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Constant changes and shifts in beauty standards… What’s hot? What’s not? What else can one nip, tuck and cut? This is the constant stream of consciousness for many women living in the digital age. Writer and brand consultant Ellen Atlanta attacks this head on with her new tome Pixel Flesh: How Toxic Beauty Culture Harms Women, calling out the behaviours and habits, promoted through social media especially, that women and marginalised genders have adopted despite actively harm their development.

Atlanta takes an earnest approach on the topic, utterly aware of the sensitivity around it. But, she manages to adopt a ‘big sister’ sort of tone by being sincere and personal, all while providing the reader with hard-hitting facts that will make one wonder why they’ve been saving up for lip filler. From page to page, she speaks on the evolution of the cosmetics industry as a betrayal of womanhood, discussing the rise in popularity of filters and face retouching apps, and how these are some of the main culprits contributing to toxic beauty standards. The topics she covers range from the over sexualisation of young women and how this has infiltrated our skincare regimens, to the decolonisation of beauty standards and the ever-shifting, often Eurocentric beauty standard idealised for women of colour. Atlanta is conscious, considered and coherent with her analysis of Gen Z and their relationship to the internet.

Pixel Flesh: How Toxic Beauty Culture Harms Women acts as a call to action, holding a mirror up to those co-opting feminism to sell products and procedures to retouch the features she feels women should be embracing. A touching piece of literature, it could perhaps offer solace to young women around the world, or at the very least, bring to mind a new way of thinking about body image and beauty. Here, we spoke to Ellen Atlanta about the personal journey that led her to write the book, breaking free from beauty norms and how women can navigate the conflicting messages that surround body positivity and unrealistic ideals. Zein Karam

Hey Ellen! Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and how you got into the beauty world?

I’m from a small village in Leicestershire and I blogged my entire teen years, finding community and expressing myself online. When I was finishing my exams, I was painting my nails a different design every day, and Sharmadean Reid found my Instagram account. I had barely any followers but she saw what I was doing and invited me to London to get my nails done at Wah in Topshop. I designed a full set on paper, annotated with glitter glue, and took it with me. I’d never have been able to afford an appointment so I really wanted to make the most of it. When I eventually moved to London for university to study journalism, I interviewed Shar for a uni project and she offered me a job on the spot. I spent the next year working for Wah as they built their Soho store, before moving to Dazed Beauty as a founding editor. My introduction to beauty was as a vehicle to bring people together, especially women and marginalised genders.

What prompted you to write this book? And what do you hope to achieve with it?

There were two things happening simultaneously in my life that triggered the idea for the book. I had been working in the beauty industry for years and it felt like all of sudden we moved from fun nail art to invasive injectable procedures. Almost overnight in the 2010s it felt like young girls wanted lip filler and botox, and the industry was ready to sell it to them. I was working for a tech company that essentially allowed you to buy new facial features – new lips, a new forehead, a new nose. I couldn’t reconcile promoting those treatments to young women with my feminism, I was fighting in my head with how I could be a part of the industry in a positive way – how I could wrestle my beliefs with my complicity and my future in the industry. Ultimately, I decided to quit my job. That’s where my villain origin story begins.

Around the same time, I was feeling a huge disparity between the messaging I was seeing online around beauty culture, and how the women around me were thinking and feeling. Online, we’d entered this seemingly post-feminist phase in which everyone was cured of their insecurities and everyone was glossy and body positive. But the women around me were still struggling, often in secret. They were still dieting or punishing their bodies, felt they had to spend hundreds or thousands on beauty treatments to access opportunities or respect, and then felt the need to edit their pictures in order to be worthy. I wanted to take that filter off and create an honest account of how we’re actually doing – what it really feels like to exist as a young woman in the digital age. I hope that in doing so, in shedding light on the issue, we can start to fight back and build a more beautiful future for women and girls.

Pixel Flesh is about breaking free from beauty norms. What’s the most ridiculous “beauty hack” you’ve seen online, and what life hack would you recommend young women focus on instead?

There’s so many! It can be hard to tell what’s serious and what’s clickbait. I think the ones that get me at the moment are about restricting movement in your face to ‘prevent ageing’ – using anti-wrinkle straws, taping your face before bed, mewing when you’re not talking, training your face not to move when you make certain expressions. The age-old misogynistic idea of women being “too emotional” has just applied itself to our faces, now we’re training ourselves to be as robotic as possible and I hate to think of young women focusing their energy on dampening down their expressions.

