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As the world shifts and changes, we are shown the good and bad of not only the past but also the present. Traditional gender norms that ascribe behaviour and identity to one’s gender expression are slowly being broken down as we expand our ways of thinking. Through a feminist surveillance studies lens, this essay will examine how the use of hyperfeminine beauty filters on social media can perpetuate and reinforce unrealistic beauty standards that lead to self-surveillance and gender dysphoria within non-binary individuals. We are now taught that the gender binary we grew up with does not have to be set in stone and that we can decide for ourselves whom we want to be without harm or judgment. This has been a slow process and it is far from over, but this essay will dive into how the use of hyperfeminine beauty filters on social media impacts the mental health and identity of non-binary people and the aspects of our society that make inclusivity so much harder.
In today’s society, technology, mobile phones, and even more importantly social media is at the center of our daily lives. This new reality is met with many hurdles to conquer when it comes to our mental health and identity altogether. On social media, sharing picture-perfect posts of ourselves is not only the goal but it almost feels necessary. We have learned to filter out any imperfection so that we only post what is perfect. One way of doing this is through face filters or beauty filters on Instagram or Snapchat. These algorithmically change what is imperfect to suit those societal expectations of perfection. These can take the form of dog filters, make-up filters, and even gender-switching filters. However, most of the time they take on a feminine form that focuses on the gendered expectations of what femininity is supposed to look like. Beauty filters are created with traditional expressions of gender which promote self-surveillance and self-scrutiny. Non-binary individuals who do not exclusively identify with either men or women can be deeply impacted by the gendered expectations perpetuated within these beauty filters making them feel gender dysphoria. Using feminist surveillance studies as a lens, face filters based on hyperfeminine beauty standards perpetuate and reinforce unrealistic beauty standards that lead to self-surveillance and internal conflict within non-binary people.
Non-binary gender identity is not a new concept, but it is only beginning to expand at a rapid pace because of the rise of social media. Although they do not identify within the gender binary, that does not mean they are excluded from the gendered expectation set by society and the media. They face a new set of unique challenges when it comes to navigating the gendered world we live in because “reinforcing an idea that people are either hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine creates very narrow boxes for how people can outwardly present themselves” (Anderson, 2019). A challenge they often face is people assuming their gender and in doing so misgendering them, which causes frustration as it happens at a constant rate. Non-binary identifying individuals are also more susceptible to acts of violence and harassment and when these occur, they can feel silenced. The danger outweighs their need to be respected. Many problems are revealed when we look at the act of violence committed against transgender and non-binary individuals. It’s rooted in the CIS heteronormative society of today and the way that hegemonic ideations dictate how everything functions.
People fear what is different and that is why there is a pushback against gender neutrality. The emotional burdens that one can face when ungendering themselves can be large. We all police each other. Men, police men and women, police women. Whether that be in person or through media, there are forms of policing that are pervasive. Gendered expectations based on the binary leave nonconforming people scared of the society they live in; they believe there is no safe area for them unless they have been there before and know for sure it is safe. Because they do not fit either side of the binary, they endure emotional crisis and aggression from both ends of the spectrum; being alienated by everyone and feeling disconnected not only from others but also from themselves due to their preconceived notions about gender. In contrast, those who “pass as binarywhether or not transpassing as nonbinary in public spaces evoked fear, vigilant situation assessment, and planning for what-ifs” (Wilchins 2019). The marginalization of non-binary identifying people has resulted in their continual encounters with harassment and violence, as well as their personal battle with identity, and their inability to lead a regular life in which they could access public areas and feel safe and secure. Gender expectations that we all encounter may have profound impacts on us as individuals in a variety of ways. We must examine why these binaries exist and how they are maintained by social media and neoliberal functions in our society.
Our bodies have never truly been our own. We are controlled by the white male gaze set forth by white supremacist sexism which dictates what is done with marginalized bodies. Bartky states that the “body’s time, in these regimes of power, is as rigidly controlled as its space,” that under the guise of protection, the “docile body” is created, that the production of these bodies “requires that an uninterrupted coercion be directed to the very processes of bodily activity, nor just their result; this “micro-physics of power” fragments and partitions the body’s time, its space, and its movements” (Bartky 2020). The only way to keep these bodies under control is to constantly surveil and restrict them, and the only way to do so is to adopt Foucault’s panoptic or self-surveillant perspective of society. Within the “perpetual self-surveillance” of one’s outward image “lies the genesis of the celebrated “individualism” and heightened self-consciousness that are hallmarks of modern times” (Bartky, 2020). Within normative beauty standards, people must always be actively working to achieve perfection, but to some degree, everyone is destined to fail. With perpetual self-scrutiny, something can always be found wrong or deficient in the way that someone looks. Bartky states that: “Even without such more or less explicit teaching, the media images of perfect female beauty that bombard us daily leave no doubt in the minds of most women that they fail to measure up” (Bartky 2020).
