Ellen Atlanta’s debut book, ‘Pixel Flesh’, shows just how messed up beauty standards have become

HUNGER sits down with the author to discuss the inspiration behind her book, the perils of the beauty world in modern society, and more.

In an era where having filler injected into your face is no more a big deal than getting your brows waxed, our perception of beauty standards is more warped than ever before. Yet, instead of asking ourselves how we wound up in this abominable pit of self-loathing, we’re all too busy augmenting our bodies and enhancing our Instagram pictures (or seeing our friends and cherished celebs doing it) that we don’t have the time, or discernment, to notice how utterly impossible it is to feel beautiful nowadays. In a bid to bring us back to reality, Ellen Atlanta, has thoughtfully and empathetically curated her personal experiences, as well as those of over 100 women, in her debut book, Pixel Flesh, which swings open the doors of womanhood to reveal the ugly truth behind the online beauty standards leaking like bad filler into our daily lives. Having begun her beauty career blogging and working in nail salons, before joining a tech company that matched customers with treatments like an even more emotionally-damaging version of Tinder (imagine!), Atlanta realised that, overnight, beauty was no longer about community. The chats we once had with our mates over a manicure now take place inside our own heads as we sit in the esthetician’s chair, telling ourselves that a smidge of Botox will cure all of our problems. In 2024, the very meaning of ‘self’ has become as blurred as the filters that smooth our skin and lengthen our lashes until we hate what we see in the mirror. But Atlanta wants you to know that it doesn’t have to be that way…

HUNGER: What was your first introduction to beauty like?

Ellen Atlanta: I think there were two points to it because my mum was determined not to have a girly girl. She dressed me in very gender-neutral clothing. My first shoes were Doc Martens red wellies, and people actually thought I was a boy for a very long time when I was little. Then I went to nursery and it was like overnight, everything was pink and glittery — Barbie, baby dolls, Polly Pocket, all that stuff. But I think my first negative experience of beauty was in my first year of high school, so I was around 12, and I remember being asked by older kids why I had purple eyeshadow on under my eyes. I had chronic illnesses as a kid, I was in and out of hospital from the age of eight to 22, and so I had quite dark circles under my eyes. That triggered an obsession with looking at concealers and correctors, and that was how I first found out about YouTube, so I kind of discovered the internet through looking for ways to fix my face. 

H: Nowadays, there’s so much pressure for women to be ‘naturally’ beautiful. What do you think that’s like for young girls growing up in the digital age?

EA: Beauty has always been seen as a virtue, and natural beauty is held as paramount. We’re in this weird, liminal space right now where we’re still prizing natural beauty, while living in this world that prizes artifice at the same time. So you get these celebrities not really admitting to what they’re doing because they’re still trying to maintain this illusion of natural beauty. Like, Kylie Jenner said her boobs were the result of puberty, but she’d had a breast augmentation. So to go through puberty now as a teenage girl must feel like watching your body betray you in real time. You’re given this promise of what womanhood will be, glossy and perfect, and what you actually get with puberty is bloating, body hair, gaining weight, period blood, all of these things that are incredibly natural but that are marked as defective by default. To become a woman naturally is to become ugly. And what is scary now, is that these pressures around anti-aging that were usually reserved for women in their forties are reaching young girls. Doctors are now seeing girls in their very early twenties, even late teens coming in to talk about anti-aging and saying that these thoughts had started in primary school. What we’re witnessing is the death of teenage girlhood. Instead of having time where you’re allowed to self-actualise and explore who you are, girls are doing that on camera with all these pressures surrounding them. You go straight from being a kid to having very adult concerns around ageing. They’re not ageing, they’re growing. That should be the main focus in that period of time. 

H: Do you think it’s a bit of a betrayal to feminism if women decide to get a cosmetic procedure, or do you think they should be empowered to do so?

EA: My personal view is that, for as long as I feel able to, I will be resisting these treatments because I don’t want to add to a noise that is already so loud that says young women and girls need to spend money to be beautiful. But I come to this matter with a huge amount of empathy because there are entire structures and systems designed to make you feel less than and insecure, and that will profit from those feelings. The majority of women getting cosmetic surgery don’t do it to become beautiful necessarily, they do it because they want to feel normal. We’re medicalizing very normal body variations, like having longer labia or bigger arms, and I think that is terrifying. So I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s a betrayal, but I think the best thing we can do is resist. If we think about the fact that 90 percent of these surgeons are men and that 90 percent of their patients are women, it’s an incredibly gendered practice. I don’t think we can view that from a position of wider empowerment. It’s not empowering for all women.

