Beauty, Vindication

 
ADVERTISEMENT
 

Jamie Kahn

Art by Justine Hill

 

My philtrum is fourteen millimeters long—pushing against the upper limit of the ideal range. The philtrum is the tiny ridge that runs from the bottom of your nose to the line of your upper lip. It’s an unexamined part of my own body that hasn’t caused me any trouble until recently—much like the rounding peonies of my cheeks, or the dips on my sides where my thighs meet my hips, where I have a slight ridge inward like a viola. I say viola because I’m not tiny—not bird-boned and spritely as a violin—but I’m also not full-figured and epicurean like a cello.

I’ve recently learned one thing about my philtrum, and all the other little hidden corners of my body: there is no part of me that is too insignificant for judgment. Reddit taught me this.

 

“...there is no part of me that is too insignificant for judgment.”

 

I joined the r/vindicta subreddit first—before any of the others in the Pink Pill community, a community dedicated to finding “high value” mates by understanding the true nature of human interaction.

“Vindicta is a women-only community 100% dedicated to improving beauty, attractiveness, and allure. We weaponize beauty and make it work for us. Come for honest discussions, science, tips, and tricks to help you acquire your desired look.” The community guidelines also insist that “Vindicta is about objective beauty. If you think cellulite and recessed chins are hot, don’t post about it here. It will get you banned and deleted.” It’s the most important rule after “No Men Allowed.”

On the phone with my best friend Max, I half-listen on speaker as I study my face in the mirror. I hold the tape measure from my sewing kit in one hand. With the other, I gently push my index finger into the center of my top lip. I want to move it one millimeter—no more, no less. To see if it will make a difference to my face.

“I think this subreddit is driving me nuts,” I say. Self-awareness is the key to clarity. “I’ve never thought about getting a lip flip before, but maybe that’s just because I never had the language to actually point to what’s wrong with my face, you know?”

“There is nothing wrong with your face,” he half-sighs while slightly raising his voice at me. “What even is a lip flip?”

“There are two different kinds of lip flips,” I tell him. I rattle off the information like it’s worth something. “There are surgical lip flips, which almost nobody gets from my understanding, and then there are Botox ones, where they inject your upper lip with Botox to freeze the muscle so it looks like you have a fuller upper lip. Like, if you get lip injections but you have tiny lips it can make you look puffed up like a fish, and nobody wants that. Oh, also, apparently, since it takes such little product, if you’re getting actual Botox elsewhere in your face, the doctor can—like—give you one real quick with whatever’s leftover in the syringe.”

“Jamie, don’t get Botox. Or lip injections.”

I push my lip up again in the mirror.

“I think this might actually be starting to get to you,” he says. “Have you considered taking a break from Reddit?”

My finger stays pressed against my lip. It hardly changes my speech. “You’re right. Yeah, you’re right. I need a break. I’m being ridiculous.”

We end the conversation, and tears start to bubble up in my eyes before we hang up. I lift my finger like a lever, and tears spill over my bare bottom lashes. I feel awakened from Plato’s cave, confronted with the unpleasantness of the reality that there’s so much holding my face back from perfection, defined as a mathematical, objective beauty that can only be achieved by proportion.

I keep crying. I keep staring at myself like my own voyeur. Between heavy breaths, I bare my teeth like a lion. My teeth are crooked. I had braces as a kid, but there are still some imperfections lingering in the involute map of tiny bones. My canines hang like stalactites; my front teeth are both boxy and rounded at their edges like a baby doll.

My forehead is too wide—I know this because I’ve measured it with the same tape measure from the same sewing kit. My cheeks are subject to debate. They are round and innocent and there is a point of tension from my sharp brow and décolletage but not from the softness of my jawline. There are chin exercises to fix this soft jawline, in addition to gua sha, ice face-soothers, and jade rollers.

But everyone knows the only answer that really works is plastic surgery.

My Ashkenazi nose, which has never been a mystery to me, feels tedious now. I envy my cousin, and I wish—as I always have—that my parents had also sent me off to some Connecticut surgeon the summer I turned sixteen.

