In a Dazed original series, photographer Scarlett Carlos Clarke explores our fascination with airbrushing apps and the quest for an unattainable image
Behind every selfie are hundreds of discarded snaps – slightly more flawed clones in less flattering lighting, tilted a fraction of a degree, with or without the puppy dog filter. Everyone knows the final product is an illusion of candor and spontaneity. There’s an unspoken rule that what actually ends up on Instagram has been choreographed and airbrushed into something that does not remotely look like real life. In fact, it has gotten so meta that model Emily Ratajkowski can amass millions of likes based on this rule while lampooning said rule in a video made with the sole aim to garner even more likes. So why do we keep falling for it?
In her series Body Dysmorphia, photographer Scarlett Carlos Clarke focuses on the grip heavily manipulated selfies has on our offline lives, especially for women: “Although some girls maybe feel totally insecure and vulnerable and full of self-loathing, there's a narcissistic element that they can't stop feeding with the selfie,” she says. She notes that she isn’t making a moral judgment either way, necessarily. “I’m more just trying to get people to question this idea. I just think it's an interesting concept that's happening at the moment.” In fact, she acknowledges selfies can be empowering, especially when they are honest depictions of ourselves. It’s the excessive retouching, faked perfection, and addictive nature of online validation that she finds fascinating and even a bit creepy.
In her last photo series, She, Carlos Clarke deconstructed the image of the ideal woman created and expected by men. “With that series, I was being like almost ‘fuck you’ to guys,” she explains. “Is this what you want? A perfect woman who’s emotionless and does what she wants you to do? It was reversing that idea.” In Body Dysmorphia, she turns the lens on the ideas of female perfection created and perpetuated by women themselves, asking what perfection is and whether this perfect woman even exists.
What inspired you to do the “Body Dysmorphia” series?
Scarlett Carlos Clarke: I started to see loads of people on Instagram and social media just altering their faces with weird apps. Also, not even people doing that, but just creating a persona for yourself, and then having to live up to that, and that almost being more interesting than the real person. You see, even in a Kardashian kind of way, smoothing the skin out, crazy retouching – that’s so accessible now because it’s on your phone. It’s kind of seen as really normal now to do that, and then when you meet these people in real life, they’re just a completely different person.
It’s quite telling of our time that people feel this need to project what they think is the perfect image of themselves out in the world. You have this mixture of, they’re insecure about themselves, so they put up these images, and yet there’s also this really narcissistic element where they’re really self-obsessed and there’s this massive ego going on as well. It’s a weird mix of self-loathing and self-obsession.
“It’s like a short-term release of endorphins, and then it’s over, and then probably back to the self-loathing” – Scarlett Carlos Clarke
That is such a contradiction in and of itself, people who loathe themselves and yet are addicted to seeing these images of themselves. How do you think people reconcile that in their heads?
Scarlett Carlos Clarke: I think to them, posting a selfie where they are the person that they want to be, where they are this perfect image, gives them pleasure for probably about 15 seconds. It’s like a short-term release of endorphins, and then it’s over, and then probably back to the self-loathing.
When you have manic depression or something, you will grow up and you won’t like the person you are, and then you create a person that you want to be. And then that catches up with you, and it always does. I’ve seen it happen so many times. A lot of people want to escape from where they’ve come from or what they’ve grown up in and create this persona because it’s more fun, it’s more interesting, they think it will get them more work being crazy, happy, jolly, not having any emotions. And then it catches up with them. I’ve seen people constantly feel the need to feed social media but they don’t want to, but they can’t stop. It’s like a proper addiction.
As content creators, artists, etc. we’re often told to curate our social media to build a brand. It’s almost forced into us. How can we escape this if we’re expected to do this for our careers?
Scarlett Carlos Clarke: If you know who you are as a person, and you’re just doing it because of your art, then that’s a different thing. But if you are really getting heavily involved in it emotionally, you need to take a step back and reassess who you are. If it’s all just a massive lie, and you’re taking it seriously. As an artist, I think you can mess around with it, because if you look back in time, people like Cindy Sherman were doing that in their art with self-portraiture. I think that’s a really interesting idea, but it’s about not taking yourself too seriously if you are doing it.
