We weren’t meant to see this many beautiful faces

‘…In a world of normalised filters, cosmetic surgery and beauty tweaks, “beauty overstimulation” is now a thing. But what’s it doing to our brains?

…Ever since early magazine imagery and the advent of Photoshop, people have worried about what retouching images would do to us as a society. But now, if social media algorithms are aggressively pushing glossy, symmetrical faces to the front of our feeds, is there a danger of digitally overloading our brains with beauty?The phrase “beauty overstimulation” emerged recently courtesy of writer Eleanor Stern, who said on TikTok: “Not only are we being exposed to more beautiful faces on a daily basis, but people are making themselves more beautiful than ever”.

…In her book Survival of the Prettiest, Harvard scientist Nancy Etcoff notes that we’re always sizing up other people’s looks, and that our “beauty detectors” are always pinging. Platforms like Instagram and TikTok famously favour human faces over scenery or food snaps; people are encouraged to post selfies “for the algorithm”, and so the frequency at which we’re seeing faces on our feeds is higher than ever.“We notice the attractiveness of each face we see as automatically as we register whether or not they look familiar,” Etcoff writes. “Beauty detectors scan the environment like [a] radar: we can see a face for a fraction of a second (150 milliseconds in one psychology experiment) and rate its beauty, even give it the same rating we would give it on longer inspection.”Retouched images are now what we have come to expect from certain influencers…While our brains are constantly judging looks, they’re also making comparisons… This matters because poor body image can affect every aspect of our lives – it can affect our physical and mental health and affect how we show up at work, social events, and in romantic relationships.”

As a direct result of this comparison and editing, beauty ideals are becoming more homogenised. In 2019, Jia Tolentino coined the term “Instagram face” in The New Yorker, where she described a “single, cyborgian face. It’s a young face, of course, with poreless skin and plump, high cheekbones. It has catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; it has a small, neat nose and full, lush lips. It looks at you coyly but blankly”.Type “the most beautiful face in the world” into AI image generator DALL‑E, and a uniform group of humanoids stare back at you, all with long, straight brunette hair, a razor-sharp jawline and plump lips. All nine faces are caucasian, with tanned skin and electric blue eyes. None of them look natural, but more like a machine’s imagining of a ‘00s-era Victoria’s Secret model.It’s unsurprising that artificial intelligence appears to be conforming to Eurocentric ideals of beauty. AI learns from the information that’s currently out there, so society’s biases become the ones adopted by our new computer overlords…’

— Via The Face

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