Modern times: Just look at us

In these high-visibility Facebook days, we're constantly updating and editing our look, like mini–brand managers. Do we buy what we're selling?

Oh, the built-in tyranny of New Year’s resolutions, those self-improvement promises slurred around 11:50 p.m. on December 31: Ten pounds! Less bitchy! More charity work! By the time the mouth is peeled from the pillow sometime on the first of January, many of us are already feeling like fat, whiny, selfish failures.

But the pressure to transform is no longer relegated only to January. Perhaps you heard: 2008 was all about “change.” It’s a word that should be positive – an Obamian push for progress. But at least where our looks are concerned, change can also feel like a burden, a race toward a trick finish line that keeps moving farther away the closer we get to it.

A new survey reported in the Daily Mail says that 56 percent of British women are likely to change their look every two years in order to “keep up with trends and improve their work, life and relationships.” Over her lifetime, a woman will have 26 different “looks,” the survey says.

There’s a striking merger of grown-up sobriety and teenage self-consciousness in this idea, as if we’re strategically repositioning the “me brand” to maximize our popularity. It’s true that in high school, I regarded the summer months as narcissism boot camp, plotting a personal relaunch to be rolled out after Labour Day or, as I considered it, Fashion Week. (The saddest part is the sheer lameness of my totally unnoticed efforts: No more pink Daniel Hechter sweatshirts; 1985 is all about black Daniel Hechter sweatshirts!)

Physical transformation in adulthood usually seems subtler: the occasional addition of a cool new item to the wardrobe; a haircut, then a grow-out. No one wants to resist change altogether – don’t look here for a defence of that midriff-shirt-Jazzercise-shoe ensemble – but remind me: What exactly are we striving for? One U.S. report found that American women spend almost US$7 billion a year on beauty treatments. The Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association says Canadian women and men cough up nearly as much: $5.4 billion. Spending copious amounts of money to look fabulous used to be mostly the domain of the wealthy, but suddenly it’s every woman’s cross to bear. Spas are springing up on every street corner; Botox is advertised on subway walls. In fact, ever since Botox hit the scene in the early ’90s, cosmetic procedures have jumped 500 percent in the U.S. The popular reality show What Not to Wear asks women of average means to apply a fanatical dedication to appearance through a checklist of wardrobe rules (a thousand variations of “always fit shirts to the smallest part of your body, and pants to the biggest”). The show is an addictive triumph because it draws a clear emotional arc between the external transformation and the internal one, marked by tears and, finally, euphoria.

“I feel so much better about myself,” says the What Not to Wear woman, under the heat of the camera lights, plucked and buffed and twirling in a hip-flattering A-line skirt, looking much like the woman from the week before, and the one after.

Of course, looking good can bring joy, but the idea of a cause-and-effect relationship between a perfect outside and a perfect inside is one of those unquestioned truisms that ring false. Even the most impeccably turned-out fashionista does not always radiate calm.

Reinvention may be the foundation of the New World, but is all this beauty expertise making us any happier once the rush of the big reveal wears off? A 2004 study shows that only two percent of women surveyed in 10 countries consider themselves beautiful, and most women struggle constantly with physical self-loathing.

The newest incarnation of women’s ongoing obsession with beauty is clearly linked to celebrity worship; Madonna and Victoria Beckham are in constant style metamorphosis, so we should be, too. Of course, beauty cues have always come from the famous, but Grace Kelly had one look – the Grace Kelly look – and wore it to the grave. Madonna has to keep up with the demands of a voracious, multi-platform industry salivating for something new every six minutes. In that way, and that way only, we actually have something in common with Madge: We’re all public figures these days, our own images broadcast daily in the photos that travel between our cellphones or across Facebook. Social-networking sites and the internet change how we interact, how we read, how we work, but do they change how we perceive ourselves, too? Ever more, we see our looks through the eyes of the visitors to our pages. It’s a new and strange kind of self-objectification, as anyone who has agonized over which vacation photos to post knows: Yes, the kids look cute, but why am I caught in some face-contorting wind-tunnel pose, muffin-topping my bikini? The only more nauseating sensation is when you see said picture of yourself posted to a friend’s Facebook page without your consent. (At least Madonna has lawyers to handle these matters.)

And it’s not just our private lives that are screened for the world, but our professional ones, too. Take the now-ubiquitous video conference, where the visual matters as much as the message. A friend of mine who teaches at a private school was recently informed that she must begin videotaping her classes for broadcast on a website for students who missed class. Suddenly, the private sphere of her classroom – a place of debate and imperfection – has become a public stage, like it or not. It’s not just that we feel we’re constantly scrutinized – we are.

Of course, our fixation on the “look” is a privilege of the prosperous last decade; the globalization of Sex and the City fabulosity might be coming to an end. As the economy nosedives, we won’t have $5.4 billion to spend on our appearance. But here’s an upside: Instead of self-improvement, maybe we’ll be forced, like it or not, toward self-acceptance.