3 years


Pixel Pretty

Sumana Roy, a poet, has just published her first novel Missing
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How Facebook launched a beauty

Facebook might have caused the revolution in Egypt and Tunisia. It might have ensured that we think of the world in the binaries of ‘like’ and its antonym, but all that is for social historians to analyse. I can only say that of all the things it has heaped on me—putting me back in touch with school friends, inquisitive students who I have to ‘block’, colleagues who spy on my travel plans, old suitors who wonder aloud in emails asking why it was not them but the ‘nerd’ I’d eventually married—Facebook’s unique contribution has been in making a beauty out of me.

A childhood occasionally marred by the sad consciousness of my lack of physical gloss in the unfair autocracies of beauty, the good-humoured taunts by my brother and close friends about the seismic arrangement of my teeth, the Bengali relatives’ worries about my damp-brown complexion, especially in comparison to my mother’s glowing peachiness, the stubborn refusal of my bones to climb above five feet three and a half inches, my teenaged lack of a baiting voluptuousness, the hairy queries on my arms and legs that left me half-boy and half-girl, and tracing paper thin skin through which the great riverine network of bluish-green veins made me look like a cartographer’s live model—this had been my experience in beauty.

My father, the first fan of my skin and flesh, gradually shifted the centre of gravity of his admiration to the highest point in my body—my brains. In his initial love for those small eyes, popcorn nose, clumsy-fat lips, he was actually admiring himself: I was—and continue to be—a near replica of his lack of conventional beauty. It is to his credit that his intelligent and kind parenting never let me miss what I lacked: like a poor child who has never worn shoes, I did not know what it meant to be admired for a doll-like appearance. He, no mean photographer, used his camera to observe the landscape, monuments, palaces, and occasionally, even animals. Perhaps his adventures with the camera might have been more domestic had he had a prettier subject in his daughter. This thought crossed my mind recently as I spent an afternoon looking at a Facebook album of 173 photos of a friend’s three-year-old daughter.

It was important to preface my sudden evolution into a ‘beauty’ with this information because it was to this planet that I belonged for the first 34 years of my life. It was only in February 2009 that I acquired dual citizenship: being on Facebook was more important than getting a Green Card, I was advised by well-meaning friends. And since then, my life has not quite been the same.

In the beginning, I did not put up a ‘profile picture’ for months. I cannot explain the reason in rational terms. I did not have a face that I was happy with. Years of conditioning, of judging myself in the discourse of the mirror, had made me ‘dislike’ my face, and in this public space where I expected people to laugh and criticise, as relatives had once done during my sebum-soaked adolescence, I wanted my face to remain anonymous. For months, as old friends complained about wanting to see what I looked like now, I hid behind the template of the faceless woman on Facebook. She had short hair, only a little shorter than the length I was wearing at that time, and she seemed happy to be who she was. I wanted to be like her.

I now have 72 ‘profile pictures’ on FB. Some also call it the ‘Display picture’, and I think that rhetoric is more appropriate. I uploaded my first profile picture on 14 July 2009, a day before my parents’ wedding anniversary. ‘Ah, this is what you look like, you sexy thing!’, was the first ever comment about my FB ‘look’. It was by a female friend, one I was yet to meet in the non-FB world. My head was tilted to hold the dull luminescence of the bathroom light, so much so that a Facebook friend I had not yet met told me in an email, in Hindi, that I should hold my head straight and high. If I knew how to use photographic software, I would now straighten my head by 15 degrees.

Since then, over the last two years, I have put up photos of myself in my work clothes and party wear, in starched cotton Bengali saris and evening gowns, in close up and long shots, looking at the camera, conscious of its gaze on me, and many looking away, unaware of the conspiracy that the camera and light are setting on me. I have to confess that I do not look ‘pretty’ in many of them, and yet compliments and praise kneel below each of these photos, wrapped as they are by a blinding haze of ‘likes’. I realise that it is not so much my architecture of bones and flesh my Facebook friends ‘like’ but the kind assembly of pixels. After the world had been convinced of my ‘beauty’, I began posting unflattering photos of myself—bad angles, prison house light, face hidden behind cell phones and shawls. And yet the organism called ‘like’ did not stop stalking me. This, strangely again, came to me as consolation—that I, like Eliza Doolittle who had tired of being a ‘fair lady’, had actually remained the same. The architecture of human features that had inspired those harsh comments from relatives decades ago had only metamorphosed into the noncommittal pleasantries of cyber-life. It wasn’t me who had changed but the medium: cyber-praise is easy to give and get, adjectives and exclamation marks require no emotional investment.

Perhaps, not so strangely, such lavish praise comes most often from men I have ‘met’ only on Facebook. Would they, if I ran into them at a street crossing, ever have told me that they ‘like’ the way I look?

Why is it that the equatorial downpour of happy adjectives never falls on me in my daily life?

What is it about Facebook and that semi-dark private-public space that gives men the courage to write letters fuelled by testosterone when they would have the guts to ‘size’ me up only in the rear view mirrors of their cars?

