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beauty is pop culture // sex rules the world 

  • Ilia Sdralli

 PIXEL FLESH: Beauty's Toxicity Culture is Harming Women One Trend at a Time.

Updated: Jun 3

The book Pixel Flesh lying next to green Airpod Max
A Guide to Indulgence, Nadia Lee Cohen (TV still)

On the conversation of beauty culture and it's greatest impacts, we'd be remiss to avoid the obvious; beauty often breeds toxicity. Ilia Sdralli explores this in interview with Ellen Atlanta on her debut book, Pixel Flesh.

A quick scroll through TikTok or Instagram can leave you speechless at the multitude of beauty advice available. In this new era of beauty, influencers and brand advertisers urge us to alter ourselves in a perpetual search of so-called “self-discovery”. Today’s ideal, strongly influenced by advancements in cosmetic surgery, augmented reality face filters, and photo editing apps, pushes us to pinch, pull, squeeze, tweeze and slice ourselves in the name of beauty. More than ever, makeup, hair dye, and personal grooming have become the key to self-expression online and in real life.

Still, the question stands; Is today's beauty culture genuinely empowering, or are we merely puppets of the images we meticulously curate and share?

While beauty ideals have always existed throughout history, today's era amplifies the pressure to achieve and sustain an impeccable physique, only to be exacerbated by our compulsive need to show every facet of ourselves online. In this influencer-dominated digital age, beauty culture has become pervasive and often dangerous — but not equal for all.

Statistics never lie. Nearly two-thirds of beauty advertisements target women, enticing them with the promise of youthful attractiveness. According to the New York Post, American women shell out an average of $115 monthly on makeup and beauty treatments, totalling a staggering $1,380 annually. Additionally, they allocate an average of $65 monthly on creams, lotions, moisturisers, and anti-aging remedies. Social media simply enhances this by promoting an increasingly artificial beauty standard. For the most celebrated influencers and trends, the aspiration they promote isn't to appear 'natural' but rather 'flawless'. In that sense, women are subjected to yet another beauty benchmark, fostering feelings of inadequacy-and all that simply for consumerism’s sake. The prevailing patriarchal narrative often dictates to women exactly what to do rather than empowers them to define their very personal beauty standards.

For writer and journalist Ellen Atlanta, this has been a worrying issue and one she felt destined to explore. Her recent book: Pixel Flesh: Toxic Beauty Culture and the Women it Harms" is a generation-defining exploration of the impact of toxic beauty culture on women in our digital age. Using compelling storytelling and more than 1000 women's statements, Atlanta delves into the various facets of modern beauty, from the influence of reality TV shows like Love Island to TikTok micro trends and the ever-growing trend of cosmetic procedures like lip fillers. According to Chloé Cooper Jones, author and a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the book is an essential mirror reflecting the profound impact of beauty culture on our lives, urging us to question and redefine our notions of allure and authenticity.

We sat down with Ellen Atlanta to discuss this social media-fuelled beauty dystopia and how women can take back control.

A hand holding up the book Pixel Flesh by Ellen Atlanta
Image via @ellenatlanta on Instagram

“Pixel Flesh” is a book title bearing an obvious antithesis. Was it deliberate?

Ellen Atlanta: The title didn't actually come to me for a while. I'd written a piece about the day I spent with Kylie Jenner, alongside my friend's experiences during lockdown. And I was thinking about that summer during the pandemic when we were trapped inside. My friends and I would all kind of sunbathe together when we could, outside in the sun. It was a time of life when everyone had gained a bit of weight due to the lockdown. No one was really worried about what they looked like because we all knew each other; we were all comfortable. And I realised for the first time in a long time that I hadn't seen women's bodies as they were meant to be. I'd been so absorbed in my phone for the majority of the pandemic, and my life had kind of been spent growing up online. So, the title originally came because I wrote about that summer, and I'd written, 'I hadn't seen bodies in a while, only pixel flesh'.

