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.

Daily Express

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.

South Korea has long held one of the highest suicide rates in the world (10th, according to the World Health Organization), a fact that's painfully resonated this year with the suicides of two popular K-Pop stars: first 25-year-old Sulli and now 28-year-old Goo Hara.

After Sulli was found dead in her home last month, public outpouring of grief included fellow K-Pop idols and the singer's famous friends, such as Goo, a former member of the girl group Kara. She described their friendship as being "like sisters"; in a livestream, she vowed, "I will live twice more diligently now that you are gone," adding, "Dear fans, I will be fine. Don't worry about me." But six weeks later, Goo was found dead in her own Seoul home, with police calling it a suicide and reporting that they'd found a handwritten note expressing her overwhelming depression.

While the world of K-Pop has been rife with scandal, from its factory-like production of girl groups and boy bands to its disregard for young idols' mental health, Goo's tortured last years also highlighted the pervasive effects of rape culture within K-Pop. As writer and activist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein pointed out on Twitter, "Rape culture kills," pointing out the negligence and egregious mishandling of Goo's highly publicized dispute with her abusive ex-boyfriend, Choi Jong-bum. Choi not only attempted to blackmail the singer but physically and (allegedly) sexually assaulted her. "It is known that she attempted to commit suicide in March this year after an ex-boyfriend attempted to blackmail her with threats of assault and the release a sex video," NBC News reports. "Amid the dispute, Goo's agency terminated her contract."

Details of the assault include Choi drunkenly attacking Goo while she was sleeping, prompting the singer to physically fight back against Choi's screaming assault. He was reportedly displeased with the resulting marks to his face and threatened to release footage of the two of them having sex in order to "make it impossible for her to pursue an entertainment career." Over the course of multiple trials, Choi was found guilty of "filming body parts without consent, assault causing bodily harm, intimidation (blackmail), coercion, and destruction and damage of property." He was not found guilty of sexual assault. Disturbing excerpts from the court documents include: "During the breakup process with his lover, Mr. Choi caused injuries to the victim as well as receiving injuries on his own face. He was angry about this and threatened to contact a media outlet to end the victim's career. By making her kneel and other such behavior, he caused serious suffering to the female celebrity victim."

Instead of the prosecutors' requested 3-year prison sentence, the Seoul Central District Court granted Choi a suspended sentence of three years of probation. If he violates said probation, then he'll receive his full sentence of one year and six months in prison. The prosecution was quick to condemn the court's leniency. On September 5, they appealed to demand a harsher sentence, stating, "Society needs tougher punishments in order to eradicate the kind of criminal behavior that Choi Jong Bum committed. We hope that during the appeals trial, the defendant will be appropriately sentenced according to the weight of his crime."

But it's worse than just leniency for a blackmailer; it's a testament to the misogyny that Korean women, even K-Pop idols, face in the public eye. Throughout the trial, Goo faced significant backlash in the press and online hate. In June, she took to Instagram (in a since deleted post) to say, "I won't be lenient on these vicious commentaries any more." She wrote about her struggles with "mental health" and "depression" and plainly asked people to stop leaving hateful comments. "Is there no one out there with a beautiful mind who can embrace people who suffer?" she posted. "Public entertainers like myself don't have it easy — we have our private lives more scrutinized than anyone else and we suffer the kind of pain we cannot even discuss with our family and friends. Can you please ask yourself what kind of person you are before you post a vicious comment online?" In her final Instagram post, she captioned a selfie of herself lying in bed with "sleep tight."

As Bloomberg reporter Jihye Lee critiqued, "Korean women find it more and more difficult to report crimes as victims because they see female artists facing even greater backlashes & trauma because how the public, police and the justice system respond to sexual assault, and that sends a clear message to all women in Korea."


Now, Goo's death has fans petitioning for greater awareness and more responsible action in response to sexual assault, as well as mental health concerns. On Twitter, fans are channeling their grief into calls to bring Choi to justice and face a stricter sentence. Trending topics in South Korea are filled with remembrances of Goo Hara and even Sulli, while an online petition addressed to President Moon Jae-in has gained over 220,000 signatures, all demanding that sexual harassment receives a harsher punishment in Korean law.


While Goo's death has inspired a long-overdue conversation about the oppressive misogyny that keeps too many Korean women from reporting assault, a small memorial sits at St. Mary's Hospital in Seoul where Goo's body rests.

MUSIC

Best Ways to See More of Your Favorite K-Pop Idols

Can't get enough K-Pop? Check out these shows.

Running Man

Most K-Pop stars have carefully curated social media to give fans glimpses into their personal lives, but for some fans those little glimpses will never be enough.

Luckily, you don't need to resort to desperate measures to feel a little closer to your favorite idols. Korean entertainment is a world of endless crossovers, so you can get your fix of idol goodness in a few different ways.

Variety Shows

As anyone who's seen Jack Black's appearance on Infinite Challenge can tell you, Korean variety shows are crazy. We don't really have an equivalent in the U.S., but if you imagine a group of celebrities spending a whole day doing wacky Ellen/Jimmy Fallon games, you should get the idea. While Infinite Challenge is no longer running, it aired from 2005-2018 and regularly featured K-pop idols, along with actors, comedians, and athletes. With that many seasons, they've had a huge number of K-pop guests participating in the craziness, like T.O.P from Big Bang doing a ridiculous dance battle.

A similar show that's still airing is called Running Man, where you get to see members of BTS getting piggyback rides. The show also regularly features members of Bigbang, Blackpink, 2PM, CNBlue, and Miss A. With all the crazy antics that go on in these shows, you get to see more of the silly side of your favorite idols. Another variety show, Village Survival The Eight, has featured Jennie from Blackpink working with other celebrities to solve a fictional mystery. Along with the clips on YouTube, full episodes of these shows can be viewed for free on Rakuten Viki.