beauty

"It feels performative": Influencers, fake flaws, and the rise of curated imperfection.

“Bodies that look like this, also look like this.” 

If you have a TikTok account, you’ve likely seen this viral trend. It sees people - overwhelmingly women - posing in an 'idealistic' stance before slouching or showing belly rolls in a second shot, to remind viewers that bodies that appear to be 'perfect' on social media can also be 'imperfect'. 

The videos are typically accompanied by captions that tell viewers to not compare themselves to the highly edited and enhanced feeds that fill social media.  

It was TikTok user Dana Patterson who stopped my thumb from scrolling when she called this trend ‘curated imperfection’. 

She defines the term as "showing off your socially acceptable and also profitable imperfections to try to seem relatable… It literally looks the same in each pose."

In other words, ‘curated imperfection’ is when social media users - typically influencers - carefully handpick certain ‘flaws’ that don’t accurately reflect reality.  

@danaisabellaaaa

#stitch with @karajewel I’m losing my mind

♬ original sound - Dana Patterson

Patterson proposes that this content is, simply, unhelpful. 

“We have got to stop posting things like this on social media under the guise of positivity and ‘love yourself’. It’s just curated crap.”

A look at the comments section on this TikTok video shows an audience divided. Whilst some point out the body positivity movement “includes skinny girls too,” others argue that women who fit the ‘beauty ideal’ are causing more harm via this ‘humble brag’. Others add that ‘skinny’ women are faking their flaws to ‘fit in’. 

The comments section on the trend are divided. Image: TikTok. 

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It’s certainly not a trend unique to TikTok. Since the *ancient* days of Instagram, the photo-sharing platform has overwhelmingly been used to showcase highly-controlled versions of its users. In particular, Instagram has taken the mantle from magazines in promoting unattainable beauty ideals to millions - nay, billions - of people. 

The body positivity movement is, of course, a push to challenge these narrow and unattainable beauty ideals and instead promote diversity and acceptance. 

But body positivity advocate Lacey-Jade Christie explains that some women who obtain the ‘beauty ideal’ are self-selecting areas of their body to scrutinise, for the sake of coming across as more ‘realistic’. 

“I think it is [about] co-opting body positivity,” she explains. “Some women are trying to highlight that all bodies aren’t perfect even though their bodies are reasonably ‘perfect’, so that they fit into a subculture that’s not designed for them.”

Christie continues: “Particularly as women, we need to have a flaw. Society has taught us that we can’t be perfect because if we’re perfect then we’re snobby and we’re out of touch and it’s unrealistic. So I think a lot of women feel pressure even if their lives are reasonably ‘balanced’... that they have to have something to complain about to make them more relatable. It’s hard sometimes to see the realness of it. Sometimes it feels performative.”

The result, Christie adds, is that it takes the focus away from those who are trying to challenge the beauty ideals - the core aim of the body positivity movement. 

Lacey-Jade Christie is a body positivity advocate on Instagram. Image: Instagram/@laceyjadechristie.

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Dr Jasmine Fardouly, from the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University, agrees that it can be problematic when influencers who typically promote and profit from beauty ideals try to tap into the body positive movement with images that are still edited and enhanced.

In effect, it means their audiences are comparing their own flaws to the ‘best of the worst’ flaws of the influencer.  

“The key is whether or not these images actually do reflect reality. If they have been enhanced or carefully selected or there's specific lighting used, then they don't completely reflect reality and they’re not as helpful.”

Dr Fardouly explains that when it comes to the photos we post of our appearances, there are two categories: realistic images and idealised images.

“Our research suggests looking at very realistic, no-makeup images is less harmful than looking at ideal images,” she explains. “Looking at ideal images tends to always make people feel bad about their bodies.”

So where does ‘curated imperfection’ fit in? 

It’s in between these two categories, Dr Fardouly explains, but certainly leans more towards one.

“Idealised images are on a spectrum. Some are very idealised and enhanced, whilst others are slightly less so. ‘Curated imperfection’ content is likely to still be idealised images, especially if the person in the image matches the societal beauty ideal.”

A famous and fairly recent example of curated imperfection came from Khloe Kardashian, when she tried to erase an ‘unauthorised’ photo of her in a leopard bikini, standing in front of a pool while on a family holiday. Compared to the photos that typically fill the 36-year-old’s feed, the photo was remarkably 'unedited' and far removed from the filters and computer-altered images that have come to define the ‘Kardashian beauty standard’. 

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Kardashian’s quest to quell the photo’s circulation told us that even when she shares photos of her ‘imperfections’, it not only doesn’t reflect reality, but still promotes an idealised body image.   

Returning to the ‘bodies that look like this’ trend, the ostensible aim was to stop people from comparing their bodies to others. But that would be like asking us to stop eating chocolate: impossible.

“People have this innate drive to determine where they stand to others on different aspects of their lives,” Dr Fardouly explains. “A lot of people argue that comparisons are automatic and sometimes not conscious - especially when it comes to appearance, it's hard to avoid.”

Plus, we often compare the worst parts of ourselves to the best parts of someone else. 

“Our research suggests that most of the time young women think that others look more attractive than them. These are called ‘upward comparisons’,” Dr Fardouly continues. 

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“The fact that people are making a disproportionate amount of upward comparisons suggests that a lot of images don't reflect reality on social media.”

The impact of the idealised images on social media can be unpleasant, too - just like when we all used to gape at the Victoria’s Secret show and then looked down at our touching thighs and sighed. Only, this is constant and it’s hard to turn it off.

“Curated and idealised images tend to make women feel bad about their bodies. They can put you in a negative mood and motivate you to engage in unhealthy diet and exercise behaviours,” Dr Fardouly explains. 

So what is the way forward?

“It is important, and researchers have argued for a while, that we see more varied and realistic versions of people's appearances on social media. We don't just want edited and ideal images."

Essentially - and it might sound revolutionary - we all just need to post photos of the way we *actually* look. The challenge is in feeling comfortable to do so.

Feature image: Getty/Mamamia. 

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