I was an undergrad in university when an employer came in for career week to do a seminar on how “everything is marketing,” or something to that effect. My professor was a discerning man, and he encouraged us to form our own opinion on the whole thing. He said that he wasn’t telling us it was a scam, but he wasn’t not telling us that it was a scam either. I remember it being some multilevel marketing company, so I fully appreciated any cynicism surrounding that.
But I was bright-eyed and wanted to believe in it anyways, at least from the perspective of an idealist, something just superficial enough, and I still do. Everything I had studied about marketing made it seem so elusive and cerebral, particularly the psychology of branding – why we are overcome with nostalgia at the mere pairing of a font and a hex code, how products become artifacts in patterns of ritualistic consumption, or what role psychometrics play in determining our attitudes towards the act of buying in the first place.
I felt that everything was an exchange – that identity was just as important to your preference of morning coffee as it was to the ideologies you subscribed to, the media you consumed, and the people you consumed it with (because I, like most humans, crave that sense of belonging). And this isn’t about materialism in excess, this isn’t even fully about consumerism: if we take away all the billboards and logos and markers, you’ll still have you, and, by extension, you’ll still have your personal brand.
But there’s something so manic about personal branding, at least for me, in that I’m so concerned with how I’m seen by others (even though the whole point of this is to be perceived). The overstimulation we experience on this floating rock is unnerving, and, in a way, it does feel like everything is marketing: how readily accessible products are, often packaged as lifestyles, and advertised to us in ways that don’t feel like advertising at all. Worse yet, body types seem to have just completed a full trend cycle, only feeding into a myriad of dizzying beauty standards. To that point, we’ve been experiencing this algorithmic shift that favors people and things that look a certain way as opposed to not. And that’s just it:
If the paradigm of social media was largely built out of a desire to foster greater community, a space to connect and contribute authentically, how have we changed that conversation today? When social media was fully realized as a marketing tactic, what, at least a decade ago, the benefits of interactivity and organic promotion made it revolutionary. Tack on today’s addictive usage patterns, the ease in fulfillment of instant gratification, and, in some cases, digital lives have become nothing more than shattered reflections of self.
Maybe I’m looking at this all too closely, but it feels like the evolution of this tactic has hindered the overall skill of personal branding: when the influencers all start looking the same, when content is more about using a trending audio, when the algorithm does nothing but reward and reinforce this. I think the first mistake of social media that so many users still fall prey to is knowing that the highlights they post are not 110% reflective of their lives but not always understanding that of others.
I found this little article by a coach called Tracy Borreson that was really helpful. It differentiated the personal brand from the digital appearance. She defined the personal brand as someone else’s experience of you when you’re not in the room, which is rooted in feeling and strengthened by your authenticity. The digital appearance, however, is simply how something or someone looks online, which is oftentimes only surface level, cosmetic, and, in some cases, entirely unreal.
I know it’s not revolutionary to separate the physical world from the digital, but it felt pretty profound and liberating to me. I had my nose to the screen of my laptop for most of my education, and my professional life looks exactly the same. There are moments where my personal digital life feels like the best means of escapism – it’s a space where I don’t have to worry about my GPA or KPIs, but there’s a different kind of worry that I think exists in those who have grown up online.
There’s a thing called “beauty overstimulation,” and I wanted for a really long time to speak to it, even if it was just into the void.
The first time beauty overstimulation was conceptualized, really put into words, for me was through a TikTok by Eleanor Stern, who eminently remarks,
“Not only are we being exposed to more beautiful faces on a daily basis, but people are making themselves more beautiful than ever.” I vividly remember a comment in response to the video, which was actually featured in an article of this very same topic on the face – it reads, “My self esteem improves by just going to [the] grocery store and looking at actual people.”
Felicity Martin’s article on The Face was then the second piece of content I immediately bookmarked because of how wonderfully it was curated. She acknowledges the ease in which we are enabled to alter our digital appearances and calls into question the danger of the social media algorithms that overwhelm our media diet with gorgeous faces and perfect bodies. It’s no secret that these sorts of images gain more reach and engagement on social media platforms than the original artsy latte shot or sunset snap. She goes on to cite lecturers and researchers who explore the risk of online comparisons on self-esteem and self-image, especially if we begin to alter our own photos. It’s also explained that comparing ourselves to those we consider to be our peers has become far more dangerous than comparing ourselves to celebrities, as we can now rationalize our lack of hair, makeup, and fashion teams at our beck and call.
For this reason, I wholeheartedly commend those using their platforms to teach media literacy on retouched images and videos. It’s not to say that doctoring a temporary, minor imperfection on a personal selfie is a crime, although I can understand grounds of false advertising when you’re partnering with a skincare or makeup brand (but not everyone is an influencer or celebrity). Yet, on the same note, it feels like even the most minor photo enhancing can be a gateway to feeling poorly about yourself, and that shouldn’t be the case. The conversation surrounding beauty and appearance has gotten entirely out of hand – to feel comfortable, confident, and worthy in your skin just as you are should not be a radical notion. In this way, representation should not be hard to come by. It almost feels like the normalization of drastic filters and editing has taken away from our use of digital mediums to capture what it’s like to just be human. This isn’t to dissuade you from using a cool film preset or playing around in Lightroom to give your photos a certain vibe, as I feel a distinct difference exists between editing for art and editing for conformity.
