice was to send the photo back and refuse the job, because Esther Honig was just too beautiful to work for.

The magazine editors who green-lighted this story are not outraged. The writers aren't angry that Esther Honig hired people to digitally manipulate this photo and aforementioned people did exactly that. But these meme-makers are hoping you're mad. They want you outraged, so you share and share the story, and get excited about it, and they get more clicks. (Guilty as charged!) So let's not fool ourselves for a minute there's a new problem here we're being informed of, or that your outrage, should you feel it, is going toward fixing a social ill.

Women deal with enough BS in real life, we don't need to look for problems where there are none. This is not, or should not be, the feminist story du jour. I'm irritated that media outlets think we're so easily manipulated, that they can fly a nonstory like this and we'll all jump on it. It's especially disappointing to me that The Atlantic and Time would engage with this nonsense. These outfits claim be be about serious journalism—it's not serious journalism if you are just repeating what all your buddy editors did two days ago; it's not journalism if you don't apply the least bit of critical thinking to the story you're repeating. It's a cheap bit of click-baiting.

Maybe the remarkable story here is that for once, the audience has apparently seen straight through it. I rarely go into the comments section because as everyone knows, it's a seething pool of inanity and cruelty. But for maybe the first time ever in the history of the internet, the comments-section wins the day.

The media doesn't get it, but the readers do.

Comments under The Atlantic's story on Honig
*Fiverr is named after the suggested price of the typical freelance job: five bucks. If you want your face Photoshopped for $5, then yeah, you can expect to look like a sketch for a "wanted" poster. Or like your photo was attacked by a Crayola-wielding toddler.


  1. I would have thought this one would have been beaten to death by now. I have no idea how to address it after having done so, with people I know and in writing for some 4 decades. So I'm not.
    If people, men and women have not realized by now, and seen through all the bs that is handed out by companies, advertisers, marketing, on and on, then they never will.
    Beauty, in men, women, people resides inside. That's it. The rest you have to sift through is complete and total bs.

    1. I must be shallow because I am quite attracted to my husband's outers as well as his inners. :) I do think the way women (and men, to a lesser extent) are represented in media causes unnecessary stress. I read somewhere that women in hijabs have better body images than uncovered women, which is unsettling but kinda makes sense. However, I don't think this weird experiment says almost anything about the issue, unfortunately, though it claimed to try. It bugs me that so many people thought it did.

  2. Honig is the German word for honey. Just thought I'd share.


    1. Yes it is. I lived in Switzerland briefly and studied German for a few years, so pretty familiar with German even if I'm no longer fluent. "Honig" is an Ashkenazic surname.

  3. Someone should send around a man's image and see what happens :)
    Good to meet you on Susan's blog.

  4. Must be the last person standing who hadn't yet seen this one, but I completely agree with you Stephanie. There have been other much better feminist stories du jour out there, notably Emma Watson's wonderful speech before the UN, and John Oliver's awesome piece on the Miss America scholarships.


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