Feminist surveillance studies highlight how technology and face filters force women or feminine-presenting individuals to critically analyze their appearance and identity. I argue that with ever-changing or expanding expressions of gender, this does not just apply to women but all queer gender identities such as trans and non-binary individuals. With the development of more inclusive gender identity options, feminist ideologies are then expanded to include a wider range of individuals. Beauty apps, also known as selfie-modification apps, are distinguished by built-in “visual filters aimed at aestheticizing digital self-portraits” so that they match representations of “ideal or normative femininity” (Elias & Gill, 2018). These take the form of hyperfeminine displays with make-up, big lips, perfectly symmetrical facial features, etc. It is the idealized version of femininity that the media forces onto individuals creating self-scrutiny and surveillance. Face filters, beauty apps, and social media are particularly striking examples of the “intensified surveillance of women’s bodies, whereby the ever more fine-grained, metricized and forensic scrutiny of the female body is increasingly mediated by the mobile phone” (Elias & Gill, 2018).
The mobile phone and even other forms of media intake focus on how they can control the general population. They aim to feed into capitalistic beliefs so that people feed into each marketing scheme which also perpetuates self-surveillance and impacts the overall view of one’s bodily image and beauty ideals. Social media and beauty apps are “technological filters intimately shaped by the ‘cultural filters’ of post-feminism, by highlighting how they participate in the intensification of aesthetic surveillance and labour” (Elias & Gill, 2018). Within the apps themselves, whoever places the filter on their face is immediately told where their imperfections lie, whether it be eyebrow placement, lip or eye size. They are taught then to put themselves under a microscope and pick out the features that need to be changed to fit the normative image of perfection. When these changes cannot happen immediately these people can find their self-worth can be impacted by it; their confidence in themselves can drop and they may rely on these filters to feel they are beautiful.
This is where capitalism and neoliberalism come into play because they may then feed into beauty advertisements or even plastic surgery marketing schemes to fit the mold of idealized beauty standards that tell them they need to look like these face-altering filters to have self-worth. Neoliberalism itself acts as a way “to ‘replace critique with technique, judgment with measurement’ in such a way as to efface power and to displace it onto seemingly neutral systems or algorithms that can govern at a distance” (Elias & Gill, 2018). This governance is what teaches individuals to track, be scrutinized, and monitor themselves on every aspect of their identity. They learn to pick themselves apart by utilizing these media platforms so that they fit the idealized image of what femininity is and therefore feed into neoliberal and capitalistic notions.
Overall, when gender is ascribed to a face through a filter it can have dysphoric effects that can alter the way someone views themselves. Filters themselves “encode heteronormative and racialized disciplinary practices” by not only applying makeup, thinning your face, and even lightening your skin, but they reinforce “idealized “waist-to-hip ratios,” and the “aesthetic surveillance and labour” that post-feminism demands of its subjects” (Lavrence & Cambre, 2020). All beauty apps demand individuals to survey every aspect of their human being, they employ them to alter things about themselves to fit normative gender identifying codes. Within a study Lavrence & Cambre state that: “social media ideologies that equate visibility and the ‘control’ women purportedly ‘exert over their bodies’ with empowerment, and the recreational peer surveillance that these platforms normalize, results in the ‘obfuscation’ and inability to critique the male gaze and looking practices more broadly” (2020).
Social media is centred around the surveillance of others and making sure that people are adhering to the societal laws set forth. It also acts as a distraction from what is, in reality, going on and that is the control of your identity, your actions, and your thoughts. Where one’s power is found within their bodily autonomy and control we can see that there is not as much independence as one may claim. Face filters help to regulate and maintain self-surveillance as it applies to beauty standards which although may be framed as a choice, in reality, is far from it. We are under constant visibility as human beings and this type of control can cause anxiety and feelings of self-consciousness that can be harmful to our overall well-being. This is more so true for those who identify as non-binary because they stick out more by not fitting within the gender binary. Their feelings of anxiety and fear often keep them from leaving their homes because they do not want to face harassment or violence. These self-monitoring applications serve as a means for society to regulate from afar, emphasizing how individuality is constrained by neoliberal ideas and technological control (Elias & Gill, 2018).
These binaries as a whole need to be changed, broken down, or removed altogether. We have seen through the marginalization of different communities that the binary society we live in today is not sustainable. People need to change the way they think about not only gender but beauty standards as well. We are taking steps toward a more inclusive society but we are far from complete. Technology is at the forefront of our daily lives. There are very few things that do not include technology of some kind. With the rise of smartphones and social media, everything we need is at the tip of our fingers, merely moments away. Although this has brought much good to our world many negative impacts come with easily accessible technology. The media itself often perpetuates negative stereotypes and takes on many white supremacist ideologies that continue to support the injustices that marginalized communities continue to face.
We need to change the way we view the world and one way to do so is to utilize social media for good, instead of perpetuating gender expectations and unhealthy beauty standards. It should be used to educate further, working together to end the binaries we have set and take even larger steps toward equality. It could begin with the removal of these CIS heteronormative face filters that create more harm than good by reinforcing beauty standards and excluding non-binary individuals. As each paradigm shifts throughout time and our perspectives adjust as a culture, we begin to develop and learn in previously unimagined ways. New discourses can be born, and we can become better, more inclusive, and more human.
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