The mirror consumes each startled hiccup as I cry. The eleven lines between my brows and my chin crinkle, and my big eyes—my halos as r/vindicta calls any positive attention-drawing feature—glow like chalcedony agate. I start to notice that I look pretty when I cry—but when I shift to another angle, I prove myself wrong and repulse myself. But I’m certain my fate is sealed. Big wide/deep-set blue eyes, clear skin, long neck, slender frame, high cheekbones—these things don’t matter unless they are in perfect measurable proportion to every other element of my face.

But that’s what r/vindicta is there for. It’s there to help me understand, so that my fate isn’t sealed. I don’t know if beauty can buy you everything. But first, I need to know if beauty is something that anybody can get their hands on, painful and costly and exhausting as it may be.

 
 

“Beauty is a form of genius—is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in the dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.”

—Oscar Wilde

“Can the beautiful be sad? Is beauty inseparable from the ephemeral and hence from mourning? Or else is the beautiful object the one that tirelessly returns following destructions and wars in order to bear witness that there is survival after death, that immortality is possible?”

—Julia Kristeva

Although ideologically and socially there have been shifts away from the overt importance of female beauty over the past century or so, there is—for better or worse—an aesthetic and biological component that places attractive women at an advantage. However, in an age so image-saturated, beauty as we know it has become undefinable and unrecognizable.

It is perhaps one of the most timelessly frustrating elements of the human condition that there isn’t one universal standard of beauty. There is no consensus, no set of qualities that define the most beautiful possible woman. What makes this even more frustrating is the existence of clear psychological and scientific preferences towards certain traits that should—if logic follows—create the perfect woman. Qualities like facial symmetry, facial harmony, full breasts, small waists, long hair—these are all evolutionarily and psychologically considered attractive, aren’t they? However, even among those with nearly no deviation from these standard preferences, there is a personal, almost private quality about one’s experience of aesthetic beauty that cannot be satisfied by a formula.

To put it plainly, there is a tipping point whereby—with the achievement of perfect harmony and symmetry—one begins to appear plain, boring, and unremarkable. How can you consider a face attractive that doesn’t compel additional exploration—a face that does not attract?

This is the way in which beauty exists as a sort of magic or mythology. Beauty is a question with no clear answer—a desire with no concrete solution. Beauty cannot be the art of perfection because success at that perfection robs beauty of its appeal. We are not, as humans, wired to desire the uncanny.

And yet, sometimes, we do.

 

“Beauty is a question with no clear answer—a desire with no concrete solution.”

 

If you want to become a sugar baby or an escort, r/diabla is not the place for you. r/diabla—much like r/femaledatingstrategy, r/vindicta, and r/splendida—is a subreddit community for women to privately share thoughts and techniques with one another. Being a Diabla, as they like to call it, is about being in it for the long haul. Sure, there are tactics that come in handy across the board—don’t get too attached, always have a roster going, make him wait for sex, and always, always, always, make him pay for everything. “It’s not gold digging, it’s wealth distribution,” one user comments on a post in the sub. “It’s also compensation for all the things men did to us for centuries.”

For r/diabla, the goal is hypergamy. Technically, the term hypergamy has been around for hundreds of years, having first emerged as an English term in the 1880s when English anthropologists were studying Indian marriage practices within the caste society, translating classical Hindu law books. To put it plainly, hypergamy is the practice of women dating up. Heralded as a “social science” term, it’s been adopted by many internet communities and therefore has varying connotations based on this context.

There are plenty of ways that a woman can achieve hypergamy in her dating life—however, these strategies all boil down to physical appearance. Hot guys, guys with lots of money, guys who are good in bed, guys who are interesting and fun and kindhearted, guys who won’t cheat, guys who will only cheat but will never leave you—all these men seem to want one thing: to be with beautiful women. And really, can we blame them?

