Yael Gerson

23 June 2020

As the title of our project suggests, we are looking at different aspects of personalisation. Recently, I have noticed a new kind of ‘personalised’ advert, which is for personalised hair care. Curiosity got the better of me, and one day I clicked on the advert for ‘hair care personalised’, which instantly took me to a quiz asking me all sorts of difficult questions: is my hair wavy or curly (I know it’s not straight), is my scalp dry, what hair goals do I have, etcetera. I found myself asking friends and family the answers to these questions, and it was interesting to hear that there wasn’t a unified consensus. This got me thinking about what I find problematic about such notions of personalisation, in particular the idea that we have a singular, unified identity.





Function of Beauty, formula for personalised hair care

Recently, I was sitting in the back of an Uber, when the driver asked me where I was from. Mexico, I replied. Well, he said, I would have said any place except that. When I asked him why, he said he didn’t know why, but it was just instinctive. This got me thinking about times when my sense of self has clashed with how others perceive me. Let me illustrate this. It was 2008, and I was two years into my PhD when I got my first job as an associate lecturer in Sociology, leading seminar discussions with undergraduates. One week we were discussing ideas around race, more specifically the social construction of race, and in particular the categorisation of people as either ‘white’ or ‘black’. I stood in front of the class and said, “so, for example, when you see me you say…”, and the class responded “black.”  I was shocked – I had always thought of myself as white, and even my Mexican passport stated that my skin colour was ‘white’. Needless to say, this led to a very interesting class discussion; what stayed with me was the moment of shock I experienced, why had I felt so surprised?

bare Minerals Made 2-Fit foundation

Stuart Hall has already pointed to the problem of thinking of identity as an accomplished fact; rather, he said, we should think of identity as “a ‘production’, which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation” (Hall, 1990). Identities are inscribed into bodies through everyday practices making them almost invisible, and in many ways feeling ‘fixed’. For me, moving countries de-stabilised this fixedness, and gave me a different sense of self. People of mixed heritage will have probably experienced similar moments, moments of not fitting into categories, of being in-between. It is more in the not-fitting-into categories than-the-fitting into categories that I identify with. I am thus always uneasy when faced with quizzes and promises of personalisation done through AI. When it comes to foundation, will an app be better at determining my skin tone than the person at the beauty counter; will I be able to judge my hair and scalp type more than a hairdresser? How can we ‘know’ something that is always becoming (Butler, 2001)? In the context of beauty, AI is presented as an objective tool that will ‘see’ you – your hair type, your skin tone – without judgement. The danger here is that AI enabled technologies will (re)produce a certain fixedness of racial and gendered identities, and that these will be adopted by consumers as ‘objective’ and ‘true’.

What strikes me in the experiences narrated above, is the ineffability of identity; and so, if I cannot express what my identity ‘is’, then we cannot afford to think that AI-powered personalised beauty products are not political.