Body Image

Performing beauty: Editing out my flaws.

23 October, 2010

I am a woman. A feminist, a fat activist and a healthy body image advocate. I’m also an artist and a blogger (I struggle to identify myself as a writer) with a pretty significant audience. There are things about me that you might know, picked up from what I explicitly tell you about myself or from what I blog about, but there are also things that I actively conceal.

My acts of omission include concealing where I live, my daily movements and my future plans, because I am a woman who has been stalked. I have hidden my street address in my domain registration (something I can not do if I purchase a domain unless I have a PO box.) You might think that’s normal and fair, but I think it’s kind of gross because I’ve done it to protect myself from some guy who assumes I am fair game because I post things on the internet. At any rate, that’s one of the steps I have taken on the internet to protect myself from the culture of violence against women.

I also use Photoshop to conceal my skin. You might be thinking, “whoa, way to change the subject on me” but the omission of my scars, blemishes and zits plays into the same culture of violence against women as my omission of my street address and my movements in “real life” (as if writing this blog and posting pictures of myself isn’t real life!) I am involved in so much discussion about the oppression of women and some things are easy to draw a line under and say THAT’S BAD but others fall into a grey zone. It’s hard for me to commit to showing people my actual skin, even though I know it portrays me as someone who benefits from the privilege of smooth(er) skin. Some feminists may say I betray myself and other people who suffer from acne, and you know that just makes me feel doubly shit about myself. Every time I use the Heal tool in Photoshop I ask myself if I am playing into the systematic oppression of women, but then I ask myself what would happen if I posted unedited photographs of myself to the internet. Sure, there are lots of photos that do not need editing (by my personal standards) but many do, and I want to be transparent about this.

When you have acne you are everybody’s science experiment. If it is on your exposed skin, and for so many sufferers acne is pretty much front and centre, you are betrayed as someone who seemingly can not take care of themselves. People in their misguided kindness offer unsolicited advice because they just want you to feel better, to look better, so people don’t think poorly of you. The most honest punters tell you that you’re ugly, that you have a pizza face and that you are dirty and undeserving of love and affection. Sometimes professional opportunities are curtailed because you have a skin condition, because the person hiring subscribes to cultural messages about people with acne (the overriding message is that acne sufferers don’t have basic levels of hygiene, which is complete bullshit.) All of these people, the advice-givers and the haters, have been taught that someone with acned skin is not beautiful and people who aren’t beautiful must work very very hard to be beautiful and to avoid the taunts, and to be a normal human being with normal chances for love and employment and basic decent treatment. The onus is always on the ugly person to make up for not conforming. As someone who experiences this daily I can’t tell you how much of a stinking pile of shit this is, I hope you understand. I am not writing this for advice, Maude knows I have received a lot of it. Most of this advice was unrequested and useless, all of it hurt me. If you’ve read this paragraph you might catch yourself falling into the trap of the Nice Person Giving Unsolicited Advice – please, stop yourself.

Collage of two photos - the same photo of me, close up and looking just beyond the camera. The left photo is unedited and transparent words hover over it like "Colour balance, under eye bags, pock marks, uneven texture, cystic acne, scarring". The photo on the right has been retouched and shows me with smoother skin and kinder colouring. Large transparent text at the top says "ERASED".

As a graphic designer, I have retouching skills that most others do not, and I have used those skills for 10 years to edit out spots and blotches that people find so offensive. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I find them offensive too. My critical lens is focused squarely on myself, however, and I find it curious that I am rarely aware of other people’s skin when mine bothers me so much. I do offer empathy, not advice, in conversations about acne and other skin conditions. I don’t want to make fellow sufferers sadder than they already might be! But yes, upon looking at photographs of myself I take a selected few into Photoshop and edit out the things I don’t like. My editing does not morph my large belly into a more acceptable silhouette, and I do not minimise my double chin. My favourite and most useful tool is Heal, and with it I turn scars and blemishes into a smoother and more acceptable surface while removing any shine from my naturally oily skin. I ask myself, “Am I editing out me, my essential Natalieness? Is this skin condition as part of me as the fatness I refuse to Liquify into submission?” Objectively speaking my health, including my acne, is part of me and therefore my zits have to be part of my Natalieness. I feel like I’m lying not just to you but to me. I use the Heal tool regardless of being cognisant of this.

I edit myself for a few reasons, to minimise interactions with people who might give advice; to avoid nasty comments; to feel a bit more normal; and to see what it might be like if I looked just a tiny bit different. To expect those of us with less ideal bodies, hell any minority group, to expose ourselves can be a very negative thing and it’s fraught with issues. Many plus size bloggers experience abuse just because they post photos of their bodies on the internet. Sex bloggers often obscure their identities because we live in a world where sex positivity is maligned; these writers can and have faced absolutely abhorrent treatment from friends, family and workplaces. People with acne, like me, use makeup and Photoshop to embody at least a small degree of normalcy and to avoid hurtful reactions. I don’t think a person’s willingness to edit perceived flaws/ identifiers of minority embodiment out is a betrayal of feminism, in fact it is a sign that our culture is pretty much screwed and all of us, the embodied and the advice givers and the haters, are living within this royally effed up culture.

[Transcript for Killing Us Softly 4 by Jean Kilbourne]

So, like Jean Kilbourne says, this culture of attitudes towards beauty needs to be changed. I will still edit out most of my zits. Not all of them. You’ll still see a degree of imperfection because my standards differ greatly from yours, and most people will see photos of me and see my fat body first and perceive that as my greatest flaw. The question of who exacts erasure is key, because if that person or entity is one with cultural power – that’s when we can identify problems inherent in ideal-making. For instance, when a retouching artist working for a men’s magazine edits out whole portions of a model’s body, even if the model has given permission (is that permission implicit in posing for a photograph?) It’s very helpful to question the magazine’s motivations in this situation because there are layers of cultural power at work and all of them have a woman’s body, and the standard of ideal feminine beauty, in the crossfire. I do not have the reach of a magazine and I am retouching images of myself, but I do think this is an issue that I have to discuss. As a person with privilege (middle class, white, mostly able-bodied appearing) and a platform I want to cast my critical lens not on myself, but on the system of power that wants me to criticise myself and other people, and to participate in and conform to norm-making. A lot of the time I have an explicit awareness of my inability to embody beauty, but this culture I live in wants me to perform it to the best of my ability… just to fit in.

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