“I’ve seen people constantly feel the need to feed social media but they don’t want to, but they can’t stop. It’s like a proper addiction” – Scarlett Carlos Clarke
Your photo series only depicts women. Why do you think this is an issue that affects women uniquely?
Scarlett Carlos Clarke: It is mainly women. Obviously, some guys probably get into doing it, but it’s quite a female thing to want to project a perfect image of your body. There’s a lot of pressure for women to be doing careers, looking great, seemingly being really happy in their lives. Women feel a lot more pressure to put that out because of what’s happening with everyone else. Everyone’s kind of egging each other on.
The problem with Instagram is it causes a lot of jealousy between females, especially if people are projecting this ideal life. I think people get annoyed by it. It makes people feel like, “I’m not having a good time.” It’s more if you’re feeling vulnerable, and then you go on Instagram and you see that everyone’s having the best time ever, but obviously it’s just editing the best moments down.
Women have always felt more pressure to look good, and I think it’s just kind of one step up from makeup. Because it’s really accessible, it’s kind of become more normal to edit how you look now. Before, retouching was something that photographers or retouchers did, but now you can do it in seconds on your phone with simple tools like "smooth" and "refine"—It’s like the face you've always wanted and it only costs 99p. I think it’s like an addiction where you constantly need more hits.
A lot of feminists have embraced the selfie as a tool of empowerment. Can this have the opposite effect?
Scarlett Carlos Clarke: The people who have done that are doing it in a really honest way, like posting pictures of themselves with their spots or writing stuff about what’s going on in their lives. Even though that’s good, most of the girls who are doing that are already established in quite a big way and they’ve got their own thing going on, they’ve got their careers. Whereas most girls don’t really have that and they’re probably sitting at home on their phones. What’s going on is people creating this image of themselves and then not going out and socializing or they don’t want to, because they prefer the thing they’ve created.
As a photographer, do you know people who will spend ages doing the retouching, doing the staging, doing all this stuff just for one image?
Scarlett Carlos Clarke: I know at least three people who will go about setting up almost a photo shoot. Just to have in the backlog, to always have the backup to post stuff. This is what’s happened in the industry. If you are a photographer or a model, you are told that you need to be projecting this thing. I think it’s rubbish. I think if your work is good, that will shine through. There’s loads of pressure to project, “Your whole life is one of your shoots.”
A lot of these issues have clearly been exacerbated or made visible by the rise of social media. Why did you choose a more retro style for the shoot?
Scarlett Carlos Clarke: I didn’t want it to be a modern thing with like iPhones and stuff. I thought it was more aesthetically pleasing to do it as if it were from a different time. I thought it was a bit more timeless. Also, in the 50s, there was the idea that women should stay at home and pamper themselves and make themselves look good. So it was kind of the idea of women being at home, just looking at themselves in magazines or in the mirror or on the back of the vinyl records.
I wanted that really vacant feel, where the girls are not really present. It’s a comment that you’re this beautiful girl, but you’re kind of empty and you don’t really know what you’re going to do in life. You’ve got this amazing projection of what you are, but you’re really ungrounded. You basically don’t know who you are when you’re a young woman, a lot of the time. You’re still finding out who you are. I guess that’s also a positive of this whole thing. Maybe it’s a way for people to learn about themselves and find out who they are.
Photography Scarlett Carlos Clarke, styling Samia Giobellina, styling assistant Skye-Maree Dixon, set design Penny Mills, hair Jake Gallagher, make up Scarlett Burton, nails Pebbles Aikens, models Lily Newmark, Sydney Lima, Luisa le Voguer Couyet, Max Blatt, Eilidh Duffy
Picture 4- From left to right: Sydney wears velvet dress Helen Lawrence, knickers and garter Fifi Chachnil, stockings Agent Provocateur, velvet embroidered shoes Rochas, strass clip earrings Gillian Horsup at Grays Antique. Lily wears silk dress Natasha Zinko, knickers Bordelle, stockings Falke, satin mules Agent Provocateur, glove and rings Gillian Horsup at Grays Antique
Picture 8- Luisa wears ruffle blouse Found and Vision, latex high waisted knickers Atsuko Kudo, fishnet tights Pamela Mann, patent leather boots River Island, strass clip earring Gillian Horsup at Gray’s Antique, organza ribbon worn around neck stylist’s own