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Harry Styles Yassification
courtesy of Daniel Elliott/@gaythembo

The great yassification: what the viral meme says about beauty and reality

The latest internet trend that takes facetuning to absurd extremes is highly silly and playful, but does it’s popularity also suggest we are getting sick of digital manipulation?

“You’re telling me that’s not Maura Higgins?” is probably not a comment you would expect to see under a picture of a 12-year-old Noah Schnapp AKA Will Byers from Stranger Things. Thanks to the latest internet-trend, however, that’s exactly what was said, a real comment sitting between comparisons to equally unlikely celebrities including Lisa Rinna (Real Housewives) and Raven (RuPaul’s Drag Race). With his plumped up lips, dramatic smokey eyes, and heavy contour the resemblance is uncanny. Will Byers, you see, had just undergone yassification

Equal parts hilarious and terrifying, the ‘yassification’ meme involves using photo editing apps to transform figures from history, politics, art, and pop culture into snatched, beat IG baddies. Taking contemporary beauty standards to the extreme, yassification hyper-exaggerates the subject’s facial features – plumping up and glossing lips, adding heavy contouring and eye make-up, and creating skin smoother than Kris Jenner’s version of Gordon Ramsey.

The meme is generally agreed to have started with a viral photograph of a yassified Toni Collette in Hereditary and since then it has swept the internet, leaving no stone un-yassified. Mother Teresa, “Slaybraham Lincoln”, the cast of Seinfeld – no one is safe from yassification. Elizabeth Holmes gets a Barbie makeover with heavy contouring and lip fillers, Monkey Christ is looking fabulous with dramatic smokey eyes, while Poot Lovato has lustrous long hair and thick brows. Rina Sawayama even got in on the action by yassifying herself.

Simple and absurd, it’s not hard to see why the trend has become so popular. Like the Gossip Girl meme (which, of course, has received its own yassification) from last year, it offers a light, silly respite during tough times. It’s funny in a hysterical kind of way, particularly when it comes to the more surreal transformations. When the yass pill hits, your brain will be smoothed out as well as your laugh lines.

“It’s fun for fun’s sake,” says Daniel Elliott, a music producer based in Tennessee and the person responsible for the yassification of Will Byers. Daniel compares the popularity of the meme format to the success of RuPaul's Drag Race. “I think people love the transformation that make-up can provide to a person. There’s something inherently fun, expressive, and liberating about hyper-feminisation or hyper-beautification,” they say. “It shows us that the way we can present ourselves digitally is so malleable and that we don’t have to take our looks so seriously all the time.” 

Like many of us, Daniel first became aware of the trend after seeing the Toni Collette meme. They thought it was “stupidly hilarious” and were inspired to start creating their own yassified images. One day, “admittedly a bit stoned” they came across the image of Noah Schnapp and thought the absurdity of the contrast between the wig and Schnapp’s blank expression would make for a funny yassification. They were right, if the more than 238,000 people who have liked the image in the past two weeks are anything to go by. 

The huge popularity of the yassification trend, however, does point to there being something more behind the meme than just absurd humour and vapid emptiness. As last year made clear, memes often act as a mirror to the times, reflecting our collective mood back to us. Through memes we process larger circumstances and cultural trends and pressures. And right now, it seems we are processing and expressing a general fatigue for our overly filtered and photoshopped online culture. 

“I think people love the transformation that make-up can provide to a person. There’s something inherently fun, expressive, and liberating about hyper-feminisation or hyper-beautification”

In 2017, Facetune was Apple’s most popular paid app and a 2020 study found that only 29 per cent of people would post a picture of themselves on social media without editing it first. Celebrities and influences are no different, as the wave of eagle-eyed Instagram accounts exposing the photoshopping habits of the famous have shown us in the last few years. 

Yassification satirises this appearance-enhancing editing that has become so prevalent online, turning up to 100 what people are already doing, for results that are cartoonishly ridiculous if still strangely familiar. The trend highlights the artifice of our digital performance, taking photoshopping to the extreme until it loses any semblance of reality. Rather than something that should be aspired to both online and off – during lockdown plastic surgeons in the UK reported a 70 per cent increase in requests for virtual consultations – this overly airbrushed, plumped up aesthetic becomes the butt of the joke.

“I think there’s a conversation to be had about how unhealthy [facetuning] culture is,” Denver Adams told Buzzfeed last week. Adams, a 22-year-old art student in Nebraska with a one month subscription to FaceApp, is the person behind @YassifyBot, the Twitter account responsible for some of the most viral yassification transformations. 

“Technology like this has a creepy way of making it so uncannily realistic that it makes people uncomfortable. It’s making light of that problem,” they said. “The bottom line is it’s a satire of this ageist technology and insane beauty standards through these artificial intelligence apps.”

How deeply entrenched these unrealistic beauty standards have become in our culture, and our minds, can be seen by a recent phenomenon. Over the last few years, an insidious trend has emerged where social media users enhance not their own appearance, but those of celebrities – already extremely conventionally attractive – to create beauty ideals that are impossible to ever achieve. 

“Technology like this has a creepy way of making it so uncannily realistic that it makes people uncomfortable. It’s making light of that problem”

Last year a photoshopped image of the late singer Aaliyah with the caption “Can we take a moment to admire?” was liked over 80K times. Throwback pictures of Angelina Jolie facetuned with contemporary beauty trends in mind and airbrushed images of Meghan Markle both received hundreds of thousands of likes. More recently, a tweet with highly edited pictures of the cast of Succession made the rounds, ironically with the caption, “‘succession fans will thirst over the most average guy’ bitch where”. 

None of these edits make it clear that the images have been retouched, and they contribute hugely to the pressure on everyone in our culture to conform to impossible beauty ideals. If even Angelina Jolie’s face is deemed lacking by society, what hope do the rest of us have in living up to the standards? By taking this practice of editing public figures to its extreme end point, Yassification brings this trend out into the open and makes light of it, highlighting the artifice and turning it into something absurd and silly that we can laugh at, rather than cry about.

For Daniel, it’s this contrasting ability to expose, parody, and celebrate all at once that is the beauty of yassification. “To me, transforming someone into their most hyper-beautified version of themselves is an empowering and subversive act of both parody and homage to the beauty standards set in place by our society.”