The "magic mirror" offers an unreal ideal. Marco Piraccini/Archivio Marco/Getty Images

March 2, 2023   6 mins

It’s now an open secret that most Instagram influencers edit their images: smoothing skin, whitening teeth and plumping curves. Last year, OnlyFans content creator Diana Deets, also known as “Coconutkitty”, was castigated for making her NSFW images and videos seem much younger.

Deets wasn’t exactly deceiving her fans. She left older, less manipulated images available, and described her work as “art”. Even so, some accused her of “pedo-baiting”. But just last week, a story that seemed a perfect 21st-century blend of self-commodification and AI-assisted digital unreality took a darker note, when news broke that Deets had taken her own life.

The callous response by extremely online rubberneckers to someone’s obvious suffering exposes two recurring themes in current-day culture.

First, that we have wildly underestimated how completely the shift to a digital-first culture is unmooring us — or, at least, some of us — from material reality. And second, that this has accelerated a transformation that has been under way for over 50 years, in which commerce and innovation turn inward from exploring (and exploiting) the world towards doing the same in the human body, and the human soul: the transhumanist revolution, that began with the contraceptive pill.

In Feminism Against Progress, which is published today, I have argued that these revolutions take aim at aspects of embodied human experience that were previously treated as natural and immutable: for example that men and women exist, and can’t change sex; that most are heterosexual, and the point of sex is, ultimately, making more people. It even takes aim at the fact that only women can have babies, or that puberty is “natural”.

Instead, since the contraceptive revolution, “progress” increasingly entails waging war on human nature as such. And this is justified on the utopian basis that it is a fallacy to claim that anything about us is “natural”, and these claims mostly serve the patriarchy, or white supremacy, or some such boogeyman.

But doing so doesn’t actually free us from human nature, so much as open up aspects of that nature to the market. So, for example, in theory the sexual revolution freed women from pregnancy risk, liberating us to be as sexually voracious as men; but, in practice, men and women still approach mating differently. And if separating sex from its reproductive consequences enabled us to treat sexual behaviour as a purely private matter for the first time, so with that came the defence of pornography and prostitution on libertarian grounds.

We’ve been taught to view such changes as “progress”, and as inseparable from “feminism”, understood as the pursuit of ever greater freedom, underwritten by (usually for-profit) technology. I bought into that myself, until I had a child. But as I’ve set out to understand the under-counted costs of seeing women’s bodies, and women’s interests, in these terms, I’ve come to see the costs of setting out to emancipate ourselves from our own bodies as especially steep for women — especially women outside the elite.

Feminism Against Progress looks at this through the prism of sex, a basic organismic pathway for many species as well humans, and yet now under all-out assault by those who would liberate us from it — such as trans activists, campaigners for “fertility equality” or scientists hunting for ways to create embryos without gametes. Meanwhile, male desire and female beauty haven’t gone away so much as been marketised; and in Deets’s tragic story, this marketisation fused with another irreducible fact of the human condition, also under all-out transhumanist assault, but also as yet immutable: ageing.

I was never more than average-looking, even in the flush of youth; even so, the ravages of time on my face still cause the odd pang now I’m middle aged. What is it like for someone whose face and body are their fortune, to see this happen? Here, too, the market wants to help: many celebrities with the money to do so respond by leaning into for-profit “freedom” and going under the knife — sometimes with eerie results. Further down the food chain, “tweakments” are now so normalised, that women are left feeling like freaks if they don’t get on the train. And if this all began decades ago, it’s been wildly accelerated by the digital transformation — for with this has come the power to sculpt our own ideal “selves”.

Last week, for example, the internet was full of videos of women crying because they turned on a TikTok filter that did, in essence, what Deets was doing to her own images with the Coconutkitty persona: turned their faces back to a “teenage” version. This gap between customisable virtual selves and unfiltered “IRL” existence is now a well-documented source of distress for many — especially young women.

One poll reported that 71% of respondents would never post a photo without editing it. Others show a straight line between editing your virtual self, and longing to do the same thing to your flesh. Some plastic surgeons report “they now regularly have patients come in with photos of themselves that have been so heavily Facetuned they would be anatomically impossible to replicate”. In other words, the seeming ability to dissolve and re-make our appearance, online, is normalising a belief that we can do so in the real world as well.

