The Burden of 'Flawless'

Beyoncé is figuring out how to be human and famous at the same time.

Beyoncé performing at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards  (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

In 2013, Beyoncé did a photo shoot with L’Oreal. Yesterday, the fan site The Beyoncé World published a series of photos claiming to be outtakes from that shoot. They are allegedly un-retouched, and allegedly feature zoomed-in depictions of the star with obvious makeup and with obvious pores. They “show the singer,” Mashable put it, “with wrinkled and blemished skin.” They look, generally, like this.

First, I mean: allegedly “wrinkled.” Allegedly “blemished.” Allegedly everything. As one site’s headline put it of yesterday’s pictures, with seemingly genuine surprise, “Beyoncé's Unretouched Images From 2013 L'Oreal Campaign Have Leaked And They Are Drastically Different From The End Result.” As another did, with seemingly genuine glee, "Unretouched Beyoncé Photos Smash Her 'Flawless' Mythology." As another did: “TEMPERS FLARE ON TWITTER AS PHOTOS LEAK OF BEYONCE WITHOUT MAKEUP.” As another did: “Uh-Oh: Beyoncé's Face Is Uh-Oh.”

Uh-oh is right. The whole thing, whether or not the images do indeed depict the un-retouched skin of Queen Bey, puts Beyoncé in league with the cadre of women—they are almost always women—who have had the good and bad fortune to be famous in the age of Photoshop, and who have thus known what it is to be publicly outed as human. It's reality-shaming, and it has many victims. On the one hand, there are the celebrities, who are depicted in ways they did not authorize. And on the other there are the rest of us, who are reminded, once again, that we live in a culture that considers it shameful to be simultaneously female and in possession of pores.

For Beyoncé, though, the stakes are even higher. For her, the exposure is not simply a matter of mandated versus not, Shopped versus not; it is also a matter, on some level, of human versus not. Beyoncé is on the one hand a person, with a last name—Knowles—and a husband and a daughter and a sister who gets angry sometimes. She has been pregnant and depressed and embarrassed and, we can safely assume, on the receiving end of at least one bad hair day. But Beyoncé is on the other hand a Celebrity, and a Star, and a Cultural Figure, and all this comes with certain obligations. Porelessness is one of them. So is a kind of generalized cultivation of the particular strain of feminine perfection we shorthand as “fierceness.” As an entrepreneur who is explicitly selling us music and clothing and diets and lifestyles, but who is implicitly selling us herself, Beyoncé has a business interest in her own transcendence. She is the person who gave us “Flawless,” which is a song but also a statement.

Given all that, the extremely indignant reaction to those supposedly un-retouched L’Oreal photos is extremely unsurprising. We want, fully understanding how ridiculous it is to want it, to believe in Beyoncé’s perfection. We want to believe that she really looks like that. We want to believe that she really is like that, all around—talented, beautiful, classy, successful, in love—because if Beyoncé can have it all in the way she has opted to have it all, perhaps there is a sliver of hope for the rest of us.

Call it the suspension of disBeylief. Regardless, it puts an enormous burden on Bey’s (perfectly shaped) shoulders, not just because of the various inconveniences that come with being human, but because gravity is what it is. Beyoncé—the girl next door and the fantasy object, wrapped in a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a bedazzled leotard—has to strike the typical famous-person balance between intimacy and distance, between being one of us and being better than us. But her challenge is made more complicated by the fact that her ascendance coincided with the ascendance of social media. Beyoncé came of age, as both a person and a performer, in the era of Instagram and Facebook and Tumblr. Which means that on top of everything else she’s navigating—all the typical quandaries of longevity and branding that come with pop-stardom—she’s also figuring out how to use these new platforms to seduce us: to give us just enough of her to keep us satiated, and to withhold just enough to keep us intrigued.

So Beyoncé’s Tumblr is packed with images of her in various states of realness: with her hair in curlers, with her daughter in her arms, with her face—allegedly—makeup-free. Her Instagram feed is full of “behind the scenes” shots of her and Jay-Z, vacationing, celebrity-ing, and otherwise living their lives. It's calculated nonchalance, of course; the feeds are the social media equivalents of that HBO documentary—directed by, executive-produced by, and about Beyoncé—that came out in 2013 and that doubled, as many critics pointed out, as an infomercial. The feeds are extensions of the time Bey’s publicist made an effort to have unflattering pictures of her removed from the Internet. They are extensions of our own desires. They are extensions of the Beyoncé line “Bow down, bitches.”

But they are also evidence of the fact that Beyoncé, the human and also the star, is trying—to have it all, to be it all, to give us the prismatic perfection we demand of her. Social scientists talk about “ambient awareness,” the kind of incessant, humming attention that comes from being in constant contact with other people through social media. Beyoncé’s fame is similarly simmering: She is, as an image and an influence and a voice, a fixture in our lives. The question she's contending with—the question laid bare, along with so much else, in those L'Oreal pictures—is how a star can be everywhere without also becoming overexposed.