I began this project in my mid-30s. I'm sure that was no coincidence. I don't know exactly when the idea seeded itself: perhaps it began one day when I looked in the mirror and realised I would not live for ever. I'm sure I am not alone in being surprised by that revelation. The moment comes when you realise that the body you inhabit has been loaned to you, is not fully yours, not fully under your control. I realised, too, that the way I perceived myself was influenced by others.
I'd begun my life as a photographer trying to make sense of what makes us human, and spent over a decade travelling the world documenting "foreign" cultures. Yet even in the farthest, most conflicted corners of the globe, I could see the insidious influence of my own culture.
We live in a world that celebrates and iconises youth: the pursuit of body improvement is a global industry now worth $160bn a year. And the promise of bodily perfection is largely driven by western media. The modern Caucasian ideal of beauty has been packaged and exported to the rest of the world, and just as surgical operations to "westernise" oriental eyes have become increasingly popular, so the beauty standard has become increasingly prescriptive. In Africa, the use of hair-straightening products is widespread. In South America, women have operations that bring them eerily close to Barbie dolls: blond-haired models appear on the covers of most magazines. Anorexia is on the increase in Japan, and in China beauty pageants, once banned as "spiritual pollution", are now held across the country.
"Beauty" has become a crude universal brand. The more rigorously our vision is trained to appreciate the artificial, the more the beauty industry benefits. But who creates this culture? However much we may confidently point the finger at sinister forces, we can't deny our own tacit involvement. Like it or not, we have created a world in which there are enormous social, psychological and economic costs attached to the way we look.
Few of us can deny we want to be "attractive". And we have been brainwashed into believing that in order to be appealing - lovable - we need smaller noses, bigger noses, tighter skin, longer legs, flatter stomachs. Banks offer - or at least used to offer - loans for plastic surgery in Europe, and Americans now spend more each year on cosmetic surgery than they do on education.
As our role models become ever younger and more idealised, so our obsession with remaining forever youthful intensifies. Today average life expectancy in Europe and the US is 78. Fifty years ago it was 68. A hundred years ago it was 48. As a society, we simply cannot face the degeneration and indignities of extreme old age, and nothing in our culture prepares us for them. The signs of ageing are reckoned to be so unacceptable that many in the public eye choose a strange, artificial appearance over a reflection of their actual years.
My first book, Gun Nation, was inspired by my frustration at witnessing western governments playing power games in developing countries and the arms industry profiting by it - in short, the legacy of colonialism. Perhaps my new book, Love Me, is not so different. I am again appalled by the commercially driven export of questionable ideals. These photographs are my response to the insidious forces that exploit and prey on the weakness and insecurities that are perhaps within us all.
• These photographs are taken from Love Me, by Zed Nelson, to be published in September by Thames & Hudson at £29.95. To order a copy for £27.95, with free UK mainland p&p, go to the Guardian bookshop, or call 0330 333 6846.