“Yassification” is a recent meme spreading across social media. To “yassify” something is to heavily edit the original image with multiple filters until the figure is blurred, airbrushed, and entirely unrecognizable. Many of these images come from Twitter user “@YassifyBot,” who primarily yassifies famous paintings, actors, and politicians. Religious leaders, however, are not immune from yassification: Pope Francis, Martin Luther, and Joan of Arc have all been yassified. Anyone can be yassified these days — even Jesus.
Instagram has helped proliferate the use of augmented reality filters. As the website grew in popularity, so did the pull to conform to the beauty standards of the most-followed Instagram users. Most face filters include features that fit white standards of beauty, such as making one’s nose smaller and lightening one's skin.
The trend of yassification reveals just how tied to this standard of beauty we have become, especially how the existence of filters on social media has exacerbated the use of filters on everything. Artist Paul Emsley, for instance, who was commissioned to paint the Duchess of Cambridge’s official portrait, faced withering pushback for his depiction of Kate in 2013. While the president of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters deemed it straightforward and natural, many critics begged to differ, asking Emsley to update the painting so she would appear to have fewer wrinkles.
Yassification also reveals that conformity is dull. Johannes Vermeer's 17th-century masterpiece, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” allowed viewers to see the wonder, sacredness, and intimacy of ordinary life; the yassified version only offers a stale portrait of our own beauty standards.
The meme satirizes the way we curate our image on social media, but conforming to certain beauty standards pre-dates Instagram filters. Beauty standards have historically been warped by colorism, eurocentrism, and a culture of whiteness. And when these standards permeate our religious lives, they reveal the ways we attach conditions to the imago dei in each of us. The yassification of Jesus Christ is historical and ubiquitous.
Over the weekend, people shared memes across social media pointing out the ways the church yassified Jesus through their artistic renderings of him. The juxtaposition shows just how inaccurate and curated our depictions of Jesus can be. The white church has yassified Jesus for centuries.
Jesus has been westernized and whitewashed to fit an image of divinity that is more palatable to white people. They reject the Palestinian immigrant living under Roman occupation, instead seeking to depict him the way they envision a ruler, a savior. But Jesus was not made in their image. While many cultures have created images of Jesus to represent their cultures and identities, white depictions of Jesus often seek to reinforce unjust power dynamics. The reasons behind different renderings of Jesus matter. The weight of white supremacy and racism inherent in the United States is subtly reinforced by this coopting of the image of Jesus. Some artists and religious leaders are using ethnically diverse depictions of Christ to challenge racism and better understand faith.
Even the whitewashed figure of Jesus was subjected to a true yassification. What has already been yassified is yassified still. This has happened to Jesus since the resurrection. Humans will continue to modify, and then modify the modifications to the image of Jesus until he is undiscoverable.
God chose to enter into this world in the form of a vulnerable baby, to experience the rawness and realness of humanity. We cannot deny Jesus — or anyone else — the honor of humanness.