H: Other than resisting cosmetic procedures, how do you try to oppose these structures in your own life? 

EA: I used to be very restrictive with my food and my eating. I don’t do that anymore. I’ve completely adjusted the way I exercise, because I was doing it as a way to punish myself, and I wasn’t enjoying it at all. Now I go to Zumba classes at my local leisure centre, where one of the women turned 94 just last week. Being around other women in that space, women of all ages, sizes, races, and gender expressions is far more of a beneficial workout for me than doing a rerformer Pilates class where I feel like I’m just doing it to punish myself. I also wear a lot less makeup now than I used to. I spent about 10 years of my life where I wouldn’t go outside or answer the front door without makeup on. I remember, as a teen, hiding from the window cleaners in the downstairs bathroom because it was the only room in the house with no windows. It can also be little things like modelling comfort, like not putting a clutch bag over my stomach when I’m sitting down so that you can’t see my belly rolls, not breathing in all the time. It’s the way we hold ourselves and the way we exist in the world. I say in the book about doing one less thing. Everyone has their own levels of comfort around different things and their own triggers, so, coming from a place of empathy, I suggest doing one less thing and seeing how you feel. Maybe delay the Botox appointment for a few months, or wear one less product when you leave the house, or eat the croissant. Life is beautiful. We need to widen our fulfilment to every dimension, not just exist on this visual plane. 

H: Do you think body-positive accounts on social media are helpful when it comes to self-love?

EA: Those accounts can be helpful, but, for me, so much of this work has to be done offline. At the end of the day, these platforms are not built with our best interests at heart. There are studies that show that taking just three days off of social media can drastically improve a girl’s body image and self-compassion. And when I spoke to an eating disorder therapist for the book, she says one of the things she prescribes to her patients is, when you’re out and about, just looking at the bodies around you. Online, we compare ourselves to a curated feed of images of beautiful people, with no idea if their images are edited, or if their bodies are augmented. I spent a summer with my friends in lockdown and just seeing their bodies and their bellies and their stretch marks and their thighs and their dimples and razor burn was so vital for me. I think modelling comfort for each other in that way, seeking out women’s bodies as they have always been in real life is so vital. That’s where the title of my book came from. I hadn’t seen bodies in a while, only pixel flesh, and I hadn’t realised how desensitised I’d become to what bodies were meant to be. So, I think that’s the most important thing we can do, to re-immerse ourselves back in reality as much as we can.

H: When did you realise that you wanted to write your book?  

EA: My introduction to beauty in my career, through blogging, was very much rooted in community. It was a vehicle to bring women and girls, or marginalised genders together. It was a way to discuss identity and self-expression. And then it felt like, overnight, the industry became  about marketing fillers and injectables to young women and girls. I was working for a tech company that was linking customers to nail artists, and then we started selling facial features. You could buy new lips, you could buy a nose, or a new jawline. I really felt at a loss with how to reconcile what I was marketing. And I found myself falling into this kind of empowerment language, like it’s really empowering to book these things. But I didn’t believe it and I was fighting myself in my brain about how I was complicit in young girls going to get their face injected and not realising how serious it was. And that was a very real issue — one of the estheticians on our platform took their services off it because so many young girls were sitting down in the chair and asking for filler, not knowing that it was an injection, or the side effects, or how long it was going to last. There was a complete lack of awareness. It just felt similar to getting your nails or brows done. We were entering a different realm of augmentation, and I wrote this list of questions, asking myself how I was part of this industry, asking how we can create a more beautiful future for women and girls, which is a recurring motif throughout the book. And a few weeks after that, I quit my job with no new one to go to. So, the book was me trying to take that filter off and unmask how absurd our relationship with beauty has become.

H: How do you think the internet has changed the intrinsic element of capitalism when it comes to beauty?

EA: Even pre-internet, there were entire systems built to profit off the insecurities of women and girls, and the internet has just amplified that. Instagram is all about advertising. You see so many posts and people that you don’t even follow. And that’s across the board, from pushing teens down into pro-eating-disorder accounts to certain aesthetics. It manifests into the tech companies themselves, like how Facebook was started as a way to rate and denigrate women for their looks. It’s important to acknowledge these structures and how they’re not serving us.

