I love the society portraits because they are so much more complicated than they look. You can’t quite tell what you’re supposed to feel in looking at them. Are these women tragic or comical? They so clearly understand physical beauty as a—or even the—key factor of their success and value in the world, and they are clutching to the tail end of this beauty as they age. Or, are they strong, wealthy, regal and powerful in their own right? I love the combination of status markers, beauty and the grotesque—something Sherman does so well: we see liver spots and places where plastic surgery has gone wrong, but we also see opulent clothing and settings, women who are self-possessed, ready for the camera.
In my own work, I am thinking about morphing standards of style and beauty—how the things made with the most style are often the quickest to look absurd or sinister. Sherman shows how this can apply to actual bodies, to human faces. I am endlessly inspired by her manipulations of the vast range of ways that women present themselves and are presented through images. I love the society portraits even more now than when they first came out in 2008, because of the way plastic surgery standards have evolved and changed. There is a sameness to the looks of all the women in the series that reflects an older standard of plastic surgery—tight cheeks, raised up eyes, thin faces. Today we are in a different moment, one of Kardashian-inspired surgery-lite—fillers and glazes, huge injected lips, even (especially) for the very young. This aesthetic seems born of Instagram, and of influencer culture, but has also permeated the real world. In this new aesthetic, oppressive beauty standards masquerade as natural—fillers and endless skincare solutions and fake lashes and lips that allow us to pretend we put in no effort at all. Sherman’s pictures raise the question of how all these procedures will age, whom they are for and what they cost for women’s lives: she points out that even beauty is a trend, and that there might be a cost to succumbing to the latest craze.
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