Graduation day: Gowns, photos and the manufacturing of anxiety

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I recently graduated, and the dominant feeling that day was relief. I spent the day thinking “Thank goodness my PhD is over, and I can get on with my life again!” The rest of the day I was just enjoying the theatre of wearing the floppy hat and purple gown.

But when I came to order my graduation photos, I was surprised to notice a couple of extra services available for me to purchase:

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The description under ‘Digital complexion and smile enhancement’ suggested that I might want to have spots or uneven skintone removed to leave my skin looking ‘smooth and healthy’, as well as having my teeth whitened. But my real suprise came when I noticed that Success Photography offered ‘Digital slimming’, which promised to use ‘advanced digital technology’ to counter the potentially bulky and unflattering qualities of my gown. My intial reaction was disbelief: how on a day that celebrates your intellectual worth, is this company suggesting that graduates should pay to ensure that their physical value is maintained and expressed? This seemed to be an extraordinary example of missing the point, and a dispiriting example of the pressure put upon young people to always, without exception, look as thin and desirable as possible. Being proud of oneself is apparently of little value if one looks in any way fat.

The attention on the gown made me pause. It is a ‘mark of respect and achievement’, but heaven forbid, it might make you look bad. The phrasing here was interesting, as although you yourself may bring spots and yellow teeth, the gown itself is being blamed for being bulky. The company is therefore suggesting that looking fat is something that might well happen to anyone who is unlucky enough to graduate, whether male or female, large or small, as we are all donning the problematically voluminous garment.

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But judging by my own graduation photograph above, I’m not even all that sure what it is they’re offering. I mean, I’m mostly sleeve, and I don’t really see how the gown can be made “more flattering to [my] shape”. The whole premise just doesn’t make sense. Therefore, besides being a deplorable means of undercutting the enormous achievement represented by academic gowns by re-emphasising the importance of appearance, this service is also simply illogical. I wonder whether anyone who requests ‘digital slimming’ actually ends up with results that they expected — as after all, they’re still going to be wearing an enormous gown. I think this is what annoys me most, in that graduates’ insecurities are being pointlessly manipulated in order to secure a profit.

And anyway, who is Success Photography to say that gowns are unflattering? No one suggests that Batman might look better without the cape, as it is integral to his status as superhero. Similarly, the graduation gown confers a certain identity on the wearer, where this elevated status is in itself part of ‘looking good’. If we have to show our best side in our graduation photos, then we already are, by virtue of just being there.batman-earth-one-lithograph-970x545-135661

Batman, by Gary Frank. from Batman: Earth One http://www.dccomics.com/graphic-novels/batman-earth-on

I love a gown as much as I love Batman’s cape: the draping of material, and the dramatic framing of your outfit, with a hood at the back that billows as you walk. In everyday life, we rarely get a chance to really dress up like this, as long capes are usually reserved for opera singers and medieval princesses. Graduation is therefore a wonderful piece of spectacle, in which we can enjoy the novelty alongside the symbolism of this garment that we wear so briefly, in comparison with the years of study required to earn it.

An article on the ‘digital slimming’ service appeared in the Telegraph last year, but the conclusion here was that the graduation photograph should be exempt from the influence of Photoshop so that it can ‘accurately represent what we look like without a faux retro filter. And you don’t need a degree to know that’s a really good thing.’ This focus on the authentic graduation photograph leads some commenters on the article to suggest that the service is yet further evidence of the vanity, inauthenticity and self-obsession of today’s youth. Such an assessment demonstrates what is ultimately the most disheartening aspect of this situation, in which the pressures on young people to look a certain way — even on graduation day—are consistently interpreted as evidence of their own personal failings. More than any assessment of whether the subject’s clothes are bulky and unflattering, it is this kind of reading of other people’s photography that is ultimately much more damaging.

‘Picturing the Social: Transforming our Understanding of Images in Social Media and Big Data research’ is an 18-month research project that started in September 2014 and is based at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. It is funded through an ESRC’s Transformative Research grant and is focused on transforming the social science research landscape by carving out a more central place for image research within the emerging fields of social media and Big Data research. The project aims to better understand the huge volumes of images that are now routinely shared on social media and what this means for society. This project involves an interdisciplinary team of seven researchers from four universities as well as industry with expertise in: Media and Communication Studies (Farida Vis and Anne Burns, University of Sheffield), Visual Culture (Simon Faulkner and Jim Aulich, Manchester School of Art), Software Studies and Sociology (Olga Goriunova, Warwick University), Computer and Information Science (Francesco D’Orazio, Pulsar and Mike Thelwall, University of Wolverhampton). The project is part of the Visual Social Media Lab.