Did Handsome Squidward have the first Instagram Face?
In a recent New Yorker article, Jia Tolentino addresses the phenomenon of the "Instagram face."
This social media-optimized visage, she writes, is 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, as if its owner has taken half a Klonopin and is considering asking you for a private-jet ride to Coachella."
If you've spent any time online, you probably know what Tolentino is talking about. "Instagram Face" is a term that refers to any of the artificially beautiful faces we see that could only exist online and thanks to a great deal of surgical enhancement. It's deeply linked to money, to plastic surgery, and to the utilization of light, texture, and power through image manipulation. It's inspired by Kylie Jenner and her brood. It's white but tanned, often freckled and always pouty-lipped. It is "as if the algorithmic tendency to flatten everything into a composite of greatest hits had resulted in a beauty ideal that favored white women capable of manufacturing a look of rootless exoticism," writes Tolentino. It is everything and nothing at the same time.
Handsome Squidward and Bella Hadid: Beauty as Pain
While thinking about these faces—shaped by highlighter and lip kits and edits and plastic surgery, blown-out and contoured and often captioned with Lizzo lyrics or quotes about either sadness or female empowerment or some combination of both—I began to realize that they reminded me of something.
Admittedly, they reminded me of a lot of things. Humans have always idealized unattainable beauty, and, in a way, the Instagram Face is like a modern iteration of ancient Greek sculpture. They symbolize humanity's aspiration to physical perfection, refracted through capitalism and technology—but they also resemble the iconic Handsome Squidward from the SpongeBob episode "The Two Faces of Squidward."
In the episode, Squidward gets hit with a door and after two weeks in the hospital, he finds himself converted to a Chad-type, complete with a very strong jawline. He is immediately photographed and thronged by groups of fans who attack and injure each other in an attempt to steal his clarinet and clothing. Unable to escape the rabid crowds, Squidward runs to the Krusty Krab and begs SpongeBob to change him back, so SpongeBob smashes him in the face with a door until he becomes...something surreal and bloated, something doomed and too beautiful for this Earth. He becomes Handsome Squidward.
As a crowd of onlookers gazes on in awe, Handsome Squidward dances across the screen. He moves like a drugged ballerina, bogged down by the weight of his beauty.
Handsome Squidward ~ The Short Version www.youtube.com
He bears a striking resemblance to Michael Phelps in stature and Bella Hadid in features. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Hadid is the first result that comes up on Google when you search "Instagram Face." Hadid, like Handsome Squidward, didn't always look like she does.
Instagram Face is a product of money—of plastic surgery, injection, or incision. Like Handsome Squidward, its beauty is artificial and painful and precarious.
Perhaps Handsome Squidward's defining characteristic is that he is always falling. He carries an air of doomed glory around him. His beauty is apocalyptic and self-annihilating. In the modern world of the Instagram Face, beauty is pain, collapse, falling, breakage. It's breaking one's face open and filling it with collagen and chemicals and projecting it through software in hopes that what blooms from the wreckage might garner attention, acceptance, adoration, and eventually, compensation.
The Instagram Face and Capitalism: Beauty as Collapse
When I see Instagram faces, digitally manipulated and paid for in order to sell, I experience a feeling of falling. Instagram faces are inherently doomed, as we all are, to age out of their beauty, to fall prey to the passage of time, to slip down and hit the earth. The bearers of Instagram faces, I assume, are forced to deal with the ugliness of the ordinary: the way faces peel and breathe and sweat and bleed, the way bodies contort and sag and excrete. For a brief moment, in the free-falling sphere of the online vortex, they are beautiful. For a moment, they are infinite, immortal, not-alive.
In that, they bear a resemblance to the most elusive and tantalizing aspects of capitalism, which—for all I criticize it—can look truly beautiful. That's part of its charm. Though, of course, we know that capitalism is killing people and killing the planet, brainwashing us into idealizing completely arbitrary traits, and always has been. Capitalism has motivated everything from colonization to trauma on the Internet, because it works. It is so difficult not to aspire to its promises and not to hoard the wealth and objects that one has. It is so difficult to extricate ourselves from it, even though we know it's killing the planet and so many people.
Still, the idea that we might be able to streamline and photoshop and buy ourselves into a life that feels like a Goop catalogue looks will never stop being tantalizing. No matter how much we preach self-love, our culture is still confused by a desire to transcend our human limitations even at the cost of our humanity. No matter how much we preach radicalism and liberation, we still live in a society built on competition. This sick mindset may be guiding us towards total climate collapse; but then again, have we ever not been falling?
Empowerment and Shifting Possibility: Beauty as Power
Of course, not everything about the Instagram Face is bad, or, at least, it's not implicitly worse than the beauty standards we've always glorified. The Face is becoming increasingly attainable to all genders. In a way, it does level the playing field, offering people the opportunity to change themselves on many levels. And it can offer confidence boosts. "On one hand, some people may find that conforming to a beauty standard can help with confidence and self-esteem," writes Julia Brucculieri for The Huffington Post. Still, even that self-esteem and confidence (like most of what gives us thrills within beauty-obsessed capitalism) teeters on thin ice. "That confidence boost, though, will likely be short-lived, especially if you become increasingly obsessed with presenting an altered version of yourself on social media."
There is, of course, the argument that we shouldn't criticize girls and women for posting selfies or for editing themselves, which makes a valid point. There is a tremendous amount of sexism inherent in a lot of criticism of women owning and celebrating their beauty, sexuality, and flesh prisons.
Still, when I see these faces I can't help but feel like capitalism has devoured female empowerment, regurgitating it just like it's capitalizing on social justice without really changing anything while whiteness has remained in power; it's just morphed. The modern era was supposed to be post-feminist, a time of body positivity and liberation. When did it become about mutilating ourselves, about endlessly deifying "glow-ups"? Has the human algorithm always leaned towards competition, and will we ever successfully hack it?
Are the Kardashians' billions a sufficient balm for knowing that their fans are harming themselves and ingesting toxic diet products in order to achieve a look similar to theirs? Most likely.
But when I scroll through Instagram, I still can't help but feel like those fish watching Squidward fall through the glass. I can't look away from this dazzling, collapsing world.
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