Twentieth-century cultural theorists saw this coming a long way off — or, perhaps, encouraged it. In an influential 1949 paper on the “mirror stage”, the psychoanalyst and cultural critic Jaques Lacan argued that we arrive at adult selfhood by coming to recognise idealised “mirrored” versions of ourselves, whether literally reflected in a mirror or as “reflected” in another’s gaze.

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality” wrote TS Eliot in 1935 — words echoed in Lacan’s 1949 paper, where the real, material world was described as only ever indirectly accessible. Encountering the Real was, Lacan thought, always traumatic: a perspective that makes sense, perhaps, in the light of the brutal realities Europe had only recently endured. And while Lacan’s theories don’t feature heavily in modern psychotherapeutic practice, the psychological flight he theorised away from reality into mirrors, language and identification has been wildly influential, via someone even less willing than he to bear very much reality: the queer theorist Judith Butler.

Judith Butler argued that there’s never a point when we can encounter material reality save through language and ideal — and that language and ideal also shape material reality. And this has implications even in the supposedly “natural” and irreducible domain of sex: something that, Butler argued, isn’t “natural” at all but as it were performed into existence.

A much-reduced pop-Butlerism has long since percolated from the academy into popular culture — not least because our increasingly digital-first social lives make it seem plausible. Online, everything really is so disembodied you can feel as though it might be possible to “LARP” anything into existence in the real world; and pretty much everyone younger than me has been socialising partly (or in some cases almost exclusively) in virtual spaces, some since childhood. Online, we all live in Judith Butler’s world: a space where “performance” and reality are, effectively, the same thing.

Increasingly, wave after wave of young people reaches adulthood armed with pop-Butlerism via university and Tumblr alike. No wonder growing numbers long to edit their meat avatars as they might their online ones, and that this isn’t confined to young girls pursuing unattainable beauty ideals. Reddit hosts anecdotal reports from individuals who decided to transition after using the digital funhouse mirror to feminised themselves, and deciding they liked that look better.

But the trouble is that this is only true until you log off. The digital age holds out a promise of total emancipation from material reality — one that, in politics, is now driving an increasingly bitter divide between those who can sustain this illusion and those still forced to deal with the real world. And, implicitly, we’re told we can apply this digital Prometheanism to our bodies, too. But it doesn’t work: the gap between protean sex-swap fantasy and sutured, bleeding, often complication-filled reality can be the stuff of nightmares — one that’s now prompting a surge of lawsuits. All that happens is that we open up a new, futile (but still highly profitable) war of attrition against our own nature.

The multimillionaire transhumanist and trans activist Martine Rothblatt may claim that the results of sex change surgery are “so persuasive that rarely can a “new man” or “new woman” be distinguished from a biological original”. But even if this were true (and it generally isn’t), no amount of Woman of the Year awards will change the fact that the individual formerly known as Bruce Jenner remains male down to the cellular level.

Today, Big Tech billionaires are throwing vast sums into the war on death — while the middle classes, and women in particular, find ourselves pressured to submit to expensive procedures aimed at approximating our flesh to the digitally-tweaked ideal in our pocket funhouse mirror. But no amount of “you go, girl” celebration of Madonna’s increasingly bizarre look alters the fact that it’s no more possible to halt the passage of time than it is to change sex.

Lacan envisaged a world where our reflections structure our worlds, and reality is at best a shadowy intermittent interruption. But he never imagined a situation in which we don’t just receive the reflections that shape our self-images, but claim the power to control them. In this world, the magic mirror offers unreal ideal selves to order: the “me” we would like to be, whether thinner, prettier or the opposite sex. And the upshot is that humankind can bear ever less reality — even as we throw ever more of our resources at paying to defy it. Now, with young people reaching adulthood having never known an age before the editable online mirror, we shouldn’t be surprised that so many believe the only compassionate response to an unwanted reality is to dissolve it — digitally, or medically, or both.

But it’s a scam. In practice, “liberating” ourselves from the reality of our bodies amounts, without fail, to increasing our dependence on for-profit services. As 51-year-old fashion director Anna Murphy points out, in explaining why she’s rejected “tweakments” route, it’s a “one-way street”. One procedure leads to the next, and eventually “your face becomes a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t quite fit together any more — unless you pay someone else to do it for you”.

And for those who can’t quite afford the payments, there’s always the digital-only filter option. But this comes at a terrible cost. For as the gulf between mirror and matter widens, many find the gaze of the other reflects a reality they’d rather not bear.

Mary Harrington’s Feminism Against Progress (Swift) is out now!

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.