Cyborg chic: Welcome to the era of transhuman beauty

In the exploration of the possibilities beyond corporeality, algorithms homogenize taste and the technological gaze standardizes faces

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Julia Fox pictured last April upon her arrival at the White House.STEFANI REYNOLDS (AFP / Getty Im
Patricia Rodríguez

Angular profile, wide forehead, large, slightly spaced eyes, high cheekbones, the nose as sharp as the chin, full lips and cold, pristine skin, like metal. This is what Bella Hadid looked like on the May cover of Vogue Italia magazine. An image in which the only real thing was the model. The scene around her had been conceived by artificial intelligence. What the magazine did not mention was that Hadid’s own face, flesh and blood notwithstanding, had also been previously designed and edited. As have those of other popular figures such as Hailey Bieber or Amelia Gray Hamlin, famous for being ahead of the curve when it comes to eyebrow bleaching. Faces that have been evolving in recent years, with surgeries or makeup, until boasting a disturbing beauty reminiscent of a cyborg, a half-human, half-machine creature.

Bella Hadid, with bleached eyebrows, backstage at the Givenchy spring/summer 2023 show.
Bella Hadid, with bleached eyebrows, backstage at the Givenchy spring/summer 2023 show. Gregory Scaffidi / launchmetrics

The body has always been a medium on which to represent belief systems and aesthetic tastes and, as such, it is prone to mutation. The history of painting is a good reflection of this: “Beauty is a changing language,” says art historian and author of 100,000 Years of Beauty, Elizabeth Azoulay. “Let’s take the Mona Lisa as an example. When Da Vinci painted her, she had eyelashes and eyebrows, but several decades later an anonymous painter erased them. Taste had changed and the idea that all hair had to be removed prevailed; humans were God’s chosen creatures, not furry animals.” Thus, Mona Lisa lost her eyebrows, several centuries ahead of others like Gray Hamlin, Rosalía or Madonna — even if today’s muses draw more from avatars and humanoids than from divine inspirations.

Bo Exters sporting a futuristic mask, at the Del Core fall/winter 2023/2024 show.
Bo Exters sporting a futuristic mask, at the Del Core fall/winter 2023/2024 show. Alessandro Viero (launchmetrics.

Cyborgs are not new on the runway. Alexander McQueen, a pioneer in so many things, played with the possibilities of combining body and machine in many of his collections. Already in 1999 he closed his winter show for Givenchy with a model who only wore white pants and a sort of transparent armor covered by cables and lights that went all the way up to her shaved head. The exploration of the possibilities beyond corporeality is a path in which artists of all kinds have been interested; transhuman specimens have served as unifying thread for women’s collections by Comme des Garçons, Rick Owens and Gucci. Creatures close to those described in 1984 by Donna Haraway in A Cyborg Manifesto: “A cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction,” she wrote. “The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence.” She imagined that women could become fluid, radical, resistant beings, disloyal to the self-image that they had not chosen.

Digital artist Johanna Jaskowska with her Cyber Skincare filter.
Digital artist Johanna Jaskowska with her Cyber Skincare filter.Melanie Lehmann / Cortesía de J

However, today’s cyborg is far removed from the ideas put forward by the feminist. It is not so much about vindication as it is about the imposition of a panorama that, like Hadid’s cover, is shaped through image generation programs and enforced by algorithms (mostly created by men) that seek to engage. From Instagram filters to apps like Lensa or Midjourney. Even Zoom video calls can now be edited. Thus, the aesthetic aspiration is distorted, seeking to replicate the effects of technology. Beauty industry journalist Jessica DeFino explains it in her newsletter: “Highlighting is an excellent example of how machinery informs modern appearance ideals: the technique doesn’t recreate an innate human feature but rather, the effects of heavy-duty Hollywood lighting equipment.” She also condemns how the goal is less and less human — a “cyborg skin” that seeks “to flatten any and all signs of life (wrinkles, pimples, pores).” There is no easy escape.

Julia Belyakova and her red head of hair, walking for Gucci’s fall/winter 2023/2024 show.
Julia Belyakova and her red head of hair, walking for Gucci’s fall/winter 2023/2024 show.launchmetrics.com / spotlight

“What, actually, is ‘the face’?” pondered the German historian Hans Belting in his book Face and Mask. “It does not truly become a face until it interacts with other faces, seeing or being seen by them.” In 2023, that equals a pixel bomb. Faces as the basis of the content that is consumed every day on our phone’s screen, on social media. An ecosystem in which nothing is innocent and everything can be monetized, denounces Elise Hu, author of Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital: “In Korea, we see how the long-established heteronormative notion that women chase beauty to appeal to the male gaze can be overshadowed by something more complicated: a technological gaze,” she writes. “This gaze is an algorithmically determined set of ideal traits for our facial and body parts that social platforms feed us through the content we scroll. It represents a power shift from an external, male-judging gaze to a self-policing narcissistic gaze […], the self-policing tech gaze creates demand for what we should look like and also feeds it.”

Lulu Wood walking for Dolce & Gabbana, fall-winter 2023/2024.
Lulu Wood walking for Dolce & Gabbana, fall-winter 2023/2024.launchmetrics.com / spotlight

If Da Vinci painted the prototypical proportions in his Vitruvian Man, in Korea aesthetic clinics are already using codes that analyze the most liked faces in order to recommend optimized procedures for their clients. Because thanks to the technological improvements, these body updates are becoming increasingly easier. Injectable procedures, among the least intrusive, are some of the most popular. You can even modify a nose with them now. Still, it is advisable not to trivialize them, warns plastic surgeon Isabel de Benito: “They are affordable, but they are not easy. They should be left in the hands of experts.”

Rick Owens’ contact lenses, for the fall-winter 2023/2024, were created by makeup artist Daniel Sallstrom.
Rick Owens’ contact lenses, for the fall-winter 2023/2024, were created by makeup artist Daniel Sallstrom. launchmetrics.com / spotlight

The infinite alternatives offered by cosmetics, surgery and filters, open the door to an infinite range of possibilities to define identities. Digital artists like Johanna Jaskowska or Ines Alpha (whom Prada just hired for the launch of its makeup line) are proof of this. Meanwhile, a revolution against the system will involve renouncing the perfect divinity and embracing the difference, be it human or humanoid. “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” wrote Haraway.

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