Oh Twitter, what do we do if you die? Without you, how will we learn that Gillian Anderson and Andie MacDowell are now considered “unconventional” beauties? Or that a handful of people think their weirdest, most absurd crush is Oscar Isaac? Or even – according to a viral prompt on Twitter last week who asked for the names of “all the unconventional people who make you all horny” – that Sophie Okonedo, Rami Malek, Zosia Mamet and Jeremy Allen White are all weird guilty pleasures? And yes, it’s the Jeremy Allen White who recently made hearts flutter as the tormented culinary genius in the cooking-based TV drama. the bear. A man some might think is a decidedly conventional choice for the internet craze. If by “conventional” we mean “respecting what is generally done”, or, to put it more simply, “in tune with the times”. But no! Rather, apparently, we seek to expand what is meant by “unconventional” beyond all normal limits.
A similar situation is underway regarding the lothario of the moment, Saturday Night Live former student Pete Davidson. Whenever he’s seen out with another hot celeb – his previous ones have included Kate Beckinsale, Ariana Grande and Kim Kardashian – the internet goes into paroxysms of confusion and horror. “How can a man who looks like this catch a girl who looks like thispeople shout – while seeming to forget that Davidson is really big, extremely rich, covered in tattoos and a comedian. As one sage online said in defense of Davidson’s regular acquisition of villains: “Imagine laughing a lot. In an attic. Congratulations, you are in love. Yet despite his obvious charms, Davidson is considered an “eccentric” romantic choice; another “unconventional” hottie. The whole thing feels a bit like a Schrodinger-style thought experiment, with celebrities able to be both hot and not hot at the same time.
So what’s going on here? Does the fact that people “confess” to whimsical “unconventional” celebrities suggest that our perceptions of beauty are expanding? Or, in fact, does it suggest the exact opposite? Does the very idea that there is a realm of ‘unconventional’ beauty only reinforce the parameters of what is thought to be ‘conventional’ beauty? What does it really mean for Cate Blanchett and Lupita Nyong’o to be considered “unconventional”?
Well, there’s quite a bit at stake here. First, a truism that in the age of social media has become something of a meme cliché: Lots of people love quirky little guys. You know what I mean – the stereotypical freaks and geeks who get pushed around in lunch lines by jocks but often end up getting the girl. Or the sensitive, smart boys who may not be playing Thor but will make you laugh. Obviously, these weird but lovable guys play a major role in stardom and are a subsection of the supposedly “unconventional” beauty brigade. Across gossip streams and headlines, the same group of dudes are often lumped together as “unconventional” alternatives to the Hemsworths, Beckhams and Pitts of the world. Basically: David Tennant, Matt Smith, Benedict Cumberbatch and Domnhall Gleeson. Stating a desire for this specific caliber of “unconventional” celebrity announces nothing more than a desire to be seen as “unconventional” and “alternative” oneself. By whimsically proclaiming these guys – the non-athletes – what people are actually trying to profess is that they themselves are sensitive, smart and funny, with cultured tastes. “No muscles for me”, they insinuate and imply. “I prefer someone ‘eccentric’.”
What this belies, however, is that there’s nothing “offbeat” or subversive about calling an English geek chic, lean and with an appealing sense of humor. Really, these “unconventional” hotties are about as conventional as it gets. Indeed, the last decades have witnessed the great cultural rise of the geek. From superhero and fantasy fandoms to coding bros, nerd culture is no longer the domain of alt outsiders, but is firmly mainstream. Geeky and weird “unconventional” guys are everywhere, adored and admired. That’s why I personally welcome the cultural comeback of Jack Grealish’s fun but dumb himbo – there are far too many weird but smart loners playing the role of child-kings in the upper echelons of politics and Silicon Valley to my taste .