Instead, I’d love all women to stick a picture of their child self to their mirror and be the woman that girl needed – return beauty to the realm of play and have fun with it. Do one less thing that feels constrictive or ‘necessary’ and see how you feel. Try and practice affirmations about what your body can do rather than what it looks like: sentences like: “My arms allow me to . . .’ or ‘I love that my body can . . .”. Studies have proven how beneficial these thoughts can be to improve body image in the immediate and long-term future.

It’s about transcending what simply looks ‘good’ and reminding yourself what feels desirable to you – refuse to exist on a single plane and indulge in every dimension. What feels good? Smells good? Sounds good? Tastes good? Try to maintain a holistic approach in nurturing yourself and the girls around you – try new activities, explore your potential, dance and be silly, eat delicious food, use your voice and speak up when it matters. Remind yourself that what makes someone desirable extends far beyond the physical. You were never meant to exist in 2D – refuse to make your world smaller when there is so much joy beyond the surface.

How have your personal experiences shaped the narrative of the book?

I initially wanted to take a more observational approach to writing the book – focussing on the stories of others and decentering myself, but it felt increasingly icky the more I went on. It felt like I was avoiding my own complicity, and failing in my honesty with the reader. I sat down and wrote a list of all the ugly thoughts I was having, all of the things I was scared to admit or confront, with no intention of including it in my manuscript. I just needed to face my own feelings. It now sits as the introduction to the book. The women I interviewed were so courageous and honest with their stories for my project, I felt a duty to match their candour and practise what I preached. It was an interesting thing to balance – how much of myself to insert into the narrative, amongst the stories of other women, but it came quite naturally. I think the result is a book that makes anyone who reads it feel seen. I’ve had girls message me to say it feels like they’re reading their own inner monologue, that I somehow got into their brain. It’s unsettling but it’s also so incredibly comforting to realise you’re not going through these things alone. Together we can look these ugly truths in the face and build a more beautiful future for us all.

What’s a digital trend you’d love to see go extinct, and what quirky filter are you secretly a fan of?

I’d die happy if I never saw a Face App face ever again, it’s become the digital extension of Instagram Face with these copy paste pictures. It’s [the] uncanny valley in pixel form.

I can’t lie, the last time I used a filter, my friend put the brown eyed one on me to see if I looked like Renesmee [Cullen, from Twilight].

How can women navigate conflicting messages about body positivity and unrealistic beauty ideals they see on social media?

I think it’s important to take the time to re-immerse ourselves in reality. I’m not going to suggest women delete social media and log off the internet because that would have a hugely detrimental impact on our democracy and social lives, but I do think it’s important to identify the forces working against us, and acknowledge that these platforms do not have our best interests at heart. We have to negotiate that and come to the table with an awareness of the bargain we are making.

Whilst we should curate our social feeds and follow accounts that better represent our reality, so much of this work needs to be done away from the digital: in our everyday interactions, thoughts and actions. Make an effort to consciously open your eyes to all of the different body shapes and types of beauty that exist in the world around you, remind yourself of women’s bodies existing as they always have and as they always should. Just three days away from social media can improve a woman’s body image. We don’t have to opt out completely, but it is essential that we schedule in breaks in order to cultivate a life for ourselves away from the environments controlled and curtailed by companies who do not have our best interests at heart.

In re-immersing ourselves in reality, we also need to recognise that not everything has to be beautiful all of the time. You do not owe anyone perfect, and you don’t owe anyone pretty. Remove the glossy filter that smooths out any negativity or body hairs or stretch marks or belly rolls, resist the feminine urge to lighten the mood or to make others comfortable, practise radical honesty with yourself and with others, and, most importantly, don’t be afraid to say no.

What are some signs you’ve noticed of a more positive and inclusive future for beauty?

I think we see pockets of beauty everywhere – in nightclub bathrooms, beauty salons, getting ready in our bedrooms together. There’s so much beauty in womanhood, and in our shared experiences. I found that beauty in every interview I did for my book, and it was bittersweet to see how often conversations and stories repeated, regardless of gender expression, class or online success. We have so much more in common than we think once we bring down those walls, and, with our arms around each other, we can lighten the burden for us all.

I love seeing communities and creators online that are expanding our ideas of beauty – rejecting rigid rules and binaries. It can be really difficult to push back on the norm and deviate from desirability. Whilst some are trying and facing ostracisation, it will require all of us, working together, especially those of us with privilege, to support those who are rendered invisible. The best form of resistance is unrelenting conviction and commitment to rejecting the conditions that contain us. As clichéd as it may sound, our differences are our strengths, and embracing marginalised genders and communities in their expression helps us to disband the binary ideals of beauty to which we are all held.

Interview by Emily Phillips. Top Image: photography by Harriet MacSween, taken from 10 Magazine Issue 72 UK – DARE TO DREAM. Additional photography courtesy of Ellen Atlanta.