Of course, being beautiful isn’t the only thing you need in order to date or to marry up, but it’s clear that none of the other assets matter all that much if they aren’t harmonizing with the base notes of physical beauty. Being able to cook, clean, and fuck—and all the other factors that have always contributed to the ideal of a female mate—cannot compete with beauty, even when stacked on top of each other.

Especially within modern Western dating practices, forming partnerships is a self-directed, social act based on attraction and affection, even when other factors might direct one’s choices. There’s at least some expectation that when a woman marries up or dates out of her league, she isn’t supposed to realize (or at the very least admit) that she’s doing it, apart from some vague sense of gratitude for getting lucky.

However, r/diabla doesn’t subscribe to these rules. Everything around the achievement of hypergamy is calculated, transactional, and manipulative. In the subreddit, women regularly share tales and tips about having men—sometimes even just casual partners—pay for all kinds of things, from dinners to plastic surgeries to student loans.

Although there’s quite a bit of crossover from r/vindicta, there’s a key difference: r/vindicta will help you get beautiful, whereas r/diabla will show you what you can do with your beauty.

In the “About Community” section, the opening sentence reads: “Diabla is a group for Women and GBTQ+ men focused on manipulating life’s truths to our advantage.” r/diabla hinges on the idea that dating is already transactional. Men often have things that we want, and it might just be simpler—easier—to get those things through hypergamy than other forms of achievement.

I’ve always felt naturally more removed from r/diabla and other dating strategy subreddits than I have from r/vindicta. On first dates, I show up five minutes early and order my drink before my date arrives to make it clear that I don’t expect him to pay for me. I aim to avoid any sense of transaction from the jump, which any true Diabla would argue is impossible.

I originally joined r/diabla thinking it was another beauty subreddit, and I was surprised to find this divergence from pure theory into shocking practice. I watch the subreddit like one might watch caged animals in a zoo. I came across posts titled things like “LYING; THE SOLUTION TO 99% OF YOUR PROBLEMS,” “Women who got their breast implants paid for by men- how?,” “Getting flown out for a first date?,” “how to switch off personality and turn into an airhead on purpose,” “Never EVER fall for a man’s ‘potential’ when no man EVER saw the ‘potential’ in you if you could just lose 50 lbs, clear your acne & dress better,” and “Mirror their ruthlessness & objectification.”

Mirror their ruthlessness and objectification. Even if the explicitness of the practices in this sub are among the most radical, that sentiment has more or less begun to take hold more broadly in modern dating. Perhaps this has something to do with newfound dating inequities post–sexual revolution, or as a result of an increasing widespread financial instability. Regardless, the severity of the Diabla ideology does suddenly make one thing very apparent: it is possible, and maybe even easy, to objectify men in this way. But it’s impossible to do this without also objectifying ourselves. If dating is a transaction, one commodity must inevitably be traded for another. Beauty is a currency when you spend it like one.

 
 

After avoiding the dentist for ten months, I tack an Invisalign consultation onto my semiannual cleaning. The dentist holds a mirror over my face, and in the buzzing white fluorescence, I notice my skin texture and my soft, pillowy chin.

In clean little clicks, he taps each of my teeth that needs readjusting. He points out tiny things. A slight shift here. A lift here and here. A pull in this direction and a push in that one. It’s my bottom teeth that are really the problem. “But we don’t even have to fix those ones,” he tells me. “It’s the top teeth that really make the smile.” For the first time since I started all this, I feel hopeful and easy—the way I’m supposed to feel when engaging in felicitous body modification. No, I’m not the kind who goes in for a drastic makeover! I’m more interested in careful refining, as if I’m a freshly scouted supermodel plucked from a mall in Illinois who has been shipped off to NYC right before Fashion Week.

When I sit up in the chair again, he tells me that though I’m a candidate for Invisalign, adult braces would likely be the best way to solve all my problems. If I want a perfect smile, I’ll have to work for it with the stretch of rubber bands. Either way, it’ll take at least a year and a half, though it’ll most likely take two. I get a quote for $6,000. I say I’ll call to schedule my first appointment.

