(Forthcoming in “8 1/2 x 11” Winter, 2014-15)
Esther Honig created the perfect storm. A 24 year old self-proclaimed social media expert is an ideal candidate for the new viral project, Before and After. The project has been viewed more than two-million times on Buzzfeed in the short amount of time is has surfaced. There have been brief articles, most of them using the same two quotes from the artist and letting the images do the rest of the legwork, and an upcoming interview with Vice I can only be sure will treat the project as everyone else has been treating it: A young, pretty woman is turning our attention to global beauty standards through the use of freelancers using Photoshop. The internet is just about ready to move onto the next thing, but before that shift in collective attention span happens, I want to discuss some critical issues about the project.
Honig’s project shows us that to be beautiful, and to create something that is mass appealing to the times we are living in, you can have everyone’s attention. But collective fawning does not make for thought-provoking art. In every link I followed on the project, I was more surprised to discover the publisher than the project itself. Cosmopolitan, Elle, and Buzzfeed–one of our biggest weapons against productivity–all dipped their fingers in the pie. The Kansas City Star, in a completely expected attempt to stay afloat, published a glowing article about the project as another effort to draw eyes to the city and art scene within. I pose the question to Esther, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Buzzfeed, The Star, and all the promoters of this project via social media avenues: Does the content of this project extend past the obvious visual gratification we get from seeing an already beautiful American woman adopt the style of cultures that are foreign to many of us? This brings up a huge issue the social media hub has not openly discussed: Is Esther taking advantage of her gender and American status to create something that is mass appealing without the intent to follow-up on the issue she claims to raise? I read the articles, the interviews, the comments (not helpful) and saw the images plastered over the internet. I found a lot of criticism of the returned photoshopped images and statements regarding the artist’s natural beauty. Nobody seems to want to bring up the fact that we all already know ideal beauty is largely unattainable, and that the popularity of this project will fade soon because it is just that: popular. If this were a project that promised to enact real social change, we would not be seeing it represented by the informational avenues it has been chosen by. Lets be honest: Attention from Elle, Cosmo, and Buzzfeed does not equate to rattling the cages of the larger problems of beauty standards in the world. These are sources that are respected and endorsed by those of the privileged class that are busy putting these standards in place. Their representation is an admission of the projects critical missteps. If Honig’s claim to be opening up the global conversation to discussing unattainable beauty, it would be much more effective to turn down interviews and publications for the large corporations that are creating the problem she is questioning to begin with. As I currently see it, this is a young woman taking on an ambitious project that currently promises no global call to action and is more closely related to playing dress up or pretend. A beautiful woman with this kind of impact should not strive to induce a collective sigh, but a roar.
Growing-up-girl is no easy task. Beauty is praised long before intelligence is even discovered. Should this project be treated the same way? We began to praise it before we explored the deeper issues and connotations surrounding the object of female beauty in the world. When will our minute-long attention spans and self-obsessed lifestyles–bombarded with catchy headlines and severely boiled down facts–ever be put to the good use of enacting real social change? I believe it won’t, not unless we move beyond instantly gratifying, image-based, easy-share content and delve deeper into the issues that continue to suppress. This skepticism extends past the Before and After project. Our globally-shared ego inflations are not propellers of serious conversation, and the fifteen minutes of media attention will go no further than reaching a large number of people in a short amount of time who have the collective attention span we all are quickly becoming victim to. It’s far easier to publicly share your opinion than it is to take it out into the real world and be an instrument against the seen and unseen forces that seek to silence it.
I’m proud of Esther. She has accomplished something we value in today’s world. There are some people who are suited for the new age of technology and overnight success, and there are some who will be left behind in the bygone era of dry speculation presented in a formal manner. The bottom line of this project seems to be lacking real content from every angle it can be approached. It’s fun to play pretend. It’s nice to be accepted. But artistic content and social change do not travel through avenues of egotism.
A link to the project on Elle: http://www.elle.com/news/beauty-makeup/photoshop-beauty-standards
UPDATE: The project has now been published in Harpers Bazaar, another long-standing publication that devotes major time, energy, and finance to further images of standard beauty for their own monetary gain. http://www.harpersbazaar.com/