The New Beauty Ideal: Cartoon

Gear up your Snapchat filters and say “cheese”


A quick glance at Louis Vuitton’s latest advertising campaign and it all looks pretty high fashion. Skinny model. Beautiful face. Pink hair. Fingerless gloves. But there is something uncanny about the smoothness of the model’s skin, the slim arch of her eyebrows, the narrow bridge of her nose. She is not a model but a video game character. This is not a nightmare, it is Final Fantasy.

Welcome to the era of cartoon beauty. As anime and cosplay have grown increasingly mainstream, physical ideals inspired by 2D characters and video games are showing up on the runway, in advertising and on the streets. Your friends are puking rainbows, Miranda Kerr is a disarmingly sexy puppy dog and Gigi Hadid’s sultry Sports Illustrated poses have been immortalized in cartoon form.

And I can tell you now that you won’t measure up to these new animated beauty goals.

Arguably the fashion pioneer of the cartoon beauty trend, Louis Vuitton boasted an anime-inspired Spring 2016 runway show complete with big eyes, pink hair, goggles and superpower headpieces. Moschino has revived the Powerpuff Girls, splashing the formidable 2D trio across swimsuits, trousers and handbags. Sephora released a Minnie Mouse make-up kit, as though the beauty secrets of a make-believe mouse are as sought after as those of celebrities like Jessica Alba.

Vogue, the original fashion bible, has called Sailor Moon — a Japanese anime character — the ultimate beauty icon. Seriously. What was once the preserve of comic book geeks is now high fashion. How did this happen?

Partly it’s down to the Korean beauty wave. As we’ve grown more interested in Seoul style we’ve learned about other aspects of East Asian popular culture, from Japanese anime to K-pop and glossy Korean dramas. L’Oreal has been selling Miss Manga mascara since 2014 and YouTube is packed with anime eye tutorials. Online beauty queen Michelle Phan has racked up millions of views on several anime-inspired beauty lessons.

But the rise of cartoon beauty is also a reflection of how we understand — and consume — beauty. Increasingly, on-screen appearances, rather than flesh and blood beauty, are what matters to us. We use Facetune and Perfect365 to make ourselves more attractive. Snapchat filters take the fantasy a step further, allowing us to transform our humdrum faces into magic mirrors, morphing eyes into throbbing pink hearts, replacing dark shadows with sprinklings of glitter and crowning us with Coachella flower wreaths.

The number of likes our online posts attract — many from complete strangers — have taken on a significance far beyond IRL compliments. The women sold to us as beautiful aren’t just airbrushed in magazines and on billboards. They repaint themselves into smooth-skinned, sparkly-eyed androids on their cell phones. Real beauty, with its pimples and under eye bags and clumpy mascara, is becoming increasingly unpalatable. It’s tempting to paint away our imperfections until we are left with slightly uncanny versions of ourselves, casts of hollowed perfection.

And so cartoons, with their soft lines and impossible proportions, are the next logical step in our era of over-filtered beauty. And if cartoons are our new role models, perhaps we might do well to remember what Sailor Moon — so beautiful she should be arrested according to her own judgement — has to say about beauty: “You can’t judge how beautiful a girl really is by the way she looks.”

Feature and carousel photograph via Vogue Runway.


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  • This is really interesting. I watch a ton of anime and read a lot of manga when I was younger and I was always struck with how beautiful the characters were. It is definitely interesting seeing how illustrations have really inspired non-cartoon people. Thanks for sharing!

  • Michellanne Li

    Although I think this article makes some interesting points, I’m a little disturbed that the author is conflating Korean culture with Japanese anime. Although Korea has it’s own animation industry, the anime that most Americans consume is Japanese. This is another example of the western belief that “All Asians look the same,” so why bother differentiating between them?

  • Louise

    This is a great article. It’s what I was thinking when I read the article the other day about Lily Rose-Depp and the (seeming) disappearance of the teen “awkward” years thanks to social media. Behind the simplification of just, “Why wasn’t I that cool?!” This essay captures the dangerous undercurrent of all that perfection. Even watching a classic movie the other night (Hannah and Her Sisters) I couldn’t help but notice the striking beauty of the women in the movie. And I realized almost immediately that their looks struck me, popped out, because they looked decidedly like WOMEN, real women, and, yes, beautiful actresses, but not even remotely like cartoon characters. There’s a sadness that I would even have these thoughts while watching such an amazing movie. Then again, when’s the last time I watched a current movie about real people and not a superhero franchise? I’m afraid it’s all part of the same problem.

  • BK

    Man that is some chronic over-airbrushing

    • Ahlys

      If you mean pictures like 1 and 2, that’s because it is a cartoon. Lightning from Final Fantasy.

  • Ellie

    Coach have just done a Disney collection too! Madness imo!

  • David Summerbell

    I can’t say that i’m a fan of the new anime inspired looks. Hopefully, this too shall pass….

  • Pia Sophie

    i must admit that karlie&co.’s perfectly toned bodies have made me want to buy stuff more than once. this, however, doesn’t do much for me. as far removed as all those supermodels are from the real world – i can still somehow relate and, if the campaign works, i’ll want to be them/feel like them/have what they have.
    cartoon characters? no emotional reaction here.