I leave the Williamsburg office and step out into a thunderstorm. My fresh home-blowout from the morning is drenched in seconds. Strands of hair stick to my cheeks as my shirt sticks to the goose-bumped flesh of my chest. When I catch my reflection in the shadowed window of a Brooklyn-bound train at the Bedford L stop, I’m taken aback. I don’t even look half bad. A conservative 7.2 at least.

In my apartment, the lion finds me once again in the mirror as the storm still rages outside. My hair starts to spring up into its natural curls, one little coil at a time, and my teeth are glistening back at me, ready for war.

Is any of this worth it? I have the option to change my flaws or else be resigned to a life of insecurity. It’s a little thing, the crookedness of my teeth, just like every other little thing. But after collecting enough of these little flaws, all adhered and pooled together, I find myself in an imperfect body. I can’t turn away from everything. If this is too much to fix, I have to find something else.

 
ADVERTISEMENT
 

“I found vindicta when I was 16-17,” says Mina*, a now twenty-one-year-old college student who began her looksmaxxing journey when she was around twelve, before she even had the language for it. While searching for beauty subreddits to join, she stumbled upon r/vindicta and lurked without posting anything until she turned eighteen, because the community is only supposed to be for those eighteen and up.

“The first time I knew I had to change something about myself, I was six. When I came back from the kindergarten I told my mom that kids bullied me for having upper lip hair. She started waxing my upper lip for me so I wouldn’t get bullied. I wasn’t even ugly when I was that age. I was cute aside from my mustache.”

Mina and I DM back and forth with an easy familiarity. She doesn’t know anything about me, but she’s ready to open up almost immediately. She punctuates her winding, in-depth messages with lol and haha as she answers my inquiries in fragments at one in the morning, EST.

It’s unclear if there’s some universal quality that separates the girls who wax their upper lips reluctantly from the girls who fall in love with it and dive straight into other procedures. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. But Mina is perhaps a perfect example of someone who, in her commitment to perfection, has built an existence that would likely be unrecognizable to the version of herself who might have been perfectly happy never waxing her upper lip in the first place.

Mina describes being mocked and bullied in school, where people misgendered her and called her a boy despite her being (to my knowledge) a cis, straight girl.

With makeup, skin care, hair treatments, dental work/orthodontia, Lasik, and a rhinoplasty, Mina was able to transform herself into what she considers to be the most perfect version of herself thus far. But don’t be fooled—she’s not done yet. “I haven’t reached my full potential because I could use a small chin implant and some fillers in my cheeks and temples. With a fuller face I’m going to look even better. Looking my best literally fuels me like nothing else.”

When asked about her ultimate goals, she tells me, “When I feel like there’s nothing I can do that would justify the costs, time, anesthesia, I would stop . . . I’m pretty sure I won’t go overboard with surgeries or get addicted to fillers and Botox. When I stop improving I’ll just put in the effort to make sure I keep up with it. I won’t try to force my face to look prettier than it can possibly get.”

When it comes to how pretty someone can actually get, Mina is one of the many women in r/vindicta who have it down to a science.

“My opinions aren’t that unique actually,” she says. “Deep down everyone feels the way I do. Most aren’t brave enough to put it into words.”

She explains to me what the radix is. “It’s this little crevice we have on our face, right between our eyes on our nose. No one will go oh my radix is too high ugh, but instead they will ask themselves why they look so neanderthal-like. It’s literally one of the most important elements of our faces, even more important in the analysis of the side profile. The radix is essentially how your ‘nose socket’ is shaped, it’s connected to the frontal bone—basically to your forehead. A too-high radix will give off major neanderthal vibes ([and when] combined with a strong brow ridge [this is] is basically a death sentence). A too low radix (combined with a slanted forehead) will give off pure masculine energy. Death sentence for women, major halo for men.”

