The Genteel
March 5, 2021


The real Barbie girl, Valeria Lukyanova. Source:

Taking it "to new creepy levels" were the words Maclean's writers, Ken MacQueen and Aaron Hutchings, used earlier last month to describe one of the most recent acts of shocking body modification to make newspaper headlines; a 33-year-old Los Angeles-based man, who goes by the name of Toby Sheldon, underwent USD $100,000 worth of plastic surgeries, hair transplants and injections in order to look more like his idol, Justin Bieber. From readjusting his eyelids to extending his smile, he did whatever it took to appear exactly like the idealised pop star - with far from convincing results.

Toby Sheldon and his idol Justin Bieber

Toby Sheldon and his idol, Justin Bieber.

Sheldon is not the first individual to undergo extreme physical alteration in order to look like another person - or to have projected these changes into the public eye. On July 22, 2013, Vice released its documentary about Valeria Lukyanova, also known as "Space Barbie."  Lukyanova regularly manipulates her body with make-up, exercise and alleged plastic surgery to achieve her doll-like appearance.

Despite this growing trend, public reactions to such acts of physical imitation have been widely negative. Sheldon's actions were characterised with tongue-in-cheek humour last October as "unbeliebable [sic]" by The Daily Mail. Meanwhile, Misty White Sidell, writer for The Daily Beast, noted in July how "people were outraged by [Lukyanova's] extreme appearance." These comments pale in comparison though with the visceral reactions of Twitter users: when referring to Lukyanova's barbie-inspired image, @drdmann used the words "scared and worried," @mrvilliers considered it "the single most terrifying thing" and @bbyb008 said it "creeps me out".

Though Sheldon and Lukyanova are somewhat radical examples of body mimicry, the fundamental action of copying another person is not a new phenomenon. Alison Matthews David, Associate Professor specialising in the Fashioned Body at Ryerson's School of Fashion, suggested to The Genteel that such body modification attempts are not simply a result of the individual, but a product of our culture. Though the imitator appears to be making autonomous choices to look 'beautiful,' it is in fact societal constructions that are at work. 

Perhaps surprisingly, this notion of idealising a beautiful body stems back as a cultural concern as far as the Ancient Greeks, according to Matthews David. Throughout history, fashions and trends have been based on the imitation of a culturally recognised ideal of beauty. According to Valerie Steel in Fashion and Eroticism (1985), during the Victorian era "most women used foundation garments, diets, the optical illusions of dress, and particular stances and gestures in [an] attempt to approximate the current ideal."

[Can we] really be responsible for wanting to imitate those we connect with beauty and success?

Despite most of us swapping the corsets for a pair of Spanx, these beauty-attaining attempts still remain familiar today. This is because society's inherent structure creates an environment where beauty - in whatever physical form it takes - is vital. There are no set configurations in place to tell us what beauty is, but many social elements such as gender, marriage and success seem to factor in how we associate with and idealise beauty.

This cultural issue is merely exacerbated by the industries that play on our bodily insecurities - like plastic surgery companies, cosmetics brands, advertisers or the media. Deeply embedded within our social history and cultural identity, the media industry, holds a certain level of power within the dialogue between beauty and instruction. Film and photography can illustrate to viewers what a beautiful woman ought to look like and how she should behave.

With do-it-yourself guides and meticulous, instructional articles, the Internet has taught audiences how to attain the 'perfect beauty' look on a global scale. And of course, television has provided viewers with a plethora of shows that classify, characterise and train us about beautiful bodies - lest we forget the popular E!Canada show Look-a-Like. It would seem that idealisation has become the de facto norm thanks to the wide proliferation of aspirational images and celebrity culture. After all, if individuals are repeatedly presented with representations of how they should look - many of which have been airbrushed and doctored - then can they really be responsible for wanting to imitate those that they connect with beauty and success?

Lukyanova and her twin Olga 'Dominica' Oleynik

Lukyanova and her 'twin' Olga 'Dominica' Oleynik.

As Jonas Langer and Melanie Killen write in their book, Piaget, Evolution, and Development (1998), "Every aspect of life [has] an essentially imitative quality." Following this comment, Langer and Killen refer to a diverse array of examples to prove their theory: "innocuous butterflies are said to imitate the form and colour of toxic ones; photocopies and portraits imitate their originals; and pretending to be mommy imitates mommy's behavior."

All of this is because imitation is part of our survival instinct. It begins as part of our childhood development, around the ages of 2-5 years, and offers the young individual more advanced and complex competencies that will assist them throughout their lifespan. Without utilising an imitative strategy, children cannot successfully develop into a functioning, healthy adult. Their choice of imitation follows a certain strategy, though. Children will always choose to mimic those with power; those who provide them with a sense of adjacent strength.

Where there is power, imitation may follow; the more power, the more imitators. This follows through to adulthood too. With the desire to imitate built into our human development and reinforced by our image-focused social culture, one has to ask how much autonomy we really have in these life choices?

When looking at cases like Sheldon or Lukyanova, their imitation of idols - both alive and plastic - becomes more than just an expression of their personalities. It is also a part of society's structure, the mass media, and the role we all play in portraying ourselves the way we want society to see us. 

Related: Sizing Up Fashion Illustration.

Related: Vanity Sizing Aims to Please... To Our Detriment.



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