Still, Jamil’s latest crusade is troubling for a host of reasons that together reveal the larger limitations of both commodity-driven feminism and celebrity activism itself. It is, in the grand scheme of women’s causes, fairly easy to point out the corrosive effects that advertising has on young women’s self-esteem. What’s more difficult, and more important, is earnestly grappling with how one tool—in this case, airbrushing—functions as a symptom of a larger social ill. The dangers of navigating the world (and the mirror) in an othered body—a body read as black or queer or trans or fat or disabled, for example—extends far beyond the blight of photo-editing tools. Naming this reality, though, is far less sexy.
It may very well be tempting for Jamil’s supporters to believe that banning Photoshop or Facetune, an editing application often used on selfies, would lead to a proliferation of images that showcase women’s so-called imperfections—stretch marks, visible pores, scars, hyperpigmentation, cellulite. But there’s no evidence that such a revolution would result.
That’s in part because, notably, any trends toward “natural” aesthetics have tended to idealize the kinds of people who can afford to look flawless without much manipulation. Think dewy-faced Glossier models or “makeup-free” Alicia Keys. “The barefaced beauties in these magazines are not like the majority of us,” the BuzzFeed News reporter Bim Adewunmi wrote in June, exploring the rise of minimalist makeup. “The cover’s job is to remind you of that, even as it tells you this is something to aspire to. It’s not a bellwether for a worldwide movement; it’s a display of gentle superiority.”
Adewunmi’s assessment is not a defense of airbrushing or makeup so much as it is an acknowledgement of the fact that beauty hierarchies—which prioritize whiteness, youth, and thinness—reassert themselves even when mediums change. Whether in magazines or on Instagram, with the help of PhotoShop or Facetune, women are invariably bombarded with images presenting some sort of idealized beauty. Removing the mechanisms by which these images become so aspirational does little to change the fact that aspiring toward beauty is an inherently tainted project for many people.
Beauty, after all, is not apolitical; it has always been about power. In an oft-quoted 2011 blog post culled from the keynote speech she delivered at the Femmes of Color Symposium in Oakland, the disability-justice writer and organizer Mia Mingus offered a lens for considering how beauty functions alongside structural violence: “We must shift from a politic of desirability and beauty to a politic of ugly and magnificence,” Mingus wrote. “The magnificence of bodies that have been coded, not just undesirable and ugly, but unhuman. The magnificence of bodies that are understanding gender in far more complex ways than I could explain in an hour. Moving beyond a politic of desirability to loving the ugly.”