Mina then links me to an original post she made in the group titled “Reasons Why You Won’t Be Satisfied with a Nose Job,” where she discusses radix positioning, as well as chin projection, philtrum length, and facial harmony. It’s information that admittedly makes sense, even to those who have never been tempted to drink the r/vindicta Kool-Aid—facial beauty is about more than just a few features. It’s more complicated than having a “good” or “bad” nose, jawline, or lips.

The science behind beauty feels like a sort of dark magic. There’s a sense of mystery that one has to uncover through secret channels of study. Once you find out that the problem isn’t your nose, your chin, or your eyebrows, but is instead some tiny, previously-unnamed part of the face through which the difference of a few millimeters has the power to change everything—there’s only one thing left to ask yourself: what are you going to do about it?

 
 

The first time I’d ever heard of the five-minute nose job, I was watching a Buzzfeed video in 2017. Since that day, it’s never left my mind. In the video, three people with noses of varying sizes have filler injected into their noses in order to create the effect of a rhinoplasty in under five minutes.

I looked up doctors in my area who would perform the procedure. There was no shortage. I researched pricing options, which would run me anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000. Not bad—not anywhere near as bad as a surgical nose job. I never booked the consultation. I never even made the call to set one up. But I’ve never stopped loving the feeling that a change like that could be so easy and so possible.


***

Grace* starts by telling me about her boyfriend’s mother. “My boyfriend has a very not-looksmaxxed mother who has let herself go and I see it has made him very fitness-conscious . . . I think we kind of both have low or unstable self-esteem unfortunately. I'm sincerely convinced my mom meant well when she gave me certain suggestions that felt offensive, but I can see how her own beauty standards are still very warped by 90s skinny culture. [My boyfriend] is super fit himself. I kinda have a hang-up about aging, so a lot of my research on vindicta is anti-aging. My mom has been debating getting work done on her face for some time—she’s 56—and the way she talks about herself makes me sad.”

Out of all the women I’ve encountered in r/vindicta and in the other Pink Pill Reddit communities, Grace stands out to me the most. She’s in her early thirties and she comes off as careful, reflective, and self-aware. Having come to r/vindicta from r/diabla and r/femaledatingstrategy, she prefers vindicta because she has anxiety around dating. The ways that dating is discussed in those communities triggers her. She says that she prefers the factual and more scientific information found in r/vindicta. She is also the only person who volunteered—without my asking—to show me images of herself.

Her face stands at some sublime intersection of pharaoh and ghost. She has wide-set eyes, long hair as black as night, a broad forehead, a shapely nose, and full cheeks. Her appearance embodies everything that r/vindicta opposes aesthetically.

While looksmaxxing can cover a variety of treatments and techniques, there are further distinctions that divide each process into one of two major categories. First, there is softmaxxing, which refers to anything inexpensive, or anything semi-permanent such as makeup, clothes, hair care, nails, etc. Hardmaxxing means anything permanent, invasive, and expensive like plastic surgery, fillers, laser hair removal, microblading, fillers, etc. There are other terms that have popped up to complement these poles such as personalitymaxxing, healthmaxxing, and socialmaxxing. The areas to which they refer are self-explanatory.

Grace explains the specifics of her own looksmaxxing: “I think I was always into softmaxxing as a ‘girly-girl’ type as a kid. I loved playing dress-up and doing my nails, definitely from seeing female family members like my shopping-obsessed mom and grandma, who really took care of their appearance. I also had a very high-shooting helicopter mom who expected academic and physical perfection so we started talking about looksmaxxing pretty early on. In terms of more intense stuff—such as waxing and laser hair removal—it started when I started puberty.”

What Grace describes lines up more or less with the moderate, acceptable level of attention to appearance that is often socially demanded of women. Grace isn’t addicted to fillers. She isn’t going in for rhinoplasty consults. She isn’t even deviating from her own personal clothing style. She’s a normal-seeming woman who recognizes the ways that her upbringing and dating life have led her to certain appearance-based insecurities that she has a desire to correct. She likes to do her nails and has a skin-care routine. She’s had one or two hair-removal procedures to target areas that have always bothered her. It’s certainly not nothing, but outside of the context of r/vindicta, Grace fits in with most other women in the world.