The difference is also to be seen in the rhetoric that comes from school friends and those I’ve met on the site. Those I shared pimple-solutions with tell me that I ‘look the same’ after two decades, while ‘friends’ I have made online use stronger praise-words. No friend has called me ‘gorgeous’ on my face, but it is one that addresses me often in comments about my FB photos. I spotted this difference most perceptibly when I met an old friend after more than 25 years. We had got back in touch on FB a few months earlier, and Ravi had placed his comments in the usual great-looking good-beautiful template. When we met a month back, he did not pay me any compliments about my looks. Instead, on our way back from an impromptu picnic, as he showed me the collection of photos for the day, he pointed to a few and said, “Sumana, you are so photogenic.” That word, filled with the possibility of the half-real, had never come my way on Facebook.

My husband is a good scholar, a wonderful singer, a great to-do list-maker, but photography is not among his talents. Over the last two years, however, the number of photographs he has taken of the woman he married is comparable, even if I exaggerate a little, to the memory space fashion photographers use in a long season. Though it is a job that destiny thrust upon him, I suspect that it is one that he has increasingly come to enjoy. Every new outfit his wife wears, he has decided, demands a new photograph. He has graduated in his use of tools: once the cell phone was his great archive, now he uses an old Sony that we jokingly call the ‘Facebook camera’. It is one he uses every time I wear a new dress, go out for dinner, or meet an old friend. He has become an events photog. When I recently bought a Nikon DSLR, he made a curious comment: “This is too fancy for an FB photograph.”

Even my old friends, with whom the only photographed space I have shared in the last three decades of my life has been in the annual hand-folded head-straight half-smiling class photograph, where we all look like worker bees to the sari-clad strict class teacher’s Queen Bee, have turned every meeting into a photo-op. I have noticed that we talk less and pretend to talk more for the benefit of appearing ‘natural’ to the camera. The night after every such meeting is spent in uploading ‘pics’ of the get-together, the morning spent in anticipation of comments, and the afternoon in a haze of self-love as friends I last met at 16 compliment me on how I ‘look the same’ as I did 20 years ago. While that may make many women happy, this ability to have stopped the pus of age from clogging the open pores of beauty, it leaves me sad. No one called me beautiful at 16. At 36, in the perfect light of the Facebook studio, I am ‘beautiful’, ‘stunning’, ‘hot’, ‘gorgeous’, beautiful enough to launch a series of ungrammatical exclamation marks.

Being compared to film actresses—Priyanka Chopra, Shreya Saran, even Angelina Jolie (she of the bee-stung lips)—made me look at these actresses in a new way. Utterly embarrassed about being myself now, but this time in an inverse way, I began to direct these outrageous compliments to the photographer. In trying to avoid the praise, unjustified as I could see it was, I began saying things I ordinarily wouldn’t: when someone said that I looked too young to be a professor, I reminded her that I was 36 years old; or when someone made the common remark about me being a ‘perfect combination of beauty and brains’, I said that I would inform my parents for it was their gift of genes. It was when a photographer-friend, the shyest male buddy I’ve ever had, allowed himself to write ‘a pretty subject’ below one of my photographs that I became almost completely convinced that beauty no longer lay in the eyes of the beholder. It was in the amorality of the commitment-less keyboard.

Other geometries of prejudice began to emerge: in private messages, I was repeatedly told that I ‘did not look like a professor’; a few enquired whether I was ‘really Bengali’ since I ‘was too thin, especially around the neck’, to be one; and many, many, asked whether I’d really grown up in this small town in Himalayan Bengal since my ‘choice of clothes was so cosmopolitan’. Their compliments only revealed their biases, and sometimes I laughed, even when I was angry, as I certainly was when location was confused with provinciality, and the latter made out to be a disease. In the process, I also discovered my own intolerance: I’d so long thought of myself as liberal (before, of course, that became a dirty word), but now I found myself ‘unfriending’ men who called me ‘hot’ or ‘sexy’ and such. Also, whenever I posted a photo of myself in a sari, I noticed that the rhetoric changed immediately: I became an ‘Indian beauty’, ‘traditional beauty’, ‘girl next door’, and even a ‘natural beauty’. That conflation of identities, one making a sudden jump from the regional to the national, from Bengali to Indian, as if the sari had given me a third dimension, made me feel like a map in an atlas, only viewed from different ends.

Last month, I put up a photograph of myself in a red dress, a camera in hand, knees bent to take the most important photograph in my life: a self-portrait. In that life-size mirror in my friend’s apartment in Charlottenburg in Berlin, there also appeared the reflection of a reproduction—also, interpretation—of Andy Warhol’s ‘mass-produced’ images of Marilyn Monroe. It is my favourite photograph of myself—the flash of the camera blinding my face with light, and so my near facelessness juxtaposed with Warhol’s interpretation of a face-and-body-obsessed celebrity culture.

And yet, it is the profile picture that has the least number of ‘likes’. One comment appears in Bengali: ‘adbhoot chhobi’ (strange photograph). It elicited two emails, both enquiring about the reason behind the ‘curious’ photograph. To one, a professor of literature, I gave my reason— there had been too many mails from strangers, and I had chosen to hide behind a camera. I realised that it was an oxymoronic impulse, hiding behind a trope that was meant to reveal, but I wanted to ‘show’ myself hiding. I have not changed my profile picture for a long time now. It is not only because I like its facelessness on a site that goes by the name Face-book. It is perhaps because, even after 72 profile pictures, I am not sure whether, as TS Eliot said about a hundred years ago, I am prepared to have a face to meet the faces that I meet on Facebook.

Sumana Roy’s first novel, Love in the Chicken’s Neck, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. She is working on a collection of stories about clothes, tentatively titled SML