H: Do you think the same problems apply to ‘alternative’ aesthetics, like grunge and gothic looks?

EA: I think it’s something we’re seeing across the board, unfortunately. It’s hard to differentiate what is truly a subculture now, and what’s an aesthetic trend. I think these alternative looks provide some degree of separation from the mainstream. It can provide a layer of protection to not feel the pressure to identify or to conform in your aesthetic expression. But I think the internet has depoliticized a lot of these subculture movements. What we’re seeing now is that,  to become a grunge-goth, you just need to buy a grunge-goth starter pack, these accessories and specific products. Really, we’re just creating a different type of consumer. 

H: How do you see the future improving, if at all?  

EA: It’s a tricky one. You kind of have to separate the fact that yes, this issue is structural, it’s systemic, it’s huge, it’s existed for decades, centuries. And it’s very easy to just go, well that’s a big problem and I can’t do anything about it because I don’t own Facebook. But I do think it’s important for us to use our voices en masse to speak up when these companies aren’t putting our best interests at heart. We’ve seen it recently with deep fakes and the Online Safety Bill. There are things happening that are improving the safety of women and girls online. I also think,  throughout writing this book, I saw so many pockets of hope and beauty in the conversations I was having. We massively underestimate how influential we are in each other’s lives, how much power we have with our sisters and friends and children and cousins. When women greet each other, the first thing we’ll say is, you’ve lost weight, or you look amazing, or I love your hair. We constantly reinforce beauty as our primary value. Instead we should say, you know, I’ve missed you so much, or I saw the work you did recently and I’m so proud of you. We need to notice when beauty is becoming the primary focus in conversations and redirect them. We should also focus on what our bodies can do for us. There’s a really interesting study that showed that, when asked to describe themselves in front of a mirror, women tend to break themselves down into different components, whereas men will look at themselves as holistic entities, as full beings. And every man in the study spoke about what their body could do for them, being strong or running or whatever. Not a single woman did. But there’s data to suggest that, by talking about what your body can do for you, it improves body image, not only in the short term, but in the long term. Also, smile at the women around you. Assume that we’re all in this together and don’t allow these structures to pit us against each other. We can start that in our communities and, hopefully, extrapolate it out. 

H: How do you think things are going to be for the next generation when it comes to beauty standards?

EA: I actually think things are going to be worse for Gen Alpha. They’re going to grow up as the most documented generation. They’re the first generation who’ve been born online, who’ve had thousands of pictures of themselves taken before they’re able to walk, who know how to pose for a selfie before they know how to write their own name. One of the most striking things from my research for the book came from a researcher called Dr Claire Pescott who specialises in early years education. She was doing research on digital culture and social media and she wasn’t specifically focusing on beauty, but she pivoted her research because, when she was talking to seven, eight year old girls and boys in schools, the girls spoke about being watched all the time, having an audience. They spoke about needing to be flawless and perfect, about how they needed to posture themselves, and wanting to be contoured and filtered and wishing they could be filtered in real life. The boys had no concept of this audience. And so, I think it’s quite unsettling to think about the results of Gen Alpha growing up surrounded by that voyeur. I’ve spoken to doctors who’ve had parents come in with their primary school-age child saying she’s hurt her nose and it’s swollen, and when the doctor asked to see a picture of her before the accident to determine how bad the swelling is, the parents have been unable to produce an unfiltered, unedited image of their seven, eight year old child. So yeah, I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better, unfortunately. I’m interested to see if the generation after that pushes back on this hyper documentation of their lives, though. 

H: What would you say the most worrying case study that you came across for your book was when it comes to young people? 

EA: There’s a charity that I work with, and I was talking to girls aged from eight to 14 and one of them was saying how she doesn’t go outside anymore after school, because she doesn’t want people to see her real face any more than they already have to because she looks better online. They were showing me their feeds and they’re just so incredibly filtered, they look so much older. Like I said, we’re losing teenage girlhood because these girls are not being afforded that time for becoming. For me, my work always comes back to those young girls and the way they’ve been taught to perceive themselves. I can’t, and don’t want to, add to that noise.

Ellen Atlanta’s Pixel Flesh is now available to purchase here.

WriterScarlett Coughlan