“The boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.”
This excerpt from the prescient 1985 essay by Donna Haraway highlights the current evolution of beauty in a digital world. Today, Lil Miquela is a popular 19-year-old Brazilian-American with 1.6 million followers on Instagram, a new single, and collaborations with high fashion and street fashion brands - and she’s not even human. Not surprisingly, the global fashion industry will invest $3.6 billion in artificial intelligence this year.
The beauty industry won’t be far behind. In fact, beauty brands like SKII are already playing with algorithm-based ambassadors. Not only can digital influencers work 24/7, they are also programmed to be non-problematic and won’t develop a wrinkle or freckle while touting the latest skincare product. The irony is that they don’t even use actual skincare to get their smooth veneer. So how will the cosmetics industry create products for real people who not only aspire to be pixel perfect, but can also simply rely on a filter to get the effect?
The Uncanny Valley
First, it’s important to understand how our human brain conceptualizes beauty - whether real or virtual. A good amount of neuroscience research suggests that beauty is not always in the eye of the beholder. Our brain has specific wired pathways that are activated when we experience beauty - and these pathways are differentiated from other experiences such as awe. Moreover, our brain is quite capable of quickly scanning a face and picking out the features that stick out as odd, whether too perfect or far from perfect. When we see these digital influencers, we’re not particularly disgusted, although we may be confused at first. That’s because they teeter on the edge of the ‘uncanny valley,’ the feeling of discomfort or disgust humans feel when seeing an object that’s too human-like. Apparently non-humans need just the right amount of ‘human-ness’ to be appealing and not repulsive. Enter the filters.
Augmented reality has bombarded our everyday with images that are idealized and supernatural. We can anthropomorphize animals, and make our human faces cuter with animal features. However, even if we fully know when a beauty ad is digitally enhanced, we are still influenced by the images, sometimes to our own detriment. This is due to cognitive modulation of our sensory experience.
Challenges and Opportunities for the Cosmetics Industry
It is not a competition with technology - a cream can never smooth out a wrinkle the way a digital filter can. But we can take advantage of the cognitive modulation of our sensory experience. We are highly sensorial beings, taking in much of our information through vision and touch. Evidence suggests that top-down modulations of bottom-up sensory processing takes place: in other words, our minds can shape our sensorial experience. Tapping into the brain’s control over our experience can be key in sustaining a healthy relationship to our bodies, our skin and our beauty ideals.