In an idle moment the other day (yeah, I really shouldn’t admit to having those in academia), I loaded into my Firefox an add-on I found on Facebook called MyWebFace that promised to let me make a cartoon image of myself.
An aside: I might add that I found this app only because I was searching the Facebook ad board looking for an ad that I would be willing to ‘thumbs up’ to appear alongside my page. Not only did I find no such thing, I discovered that Facebook now does not allow users to ‘thumbs down’ an ad. Possibly this is my fault, since I relentlessly thumbs-downed (down-thumbed?) dozens of ads in my first weeks on Facebook, hoping to help skew the ad pool toward public service ads and away from shopaholic ads (the bulk). It always gives you a good feeling as an adult citizen of a republic when your options are: you may approve of this, or you may approve of this.
Back to MyWebFace. It’s set up as a kind of simple Identi-Kit, allowing you to construct your face from mostly predictable parts: noses, eyebrows, lips, etc., all of various shapes. Size, color, and placement of most objects can be adjusted. After I was finished, I ended up with what you see here. Anyone who knows me will see that this is not a good cartoon of me; the reason for this lies in the kinds of choices the software gives—and just as importantly, withholds. Eyebrows, eyes, and mouths come in a fair range of shapes (not enough noses, though). Skin color is wide open– a matter of picking from a palette of millions of shades.
For face shape, however, you appear to be stuck with a default upper half of the face and a modifiable chin. Result for me: entirely wrong face shape. (Oddly, you can choose various kinds of ‘blush’ for your cheeks, as if that is more important than basic face shape.) In addition, the general body type is too skinny for me and not modifiable (this head shot is a detail of a full-length image). Hair style: no options match my admittedly idiosyncratic style. Accessories: no glasses frames match the ones I wear. Hair accessories and hats: nothing matches what I wear; the earphones were the best option because I use them when playing online games. Clothing: nothing really matched in the limited choices, largely because almost all the clothing styles skewed at least a decade younger than I am. In general, registering aging was not an option. You can make your hair all blond/red/brown/black, or all gray, and nothing in between—no one in MyWebFace’s world is grizzled. There is one pane for wrinkles, but they’re so lightly drawn and weirdly thought out that they don’t make the face look older so much as scribbled on. Basically, you can’t make yourself look older than about 25 with this software (or to be fair, much younger either; no kids need apply). Can you say target demographics?
Coincidentally, as I was halfway through writing this, I stumbled on the image below over on boingboing.net, in a post rejoicing in the wonderful title “Ralph Lauren opens new outlet store in the Uncanny Valley.” They credited a favorite site of mine, Photoshop Disasters, where the image has since been made to disappear by a DMCA-wielding Ralph Lauren; see this Huffington Post entry for a similar threat against boingboing. Ralph Lauren has admitted to their “poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman’s body.” Yet model Filippa Hamilton was fired by Ralph Lauren last April; she says they told her she was overweight. So fashion logic has finally created the inevitable impasse for itself, in which the cartoonized emaciation of this image is “very distorted” but a 5’10” model weighing 120 lbs is “overweight” (although one might want to take models’ claims about their height-to-weight ratio with a grain of salt; given the constraints of their job, they have every incentive to modify this figure to gain professional advantage.) In other words, at ground zero of the American female body image, the concept of “just right” has at last shrunk to a complete null set.
My reason for making this post, though, has less to do with the general problem of body image than with the propagation of this cartoonization through software—through Photoshop, which allows it (but does not require it; you can just as easily make yourself fatter and older in Photoshop), and MyWebFace, which actually requires it. What has previously been reinforced through consumption of media created by others, we are now made complicit in reinforcing through the software we ourselves use and the objects we ourselves make.