Part 5 of a blog series that looks into the history and social consequences of specific memes.
When Did This Begin To Make Sense?
Beauty and “When Did This Become Hotter than This”
The ways that beauty is defined, especially online, is contentious. Between body policing, eating disorder forums, and fat shaming – user-centered domains are saturated with conflicting messages about what should be deemed attractive. Contributing to this conversation is the “When Did This Become Hotter Than This,” or WDTBHTT, image series. These memes feature two lines of photographs that derive meaning through comparison, usually addressing the changing definition of beauty. According to KnowYourMeme.com, the first instance of this meme, pictured below, appeared on Facebook in early 2012 and was subsequently passed around other social media sites like Twitter. The original image juxtaposed contemporary celebrities like Nicole Ritchie and Keira Knightly with 1950’s stars like Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page – suggesting that the cultural understanding of beauty has warped to prioritize unhealthy thinness. Several variations of WDTBHTT have been created using different celebrities, male figures, and – jokingly – food or inanimate objects.
The intent behind WDTBHTT is certainly pure. First, its construction draws attention to the fact that opinions of beauty are malleable and as such should not be given the weight (pun intended) that many, especially young girls, ascribe to thinness. By antagonizing the current obsession with body-lack, WDTBHTT shines a critical light on the fickle nature of beauty and allows users to participate in the promotion of healthier body images by recreating and disseminating these photo sets.
However, even with such a positive intent WDTBHTT cannot be spared from criticisms. First, the meme tends to frame the top row as responsible for the systemic problem of beauty construction. For instance, stars like Knightly and Kristen Dunst are not advocates of dieting or starvation and these unflattering pictures were taken at the beach without consent, unlike the bottom row images which come from staged photo shoots. By pointing out these celebrities, WDTBHTT doesn’t address the amalgamation of entities that actually inform modern notions of beauty – namely advertising agencies. Those in the top row are arguably victims of the same hegemonic structure WDTBHTT is attempting to critique.
Second, WDTBHTT implies there is an inherent hierarchy of body attractiveness. By asserting that larger women should be considered hotter, they label women with naturally slim figures as “less than.” Knightly, for instance, has long been insecure about her lacking breast size. If the meme and others like it did really want to promote healthy change, it should be working within a body-positive framework – loving yourself no matter what size you are.
Finally, the third issue with WDTBHTT is that is idealizes the past. In addition to the top row being demonized, the bottom is presented with a kind of “back in the good old day” mentality that it is delusional nostalgia. The images gloss over the flaws and struggles of those in the bottom images. Once again using the above image as an example, figures like Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor had lives ridden with media scrutiny, depression, and public judgement. Several variations of the meme have called out this fallacy by comically going even further into the past, such as the image below. Because of these flaws, any progressive movement WDTBHTT creates culturally remains superficial.