The cosmetic state

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Let me let you in on a secret: I’m a part of a private direct message on Instagram dedicated to analyzing facial beauty in women, and oh my god. It’s a freakin’ cesspool in there.

Lately, the group chat has been struggling to coin a phrase for when a vastly “superior” face outshines an “inferior” one, even when both are likely elite models. There are lots of side-by-sides. A recurring favorite is a shot of Taylor Hill and Kendall Jenner, both in pink robes backstage before the 2015 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

I invite you to stare at the picture yourself and break down, analytically, what makes one face more beautiful than the other. It’s hard to say. This is weird, but I personally like how Hill’s brows visibly look to be made up of hair.

The group chat has variously attributed their preference for Hill to Jenner’s faulty lip seal or her brows, which sit low on her brow bone compared to Hill’s. Hill’s forehead is also extremely apexed (where the curvature from the hairline to the point between the brows is more convex than average) and an extremely feminine fat distribution (i.e. mostly in the malar fat pad, or the cheeks, as opposed to in the buccal fat pad, or in the sides of the jaw). Anyway, as for coining a tongue-in-cheek phrase, we settled on “halo,” as in “Taylor totally haloed Kendall in that photo.”

What are we reacting to when we assess beauty? My friend Emma calls all the rationalizing “phrenology for hot girls.” I’m inclined to agree. The origins of beauty are probably more bastardized than we’re willing to admit. Here (in order) are my good, bad and ugly attempts to explain it.

The good: Maybe somewhere out there, the platonic ideal of feminine beauty exists. It could credibly explain how a couple of millimeters of lip volume transformed Jenner from baby of the house to billionaire or why women with a certain follower count and cachet with Fashion Nova all kind of look the same.

The bad: It’s biology. Evolutionary instinct explains why I prefer Hill to Jenner — subcutaneous facial fat levels fluctuate with reproductive hormones. What can I do? My hindbrain conflates rosy cheeks with fertility, and I’m a fan of the survival of the human race.

The ugly: Desire is politicized and manipulable. The good and bad explanations are nice because they not only absolve us from thinking too deeply about what we want so badly we’d use a laser saw to get it. But their pseudoscience chalks loveliness up to luck, a pure and amoral force. The divine divvy of who gets cat eyes and who gets ptosis is out of human hands. For those with capital, will and a droopy upper eyelid to spare, however, that’s an unsatisfactory answer. The path forward is clear: If you yearn for beauty, get cosmetic procedures.

I hate myself for joining that Instagram DM. Don’t get me wrong — if a group chat about models getting plastic surgery is my vice of choice, then Instagram is hardly the place to detox. I got myself into this doozy. In fact, I don’t mind the group chat as much as I could: Its contributors are reasonably cognizant about the internalized misogyny that has led us to this point. Their casual pragmatism about injectables as a matter of personal upkeep or an investment runs refreshingly contrary to the moral irreproachability of natural beauty paragons.

Best of all, they seem to know how nit-picky and hair-splitty it is to compare the same 10 6-foot-tall women over and over again. But their conversation has implications for my own existence. If you have the capacity to create positive change, why are you sitting at home? If you know, as The New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino put it, the unaltered female face is aberrant, why are you consigning yourself to your aberrant existence?

There’s no good answer to that question, so I muted my notifications to stop thinking about it. The constant messages were infringing on my chill, which I very painstakingly maintain by alternating between five-minute craft and slime videos. The interruptions were so persistent and their content so authoritative I imagined an Uncle Sam caricature wiggling an index finger at me while evangelizing about the importance of under-eye support.

It may have been my Uncle Sam daydream, but I liken this new philosophy of beauty to the dogma of Manifest Destiny (minus, you know, the genocide): It may be that you were not born beautiful, but that’s no matter. Your pursuit of it, like any other national project, is ideologically justified and inevitable. Beauty is the successful execution of well-laid plans and procedures, always in progress and arising from your own hard work.

So go west, dauntless woman, into the setting sun! Explore new and bountiful territory, like the itty-bittiest ski-slope button nose no white man has ever before seen. And you know what, it’s not always smooth sailing. There’s no telling if that syringe is filled with Juvéderm or cement, and there is a degree of violence involved in surgically rearranging your face. But so it goes: You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and this omelet better do numbers on Instagram.

As for me, I got removed from the Instagram group chat Saturday morning. I get it — I never opined very intelligently on Bella Hadid’s recessed maxilla or the eternal Naomi Campbell versus Tyra Banks showdown, and no one likes lurkers. That said, I’ll miss how weirdly militant and almost jingoistic the narrative was. Sometimes you just don’t enjoy the propaganda in your life until it is not there anymore. (You shall want to be beautiful because being beautiful is the same as being good, and people want to be beautiful, so you also want to be beautiful.) But that’s alright. There are plenty of other covert state outlets broadcasting the truth about extraterrestrial life, global underground terrorism and the beauty-industrial complex to those who will hear it. One little group chat is but a drop in the bucket, so I guess I’m not really incensed at getting kicked out. More relieved, actually.

Casey Li writes the Monday column on popular culture. Contact her at [email protected]