In Eliot’s monumental literary touchstone of a poem “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock”, the narrator, Mr. Prufrock, muses upon his life and life in general, and one bit is how there will be time “to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” and also for “a hundred visions and revisions”. It seems that in our age of social media and its relentless parade of faces, faces, faces Prufrock is more and more relevant to us now than he ever was in 1917, when the book including the poem was published by Faber.
People born before the nineties will remember a period of their life called adolescence, where the boys and girls both had moustaches and terrible plastic-framed glasses. There was insane hair, acne, wonky voices and wonky bodies. Some people were fat and got thin, some people were thin and got fat. Everyone wore dreadful clothes, everyone’s teeth were crooked because either you had braces or orthodontics hadn’t made inroads into Pakistan the way it has now. Adolescence taught you why blue eyeshadow was ill-advised in all circumstances and how much cologne (or body spray, depending on your pocket money) was appropriate to smell good without gassing all those within a ten-foot radius. It was nice, adolescence. One didn’t seem to mind it so much because everyone was uniformly hideous, and with age you learned to manage it. As an adult you look back on it as that amusing, disturbing time in one’s life that taught you to truly appreciate being an adult.
I feel bad for kids nowadays because they haven’t the privilege of an adolescence. You have to learn, almost from the get-go, how to prepare your face for the people you will meet. In a world whose minutae are being perpetually curated by Instagram and Snapchat (and so forth), the life of the average teenager now is inextricably tied to the photograph. Not just teenagers, adults too. But at least current adults have seen their awful uggles through with no evidence save old photographs squirreled away in drawers. Teenagers now can’t afford their human right to ugly because some idiot will be taking your photograph and it will be loosed into the internet, that fiendish pit of forever, for all eternity.
So what do you do when you can’t have bushy brows and spotty skin and the lumpen body of a body trying to find its adult feet? You hie thyself to the salon and to Youtube, where there are tutorials of all kinds. You beg your mother to take you to the eyebrow waxer, or you do it yourself. You use the weekend magazines to tell you where and what to buy which clothes, and you filter the hell out of yourself. In short, you take yourself and jam it firmly into the Mold of Belonging, because girls and boys are nothing if they are not photogenic. Even ugliness can only be ironic, the kind where you grimace in photos but look pretty cute doing it so there’s no possibility of anyone actually thinking you look daft. You haven’t been given a chance to find yourself, because now the risk of ugliness is too much. So you learn to just never let your guard down. Your face has been chosen for you, and there it stays.
I’m not an anthropologist but I think it would be interesting to be able to map how the desire to groom oneself in minute detail has risen with the use of social media. Why there are now hundreds of beauty products for women and men alike, why waxing becomes a trend, why everyone is a fashion blogger now. There’s an incredible desire to be seen, and not just visible but in the “right” way: the right places, in the right clothes, with the right people. Who decides what “right” is? Why on earth does anyone get to decide that for you? It sounds so ridiculous, but it’s true. Social media has stolen the individual away and put in its place a conforming robot that has eyebrows on fleek (which means on trend, “right”).
Adolescence was important because it also gave you a burgeoning sense of who you were. What you liked or didn’t, a sense of style, music, literature, movies; whatever it was that interested you then was probably going to shape you as the adult you were training to be. Being hairy and moody and affected was part of that training. Listening to Pearl Jam and feeling superior to the pop music listeners was part of the deal. Now everyone has to be on trend and uniformly listens to Beyonce and Taylor Swift. Where are all the punks and sarhiyals? They’re not the ones taking photos of their cappuccinos or their shoes or them with their squad, posing sideways. I don’t think they’re even the ones who take photos of their books and their Mumford and Sons concert tickets. The rebels seem to have gone, swallowed up by the allure of Valencia filters and that Snapchat one that makes your eyes grey and puts a flower wreath on your head. Gone down the rabbit hole of narcissistic obsession with beauty and perfection, gone with the capitalist roar of never-ending trends and fashions that give you FOMO. If you’re so busy trying to be someone else, that sexy person with the hundred likes, when will you ever know who you truly are?