She definitely fits in more than me.

 

The disconnect between genuine biological attraction to women and a conditioned attraction to renderings of altered beauty standards seems irreconcilable. Although the attraction to artificial images and bodies could be rooted in an attraction to some version of real women, it has evolved into something largely alien. Cosmetic surgery and photo alteration are similar in that sense to corn syrup, plastic, smart phones, and pornography: once exposed to this technology, humans cannot be trusted to use them tactfully and mindfully.

In his 1967 book Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord describes a condition where images no longer reference real people, objects, or ideas, and instead reference other images indefinitely: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”

Although this insight is usually applied to principles of capital and commodity, it directly describes the postmodern image economy of beauty and appearance alteration. While these artificial, alien beauty standards evolved from natural biological preferences, the masses did not favor flat, natural lips one day and then puffed-up filler-injected lips the next. Like many others, this is a preference that emerged from a never-ending feedback loop of images resulting in both the spiritual and aesthetic divorce of the resulting standard and this new artificial catalyst.

Both the effervescence and the exasperation of beauty lies in our inability to identify the threshold where sufficiency of personal care becomes “too much.” However, I am certain that without any access to severe image alteration and surgical intervention, beauty wouldn’t be a problem to solve at all—it would instead once again be an indelible and surprising element of humanity.

 
 

I found out about my mother’s boob job when I was seventeen. I’m still not sure if that was too late or too early. I think the only right way to tell your daughter about your boob job is to never have one in the first place.

I think she planned to keep it a secret forever. I only found out when I was visiting my maternal extended family in Florida. My sister and I were spending our days splashing at our aunt’s boyfriend’s pool with our little cousin, listening to everybody bicker, making lemonade ice pops and watching them melt in our hands. My aunt let the information slip one night when we were the only ones still awake in the house. She was charmed by the fact that I was finally old enough to drink.

“Are you kidding me? You don’t know?” She was taken aback. “Yeah, those things are fake.”

My eyes stayed open when my head hit the pillow that night. The soft cycle of breaths—passed like a breadbasket between my younger sister and my little cousin—was the soundtrack of my anxiety in the sleepless dark. I could feel myself inching towards understanding something I didn’t really want to understand.

Every time we’ve talked about it in the last seven years, we say the same things to one another.

“I never told you because I never wanted you girls to think you needed plastic surgery to be beautiful.”

“So you’d rather set the expectation that it’s totally achievable to look like that naturally?”

“Some people do look like this naturally.”

“Not you. Not me either.”

“Jamie, you don’t understand,” she always says to me. “I looked horrible before. I looked literally deformed.”

She always offers to show me her “before and after” photos. The very first time—fresh off the plane from Florida—I scrunched my sunburnt nose and said she didn’t have to do that.

However, when she offered the same thing up to me at twenty-four—at the height of my Reddit addiction—I took her up on it.

“Okay. You want to see them? I’ll show you. I don’t know where they are right now, but I’ll go find them later. I’m telling you though, Jamie, it’s not pretty. I looked literally deformed.”

She never found the pictures for me. I still wonder what she could possibly mean.

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



Jamie Kahn

Jamie Kahn is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has been featured in Glamour, Brooklyn Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, Yes Poetry, Works & Days, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, The Spotlong Review, HuffPost, Lover’s Eye Press, and others. She serves as the contributing features editor for Epiphany Magazine.



Justine Hill

Justine Hill (b. 1985) is an artist based in New York. She received a BA from the College of the Holy Cross and her MFA from the University of Pennsylvania. Hill’s nonrectilinear paintings engage the ambiguity between subject and landscape and are influenced by cosmology, origin myths, and speculative fiction. Hill was a resident at the Elizabeth Murray Artist Residency by Collar Works and her most recent solo exhibition Omphalos was held at DIMIN in New York; previous solo exhibitions include MAKI Gallery, Tokyo; David B. Smith Gallery, Denver; and Denny Dimin Gallery, New York.



support evergreen