I recently had the good fortune of experiencing sunset on California’s Venice Beach. It was a magical evening beneath a sky lit up in a melange of red, pink and orange flames.
To the left of me sat a girl in her mid twenties, cross-legged, staring out to sea, watching dolphins dip in and out of the water in the distance. I have no idea if she was meditating or thinking or simply taking a moment to relax after a busy day…but I do know that she was ‘present’ and completely experiencing the beauty of her surroundings.
To my right was a group of girls, with their backs to the sunset and the dolphins. They may have been sitting together but they were far from connecting. Each in their own world, they took selfies and spent a meticulous amount of time editing their photos. At one point they came together for a group photo – where they all laughed to show what a fun time they were having – before discussing which of them would edit and post the photo. They missed the sunset, the incredible visit from dolphins nearby and sadly, they missed out on each other’s company too. Perhaps not an unusual encounter. We see people lost in their cameras everywhere we go, but I’m both a social science and beauty nut so scenes like this intrigue me…
We all want to look beautiful online and it’s actually important to our brain chemistry, but I have been, at one point or another, both the girl looking out to sea and the girl taking the selfie — and I know which girl feels more nourished by life.
So let’s look at exactly what happens in the moments between the girls posting their pictures on Facebook or Instagram and the time when they receive their first LIKE. It is at this point that the brain starts to produce the feel-good-reward chemical, Dopamine. To visualise how dopamine works, think about what happens just before you eat an orange. Simply because the brain remembers the experience of eating the fruit, you begin to salivate. This is dopamine at work. It not only releases its feel-good juices when you do finally reward yourself with the orange but it begins to flow even at the very thought of the event.
Now in this case, the orange is the LIKEs and the chemical salivating begins the second the picture is posted. Dopamine is kicking in and by the time the LIKEs start coming, dopamine is surging. This is when serotonin, the ego-satisfying ‘acknowledgement’ chemical triggers, bringing feelings that we’re admired, respected and adored. The chemical cocktail that our barman-of-a-brain has created is serving an uplifting potion whose effects last seconds or sometimes minutes until BANG…dopamine disappointment kicks in and serotonin levels plummet. Anything that goes up must come down and this drop in chemicals leaves us in instant withdrawal. We need another hit and the only way to bring back the brain-bliss is to post another picture.
It’s no surprise that we’ve created apps to visually enhance the way we look. The brain latches on to any tools within reach that will stimulate more LIKEs, more admiration, adoration and acknowledgement. The addiction is unavoidable because each time we experience the same chemical trigger, it isn’t as good as the last time so we need to keep upping our game to feel the same dopamine and serotonin results as before. We need to look better, prettier, thinner, hotter, more handsome… to feel the satisfying chemical effect.
The interesting thing about social media is that it leaves us in a constant state of withdrawal anxiety where we feel burdened to return to it whenever we can. The burden is a beast – who lives not inside our computer but resides within us all – and the beast goes by the name of Narcissism.
We’re all narcissistic. Of course, there are many who rarely feel any negativity after posting online, just as there are some who live and breath ‘post-posting anxiety’ on a daily basis. We’re all somewhere on the spectrum of ‘softly’ narcissistic to sociopathic or even psychopathic – and thats a blatant fact. Taking this into account, social media is like nectar to our narcissistic brains. It’s a platform on which to parade ourselves, which is not always such a bad thing. A certain amount of ego and just a sprinkle self absorption have a justified place in our lives because without them we wouldn’t care about accomplishing anything in life. We’d have no goals, no aspirations.
Social media has its positive place too. In so many ways it enriches our lives and connects us in ways we never thought possible. Oxytocin – the feel good chemical in charge of bonding – is produced when we see pictures of our loved ones or read comments that they’ve written on our posts. Responsible for making women go into labour, mothers produce milk and bringing all humans to orgasm, oxytocin makes us feel connected to each other, secure and ultimately, loved.
But back to looking good online….
The importance of appearing beautiful and successful to the masses isn’t a new phenomenon. And it’s not simply about the primal urge of attracting the opposite sex to find a mate. Just as the Ancient Egyptians emulated their gods and Ancient Greeks dyed their hair to look like Aphrodite, we have always used our appearance to feel like heavenly creatures. Social media is a fast-track route to deifying ourselves as immortal creatures… as god-like beings with an infinite audience.
As the heavenly beauty of mythological stories once manifested into fairly tales and in turn, fairy tales travelled from books to television screens; cartoon characters taught every child that beautiful girls were princesses and beauty inevitably brought with it the holy grail of true love (ugly characters, on the other hand, were usually evil and never got to experience it). As kids, we all wanted to be powerful superheroes with bulging muscles or beautiful princesses with exaggerated features such as long, thick hair, tiny waists and enormous, doe-like eyes.
For those of us whose childhoods were behind us before social media arrived, we’ve more chance of having a healthy relationship with our online selves so I believe it’s our duty to post by example. We may have left our Disney dreams in the past but today’s kids go straight from cartoon crushes to online equivalents. It’s no wonder some celebrities have cleverly morphed themselves into small waist, big bottomed, plump-lipped examples of cartoon -style humans.
I doubt there will ever come a time when we want to post pictures of ourselves looking unattractive – although Ricky Gervais’ Instagram account is a valid example of how humour breaks all the rules. I do believe, however, that the very human tribal instinct to peacock ourselves in order to stimulate essential brain chemistry should be done in ‘truth’ — especially at a time when we need to set an example for children who are witnessing our need to document everything we do in life, download it onto the internet and edit away any ‘flaws’ that may discredit our projected perfection.
As a collective, our planet has become very good at creating global problems by doing what appears to be right at the time and then trying to fix the consequences of our hasty actions later. As technology catapults our ability to digitally connect into hyperdrive, we should be prepared for our anxiety levels to go up too. We currently work more than we’ve ever done and when we’re not in the office, we’re hard at work on our
Instagram, managing a branding and PR marketing campaign called ‘LIKE me’. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to give our yo yo-ing brain chemicals a respite and at this
moment in time, we haven’t even begun to include the impending onslaught of AI and AR into our time-poor lives. If we continue in this way, future generations will experience burn-out at a very early age and children will need a twelve step program.
We now have limitless potential to express ourselves through media and the legacy we leave behind is our choice. Do we want our own immortal avatars to be homogenised looking, airbrushed ghosts or do we ditch the Facetune filter and embrace who we really are?
Sarah is currently working on a ten- part documentary series about beauty with director/screenwriter Jon Story and cinematographer Andrzej Sekula called Face Value. Stay tuned for updates…..