From a Teen’s Perspective: Saying goodbye to our imperfections

by Dylan Lanier on May 23, 2023

“Nobody’s perfect” — a sentiment so common yet so true. As much as we may try to hide our flaws or pretend they don’t exist, each and every one of us possess qualities we would change. And perhaps no group is more self-consious than us teens.

As a dude, I certainly don’t bear the brunt of it; teenage girls face much more intense societal pressures to be pretty, dress fashionably, watch their weight, and more. And even though I deal with those pressures to a lesser extent, it can be exhausting and demeaning to wedge yourself into a box or fail trying.

We are lucky to grow up in a world that grows increasingly progressive when it comes to the ideal of “beauty,” at least on the surface. Several beauty companies are promoting body positivity campaigns, influencers are coming from a more diverse range of backgrounds, and individuality as a whole seems to be increasingly valued and celebrated. Even in everyday life, I’d like to think we are a much more accepting society than in previous decades.

However, alongside this progressivism seems to be an irrepresable urge to “fix.” Such a desire makes sense, given our innovative and solution-oriented mindsets. Very few people would argue against using advancements in science and technology to improve our lives. In medicine, we can now cure diseases previously thought un-curable. In communication, we can now call someone on the other side of the world with just a wireless, handheld device.

These developments are conducive to our civilization’s success and the betterment of individual experiences. However, the urge to “fix” has also promoted body dysmorphia and a rejection of our imperfections.

The inkling of this topic emerged from a discussion about Accutane, so that’s where I’ll start.

Accutane, for those fotunate enough not to know, is an acne medication that for most patients provides clear skin for the rest of their lives. Of course, the treatment comes at a severe cost: four to six months of monthly blood tests, dry skin, frequent sunburns, and possible liver damage and mental health issues.

Over two million people have taken Accutane, many of whom were teenagers. One study in the National Library of Medicine concluded: “In the last 8 years, there has been a 2.5-fold (250%) increase in the number of dispensed prescriptions for isotretinoin [the generic name for Accutane] in the United States. Data also reveal an increasing proportion of isotretinoin use for mild and moderate acne.”

The first statistic is obviously important; it’s clear that many more people are now taking it. While one could easily write this off as a result of increased marketing and popularity, it’s the second statistic that conveys the most important change in Accutane usage: people are taking it for less severe cases of acne.

This is certainly true when I think about my own peer group. A couple years ago, it seemed that only people with extreme cases of acne decided to take Accutane. After all, many felt that living with their acne or using traditional treatments like mild ointments and a rigid hygeine routine was better than the rough side effects they could expect on Accutane. However, in the past year, I’ve witnessed a dramatic spike in Accutane usage, at least at my high school. Now it seems that anyone with a few patches of pimples will opt for the permanent solution that Accutane provides.

I can completely understand the shift towards Accutane. Who doesn’t want to rid themselves of acne for the rest of their lives? However, I worry that this shift is also a prime example of how our “fix” mentality discourages us to accept our own imperfections and the imperfections of others.

If everyone “cures” their acne — even people who by ordinary standards have average or below average levels of acne — pimples will become increasingly viewed as atypical and even unnatural. If clear skin becomes the teenage norm (even though many view acne as a right of passage for our awkward age group) we make those with acne feel like even more of an outlier. We shouldn’t enforce conformity within our generation by promoting an uncomfortable treatment process as the only way to fit in.

This next example will be familiar to almost every teenage girl: photo-editing software specifically designed for bodily altercation, such as face filters and apps like Facetune. [Photo used is an example.]

The original face filters found on social media were designed to be comical, creative, or just straight-up wacky. They were another silly form of emotive expression that teens used to communicate and make each other laugh. Then, of course, someone realized that they could create filters to amplify a person’s looks by conventional standards, sometimes to the point where the end product looked nothing like their actual face.

In addition to beautifying someone’s appearance before taking a photo, editing software allows people to retroactively “fix” their flaws, as well, with buttons for thinning, smoothing, and all-around glamourising.

These technologies are understandably tempting. The ability to easily alter your features at whim seems like a remarkable advancement on paper. And while technologically it may be impressive, it has destroyed the self-perceptions of countless teenagers.

The harm of these digital “remedies” is twofold. First, seeing everyone else’s altered photos can make someone feel insecure and distinctly “lesser than” the majority of their peers. A survey of 550 social media users in the National Library of Medicine revealed that “81% of them had edited a photo before posting.” When our social media feeds provide photo after photo of the same filters, touch-ups, and beauty standards, it’s easy to forget that those photos aren’t reality. Instead, teens can often feel like they’re the odd one out; the only one in the world with pimples, loose skin, or other imperfections never seen on social media.

Second, as a result of that insecurity and isolation, people turn to the same technologies to better imitate the looks they see online. However, by falsely bolstering their appearance, their mind builds a gap between what they think they should look like — and what they expect to look like — versus what they look like without all the filters and edits. This perpetuates a cycle of insecurity, as teens will never feel like they can live up to their “perfect” edited images. If you base your self-worth on a false reflection, your confidence will go down the drain every time you look in the mirror.

Of course, it’s not a crime to want to look good, and I’m not advocating for the end of social media or a complete rejection of beauty as a social construct. Instead, I wanted to point out that the nuclear arms race of physical enhancement isn’t helping anyone. Every time teens find a new way to get closer to an unnatainable beauty standard, it’s only a matter of time before everyone else starts using it, too, and the pressure to look your best and fit the mold only reaches new heights.

Why can’t we just recognize that different bodies look different, and celebrate how freely unique today’s teens are able to be? It would make a whole lot more sense for our generation to accept a new beauty standard, one where actractiveness isn’t based on arbitrary features but instead focused on celebrating the beautiful individuality we each possess and emphasizing confidence and self-love as the most attractive qualities of all.

From a Teen’s Perspective is a weekly column contributed by Menlo-Atherton High School Junior Dylan Lanier, who has lived in Menlo Park since he was two.

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