As soon as I wrote that line and had it for about six months, I had a moment with my agent where I thought, 'That has to be the title.' We've had some opposition to it; some people have said it's too much, not commercial enough, or a bit off-putting. But I like that. I wasn't writing a beauty book that was entirely beautiful. The book has a sci-fi element too, like 'Pixel Flesh.' I drew on a lot of sci-fi, dystopian elements, and language because I genuinely feel like that's what it feels like to exist right now. It feels like we're in an evolving technological space like we're in a Black Mirror episode. Some things I wrote about sounded so dystopian and sci-fi without me even trying.

The whole book is paradoxical. It isn't about beauty that's pretty and sunshine and rainbows and says everything's great as long as you're empowered. I was really trying to resist that narrative that I felt glossed over how women were actually feeling and the reality of our existence in this culture. Many of my friends were suffering, whether that was with diets, feeling like they had to get work done, or spending loads of money on the way they looked. They felt they couldn't go outside without makeup or had to curate their online self in a very specific way to get validation or attention. I wanted to speak to the paradoxes that felt so pervasive in my life and my friends' lives. Knowing this culture existed but not being able to do much about it, understanding these harmful standards but still striving for them, pretending everything was okay on the surface while feeling anxiety inside.

Many would argue that social media offer a platform for many unrepresented groups of people including women. Isn’t this the case? 

Ellen Atlanta: We've seen some changes in visibility and who gets to be visible. But structurally, foundationally, we haven't achieved much by way of change. These companies that rule our lives and the algorithms of these image-based platforms are still founded and run by almost exclusively rich white men. The teams building these algorithms are predominantly white men. The number of women in tech and STEM is falling, not growing. We're just recreating the same inequalities that we already have compounded in a space where everything is more highly concentrated. We still see images of trans women, women of color, and queer women being censored. There's a pervasive message that you can be what you want to be, but if you adhere to this specific binary beauty ideal, you'll be more successful.

How easy is it for women to admit they feel violated by the current beauty ideal?

It's really important to acknowledge that that's a rational way of thinking. A lot of women struggle with this paradox, thinking they shouldn't feel this way because they're feminists. But it's a completely rational response when all the messaging is saying, 'Look this way, have this body shape, have this face, and you'll earn more money, get more attention, and be more successful online.' We need to allow ourselves some grace in having these feelings because it's such a rational response to the world we live in. Chloe Cooper Jones, a brilliant writer and academic, said, 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,' which completely negates her experience as a disabled woman in a beauty culture where she's discriminated against because she doesn't fit the ideal. Acknowledging how powerful these forces are in our lives and that our responses to them are rational, we need to think about how we can work together to make this easier for all of us.

If that is the case how can we influence the system?

Ellen Atlanta: We have so much power in our immediate circles. We influence the women around us, our close friends, our mothers, our sisters. We do so much in our day-to-day lives that reinforces this message. Instead of prioritising beauty as the primary importance, we can focus on other qualities; support each other, and model comfort. Let's be the person we needed to see when we were younger, who can model that comfort, sit with their belly rolls, relax, and just be. We need to exist as we do without trying to hide or conceal ourselves. The more we model comfort and show ease in our bodies, the more we empower other women to do the same. We have power, and the way we speak and act makes a significant difference to the women around us.

Tell me about the interviews that are the core of this book.

Ellen Atlanta: The book was hard to write because of the emotions it stirred up, but it was also beautiful because I got to interview over a hundred women, from trans women to cis women, from working class to wealthy, from those with millions of followers to those with none.I feel honoured that so many shared their personal confessions with me. The calls with the women I interviewed were beacons of light and hope. The main message I want to share is that we need to default to allies over enemies. We need to support each other and understand that we have more in common than we think. The bottom line is that the beauty standard currently benefits those who are already privileged. It's rooted in misogyny, colonisation, racial culture, ableism, and transphobia. Acknowledging how powerful these issues are and understanding that beauty isn't just a trivial pursuit, but a political system is crucial. Let's learn that it is hard to shoulder this burden alone. If we put our arms around each other and acknowledge our shared experiences, we're stronger together.

 you passionate about exploring the intricate worlds of beauty, sex, fashion, wellness, and culture? Do you belong to a marginalised community and have unique perspectives and stories to share? If so, Nightstand Service is eagerly seeking contributing writers like you! Get in touch:


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