Digital Peirce

Digital Peirce

Not me: try as we might, we cannot escape ourselves

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RIGHT now, two-thirds of all Americans own a smartphone. By the end of 2016, there will be 2 billion smartphones in use worldwide.

That means 2 billion smartphone cameras in constant daily use, all snapping candids, taking selfies, documenting moments of forced happiness. And that means at least 2 billion daily posts to social-media sites, with tags and comments and retweets and shares.

So it’s safe to say that in 2016, 2 billion times a day, people will be looking at pictures of themselves and thinking, “My God, I look fat. Do I look this fat all the time? Am I this fat?”

Or maybe not fat. Maybe old, or tired, or just unexpectedly unattractive. Maybe a certain shot taken by a fellow partygoer–probably using that most cruel and unforgiving flash function–will reveal the bald spot we hadn’t noticed or the eyes too close-set or the sudden appearance (and perhaps here I’m revealing too much about myself) of what can only be described as jowls.

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Two billion times a day, starting in late 2016, we will all feel really bad about ourselves and the way we look.

Just as the technological revolution has scaled up our interactions with friends via Facebook and our meaningless chatter via Twitter, it will also increase the number of times we encounter our own faces–once limited to chance gazes at our reflections in a window, or passing a hallway mirror without reflexively turning away–and suddenly see ourselves as others see us, in the most unflattering way possible, which is the way we actually look.

There is–you knew this was coming, didn’t you?–an app for that. If you download something called “Facetune”–available for iOS and Android–you will have a suite of tools, some of which work automatically, to slim down your cheeks, fill in your hair, lift up your eyes, and get rid of those jowls. What once required expert use of airbrushing and digital-photography software now comes ready to download and easy to use for the rest of us. Full disclosure: I have used this product. Fuller disclosure: Damn, I looked good.

Well, not really. I looked, scientifically speaking, exactly the same. But now I have the technology to adjust my photographic image to be in closer alignment with my self-image. Those of you who encounter me in real life out there on the street are stuck looking at my old and jowly face. But when it comes to my tagged, shared, tweeted, and Instagrammed appearance–which is, let’s face it, probably a lot more significant–I look just the way I look when I close my eyes and imagine my current face and body, which are based on a photograph taken of me on a sailboat in June 1987. And I looked good.

Thanks to Facetune, I still do, because I look great to myself and I look great in the Internet cloud and it doesn’t matter how I look to you in real life because two against one.

So despite our natural discomfort when we think about the most recent Vanity Fair cover girl, Caitlyn Jenner–and when I say “discomfort” I mean it in the most supportive way possible–what she must have felt walking past mirrors and window reflections during the years in which she answered to “Bruce” can’t be all that different from the way many of us feel when we see ourselves in a photograph and think, “Is that me? That isn’t me!”

Caitlyn has told us about her long conviction that something about her old self, Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner, wasn’t really true. Winning races, getting awards, appearing on cereal boxes, starring on television shows–whatever it was that Bruce was doing, it wasn’t right because he wasn’t doing it in a dress, as a woman.

Caitlyn Jenner didn’t want to look like Bruce Jenner, and lucky for her, there is an app for that. Well, more than an app–a suite of surgical, cosmetic, and hormone-therapy tools to help align her self-image with the one everyone else sees on the street. Caitlyn Jenner is now, according to her, a lot more “comfortable” with the image she presents to the world. It’s a lot truer to how she sees herself when she closes her eyes. Cynics may point out that there’s a whiff of a career move here–Jenner’s reality-television show, chronicling her journey from Bruce to Caitlyn, has already resulted in a multimillion-dollar payday. But listening to Bruce Jenner talk to Diane Sawyer, and then reading her words later in Vanity Fair–and, yeah, the pronouns shift with the verb tense–it’s hard not to wish her the very best.

Which isn’t to deny that some transformations are good for the career. Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the NAACP, had a similar problem. Born white, to white parents, from an entirely white family tree, she passed herself off as black because, as she recently told Matt Lauer on the Today show, she “identifies” as black. Rachel Dolezal would pass mirrors and reflective surfaces and catch sight of this plump-cheeked white woman and think, “That’s not me. That can’t be me.”

And (you knew this was coming) there’s an app for that, too: a collection of hair and skin products that alter the appearance, a judiciously vague appropriation of African-American symbols and designations, a careful editing of the life story. Rachel Dolezal, unrepentant and at peace, presents herself to employers and television interviewers as black and proud.

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The problem with Facetuning or Sex-tuning or Racetuning, though, is that there’s still the messy and unmanageable business of real life to contend with. When you knock on your date’s door and reveal your true face–not the one you’ve carefully tended and tuned and uploaded to the popular dating app Tinder–you’ll know in an instant by the crestfallen and disappointed look on your intended’s face whether you’ve gone a little too far with the tuning.

Rachel Dolezal may identify as black, but she lost her job as head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, and with it the ability to convince anyone, anywhere, that she’s African-American. She will always be a white girl who acted black.

And try as she might–and she is trying, mightily–to have us forget the athletic exploits and superstardom of Bruce, Caitlyn isn’t ever going to be just Caitlyn. She’ll always be Formerly Bruce. That’s the price she pays for Bruce’s fame.

There isn’t, in the end, much you can really do about your true self. That fleeting glimpse we get in the mirror or in a candid shot on Facebook, the one that looks too fat or old or white or male, the one that makes us say, “That isn’t me! That can’t be me!“–well, it is.

It’s you. It’s me. It’s us. And though we wish it were not so, there is no app for that.

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