New Feelings Unfleshing

The desire to become as smooth and impervious as my phone

NEW FEELINGS is a column devoted to the desires, moods, pathologies, and identifications that rarely had names before digital media. Read the other installments here

For a long time now I’ve had this fantasy where I carefully pat on my facial toner, and after each swipe, like a windshield wiper, I reveal fresh blubber, a poreless suit to protect me from the outside world. My new skin is the texture of silicon, or glass, or freshly poured resin. The kind of material you’re compelled to touch in a museum. I emerge from this evening routine bright-eyed, indestructible, dolphinesque.

I use a chemical exfoliating product called Biologique Recherche P50, or P50 for short. A name that sounds like a phone upgrade. P50’s original formula contains phenol, a controversial ingredient that’s also found in paint remover. What I’ve come to understand about P50, through skincare forums that worship the toner as a miracle elixir, is that it’s for people who dream, like me, of exfoliating until they become something better than human.

Exfoliating mimics the satisfaction of removing a screen protector to find untouched glass

Exfoliating mimics the satisfaction of removing a screen protector to find untouched glass, and I aim to meet the factory-refurbished standard. I spend hours each day on a laptop that seems much smarter and more skilled than I am, and whose body is smoother and more symmetrical than mine. I am subject to feelings and biological impulses, with hair to tame and acne to wrangle and bruises that appear without warning. Technology, and its marketing, suggests an alternative to this inadequate humanity, the pursuit of a body indistinguishable from the tools it relies on.

Lately I’ve been targeted with a video ad for underwear in which a group of similarly bodied people wear multi-colored briefs and dive and tumble across a white backdrop. They roll in and out of frame, crossing in front of one another, no longer recognizable as underwear models, but rather an endless loop of motion. Instead of envying them for their beauty, or for their breathable, multicolored briefs, I’m captivated by their malleability. I watch the clip over and over wondering how a body can roll so cleanly, how the inconveniences of shoulders and vertebrae could give way to liquid movement. Whereas traditional ads sell social status and sex appeal, this one trades on the allure of the seamless self, streamlined and infinite like the scroll it appears on, so distinct from the awkward body hunched over the screen. If I watch it enough times the models cease to be separate beings, flipping across one another in sync with the whirling rainbow wheel of my mouse.

The effect is similar to the early, controversial subway ads for Thinx, a startup company that sells period undergarments, which featured models in matching black underwear standing at attention or lying at awkward angles between geometric shapes. The models stood, or crouched, or planked stiffly, proffering an uncanny objectification. Though context implied that the models were people with periods, they appeared humanoid rather than human. In one image, overlapping frames show a time lapse progression of a woman slowly falling to one side in a relaxed sit, as if the video version had glitched. It resembles the covers of the children’s sci-fi series Animorphs, which always featured the same progression photos of kids turning into different animals, adapting to a future plagued by alien invaders. But rather than transforming into butterflies or dogs, the Thinx models were abstracted to geometric shapes.

Established underwear brands like Aerie or Victoria’s Secret would have had the same models laughing in the sand or lounging across a rumpled duvet. Thinx, like Away or Warby Parker or Apple or Google, had something better to offer: an upgrade. Underwear that allows the wearer to temporarily forget biological inconveniences. Millennial branding campaigns before and since have traded on the same abstraction of the subject. Standing at attention with perfect posture, arrayed next to one another in a gradient of skin tones, ads for underwear, suitcases, and eyeglasses could as easily be hawking the new iPhone, the new Beats, the new meal delivery service.

The purpose of such advertising is to show what a body could be if it didn’t have to be a body. To offer solutions to problems that used to be functions, to eliminate decisions, to make us less prone to error. Two years later Away luggage would occupy the same subway banner real estate as Thinx; the ads were nearly identical, with bodies swapped out for “smart” suitcases, signifying the seamless integration of technology into one’s bodily form. A phone can be synonymous with a hand, a suitcase an extra shoulder.

Whereas traditional ads sell social status and sex, this one trades on the allure of the seamless self, streamlined and infinite like the scroll it appears on

In Anna Wiener’s memoir of Silicon Valley, Uncanny Valley, she writes that “when tech products were projected into the physical world they became aesthetics unto themselves, as if to insist on their own reality.” She describes offices designed to literally represent their respective products, such as “a hotel booking start-up [that had] a concierge desk replete with bell.” The desire for tech integration has created an aesthetic that favors materials like brushed metal, glass screens, the translucent jelly of a personally customized vitamin. As luggage and laptops alike are produced in a limited color range from rose gold to shiny black, this neutral-tech palette trickles down to clothing brands like Everlane, toothbrushes like Quip, highlighter shades at Glossier. Skincare is available exclusively in glossy or matte.

This aesthetic doesn’t seem motivated by any standard set forth by the beauty industry. Just the opposite: Beauty, fashion, and wellness brands have adopted the standards of tech giants, reframing the body as a vessel for optimization and utility rather than the historical feminine ideal. The K-beauty trend of “glass skin” rhetorically invokes a standard set by device aesthetics, and blinding highlights offer the illusion of plasticity.

I fall in love with the sound of a refreshing feed, admire the clean text of an aggregated news site, make faces into filters until I forget what I look like in the mirror. A popular Instagram filter named Kira-Kira adds glittering sparkles to selfie highlights, filling the timeline with faces that shine like chrome. Another called TURFU comes close to my ex machina aspirations; a grid overlay with a holographic sheen suggests something animatronic, a cyborg. The bounds of beauty no longer limited to genetics or flesh.

I wear compression leggings and start stretching every evening, each time pushing myself a little further, reaching for some undefinable level of contortion. I read an article about how the kingfisher bird inspired the redesign of Japan’s bullet train. I wonder who did it better — the bird or the train. Before bed I chug water, pat in toner, serum, moisturizer, and eye cream, and then quickly smooth each one into my face with a jade roller, like pouring asphalt, or shaping glass while it still glows hot. I imagine every minute of sleep recharging my cells. In my pursuit of the standard set forth by these machines, I forget that I am already functional, that my skin is serving its purpose by containing me. I tell myself I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been.

Nikki Shaner-Bradford is a writer who lives in New York. Her work can be found in the Paris Review Daily, the Outline, and her semi-regular newsletter about Love Island.