However, the story does not end there. There’s a lot more at work in contemporary understandings of “unconventional” beauty than just a bunch of skinny white dudes turning people on and off. What’s more insidious is the fact that on most Twitter feeds and “unconventional” looking star lists, a vast swath are either people of color, Jews, or more 40 years, or all of the above. Far from attesting to a diverse and inclusive understanding of attractiveness, it seems to suggest a tightening of racist and ageist ideals of beauty.
James Fox, head of data and analytics at Canvas8, suggests that “our understanding of beauty has definitely changed since the rise of social media”. But she also points out that “the very idea of beauty is problematic”. Fox refers to sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book of essays, Thick, citing Cottom’s statement that “beauty isn’t really what you look like; beauty is the preferences that reproduce the existing social order”.
“If we’re positioning someone as unconventional beauty,” Fox says, “we have to ask ourselves how do we define ‘conventional’ and where does that come from.” So if someone who isn’t skinny, white, and perpetually 22 can be considered “unconventional,” then “conventional” beauty presumably means looking like, in Taylor Swift’s words, “baby sexy”.
To a certain extent, this has always been the case – the twin pillars of youth and whiteness have sustained the beauty industry since its inception. Yet the particular contours of today’s “sexy baby” aesthetic also come, in large part, from Instagram, and all the visual tricks and trends it encourages. “Online socializing with filtered images has unfortunately distorted our idea of beauty,” suggests plastic surgeon Dr. Paul Banwell. “With the rise of filters and editing apps, we almost forget what ‘normal’ beauty looks like. We celebrate beauty that removes all flaws, [and] removes all pores from our skin.
In 2019, Jia Tolentino wrote about the rise of this type of filtered, poreless beauty in the New Yorkerdescribing “the gradual emergence, among professionally beautiful women, of a single cyborg face” – “a youthful face…with poreless skin and high, plump cheekbones. It has cat eyes and long cartoonish eyelashes; he has a small, sharp nose and full, lush lips. The face, Tolentino continued, “is distinctly white but ethnically ambiguous,” and has since become known as the “Instagram Face.” the cartoonish, feline face that Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajowksi and the two Jenners wear, and that’s what defines “conventional” beauty in 2022.
Convention dictates behavior, and many people are now looking to give themselves a “sexy baby Instagram Face” by any means necessary. “Whereas once upon a time patients came to me with celebrity lips or breasts and asked me to imitate [them]“Patients now come to me with a photo of themselves – but with a Snapchat filter,” says Dr. Banwell. “Consulting oculoplastic and ophthalmic surgeon Dr. Elizabeth Hawkes has also witnessed an Instagram-inspired surgery boom. “I have seen an increase in inquiries about cosmetic and surgical procedures around eyes,” says Dr. Hawkes, noting that “the fox eye lift is a good example of this.” Supposedly inspired by Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner and perpetuated on social media through “fox eye” filters, this non-surgical “tweakment”, as Dr. Hawkes puts it, “involves inserting plastic threads into the side of the eyes to stretch the skin”.
One problem, of course, is that no amount of surgical or non-surgical “adjustment” can truly achieve the most conventionally desirable face — because it isn’t real to begin with. It is simply formed from a complex of digital renderings, artifices and classic cultural appropriation. Which is the second major problem. Despite promoting an “ambiguously ethnic” look, this aesthetic actually upholds a system that privileges whiteness, while pushing others to the margins. Jennifer Nguyen holds a master’s degree in fashion with a specialization in colorism research. She wonders how far the contemporary beauty ideal has “strayed from a standard of beauty anchored in whiteness”. “Society now considers [ethnic features] as part of the beauty standard,” she says, “but conditionally — as a racialized person, you don’t have to stray too far from white attributes to be considered beautiful.”
As Instagram Face continues to dominate online and in cosmetic surgeons’ offices, pushing back against “conventional” beauty ideals is of utmost importance. But that can’t be done by positioning everyone who doesn’t have an Instagram face as an “alternative”. Because at the end of the day, if Oscar Isaac is an “unconventional” hottie, God help us all.
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