I think it’s safe to say the genesis of most all we know about beauty overstimulation comes from a 2019 article on The New Yorker called, “The Age of Instagram Face,” which the uniform, digital cyborgian look is coined. Jia Tolentino writes,
“The face is distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic – it suggests a National Geographic composite illustrating what Americans will look like in 2050, if every American of the future were to be a direct descendant of Kim Kardashian West, Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and Kendall Jenner (who looks exactly like Emily Ratajkowski).”
This was really interesting to me solely based on the general understanding of appropriation, and I know there’s all sorts of discourse on what appropriation is versus appreciation, but there’s something unsettling about cherry-picking features prominent in a particular community for a decade or so before deeming it to no longer be on trend. While individuals are mocked for their features, years later, the plastic surgery industry profits off of those very same features being the ideal. If we wait a hundred years, it’s almost as if we will have all had our turn being the standard of beauty.
It seems like the pursuit to elevate one’s appearance in our increasingly visual world is ever-important and unrelenting, whether it be through Facetune, filters, or cosmetic enhancements. To think that the chase and the pursuit of this specific look is anything less than addictive would be remiss. It’s no doubt that people are getting prettier, but it is exhausting to keep up with. The pressure to conform negates any agendas of self-love and body positivity that run in parallel to this kind of content, so which is right? I think so many industries are founded on and feed off of our insecurities, yet there are an increasing number of people who so desperately want to feel accepted just as they are. I, personally, feel that the life you are creating, in all of its rich complexities and simple pleasures, far outweighs any need for brow lifts or lip filler or buccal fat removal (because apparently that’s still a thing, too).
Meanwhile, as a member of Gen Z, I was almost embarrassed that I didn’t know what BeReal was. For those of you who might still not be fully up to speed, it’s a French social media app founded in 2020 that prompts users to share a candid photo (taken from the front and back cameras on your phone) during a short window of time each day, with the mission to encourage users to be authentic, unfiltered, and, aptly, real. At surface level, Ithought that was a really unique idea, that the platform itself could change the conversation we’re having on social media, but then I stumbled upon a YouTube video by Amanda Maryanna called “the art of being real,” and the hypocrisies became so glaringly obvious. Within the first few minutes, one particular point she made really stood out to me – authenticity with a side of aspirationalism has become currency, but that even this is just an aesthetic that thrives off the illusion of effortlessness.
What does it even mean to be authentic online when the platforms that preach authenticity are just as performative? It feels as if active users of social media can be caught in this double bind between pursuing a carefully curated feed and intentionally going about their day-to-day seeking what is most effortlessly photo-worthy. In other words, it feels like there is no winning, so you might as well do what genuinely feels best to you, whatever that digital appearance might look like. I know I spent a lot of my adolescence and even some recent moments wondering why I don’t look like some of the other girls on the internet, why my photos don’t come out right despite me making my best effort to pose the same. I’ve reached such profound lows in my mental health where I could not let myself be seen by the digital world, much less the physical world, and I think that’s sparked some reframing around how I use social media. I, personally, find joy in taking photos and curating them and laying them out in a way for others to enjoy, even if they aren’t perfect. I wasn’t always a sentimental person, but I think I’ve grown to appreciate, now, more than ever, the beautiful moments and feelings that I can capture.
In some ways it feels like everyone is holding their breath as we wait for the next thing to happen, the next thing to change. It’s important to know that, going back to my business student days in my first economics class, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Nothing in this world is truly free, but, perhaps when you become cognizant of the cycles and mechanisms that seem to drive humankind decade over decade, you can finally feel free.
My biggest takeaway for you is to practice level-headedness. Think about life before social media andthink about life after social media. Think about your digital appearance and how people from the 1950s might furrow their brow in response to the term “chronically online.” Think about beauty standards and trend cycles, how quickly these things change, and release all the tension in your jaw, in your neck and shoulders, in your body. Know that your life and your story are yours to create and capture in ways that feel most authentic to you, and life is short.
This world is a really scary place, but it can also be a really beautiful place if you know where to look. In defense of the digital world: there’s a lot of inclusivity online now, a lot of representation, and still a lot of opportunities to contribute meaningfully. There’s something so satisfying, for example, about aesthetics in their inherently visual nature – which goes back to my stance on identity and belonging. The beauty of these lie within how we assume them to express ourselves. We can get inspired by those around us, and we don’t have to pick just one, but appearance is only a single piece of the puzzle.
Your personal brand is just as much intrinsic as it is externally influencing. Do I want to be a beautiful Renaissance painting? Of course. But at the end of the day, I want to reflect most on the comments that are made about my character: I’m down to earth. I’m always keen to learn and grow, I’m witty and caring, passionate and visionary, and perhaps I don’t reflect on these enough.
So that’s my hope for you, social media consumer, influencer, marketer, or otherwise: pick some things that you love about yourself and rebrand, build your brand around the beautiful things that you bring into the world. If there’s nothing at all that comes to your mind, speak it into existence, phone a friend, even. If you genuinely think there’s nothing to love, I’d also suggest being a little kinder to yourself. One, there’s no way that there’s nothing lovely about you, and, two, I’m almost certain you’ve never even caught a glimpse of yourself in your loveliest moments. There’s a whole lot more to life than the digital appearance, so I’d also suggest enjoying the little things as frequently as possible, which brings me to: three, disconnect every once and while, and remind yourself what it means to feel alive.
I’ll leave you with one last life bit for the living, which is a quote from Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel, The Dispossessed:
“I know [the world] is full of evils, full of human injustice, greed, folly, waste. but it is also full of good, of beauty, vitality, achievement. It is what a world should be! It is alive, tremendously alive – alive, despite all its evils, with hope.”
– Loriann Capra