Why the ‘Instagram Face’ is the Paradox of Our Generation
Main Image – @kendalljenner/Instagram
Scrolling through Instagram and TikTok, one thing has been constantly jumping out at me – why do so many of the faces I see look almost *exactly* the same? Is it simply my algorithm, or is everyone actually morphing into a Kardashian-Jenner?!
The button nose, full cheeks, plump lips, cat eyes, smooth pore-less skin, high-arched eyebrows, sharp jawline, and long eyelashes of the genetically-blessed are no longer reserved only for the likes of Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski it seems.
Changing our features to look more like our favourite celebrities has become increasingly quicker, easier and cheaper with the rise of tweakments. And when we all want to look like our favourite a-listers, we often, inevitably, end up looking more and more like each other.
This is a phenomenon that has been dubbed ‘The Instagram Face’, or the ‘Cyborg Face’. It’s a lucrative business that promises not only to enhance (or completely change) your appearance but also your life.
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But, in an age where we are (finally) progressively accepting beauty diversity on the one hand, how does this marry up with the narrowing beauty standards that we are expected to mould into on the other?
We are taking a deep dive into the increasing phenomenon of the ‘Instagram face’, asking the all-important questions to aestheticians and dermatologists.
Let me take you back to my childhood in the 90s, when Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss reigned supreme and ultra-thin supermodel looks was plastered all over the television and glossy magazines.
The gossip mags were awash with stick-thin A-listers drinking, smoking, and partying; and young girls like me were desperate to fit the ‘cool girl’ brief. I (admittedly mistakenly) considered those women photographed in a plume of smoke, falling out of nightclubs, super long legs tangled around each other, as the coolest you could get.
And it seems that while we tend to think of body image issues being a modern, social media-led issue, the damage was- perhaps unsurprisingly- already being caused long before the rise of Instagram and TikTok.
“I think it’s worth remembering the study done on Fijian girls after TV was introduced to the island. This study done in the late 90s looked at changes in body image and eating habits after Fijian girls were introduced to television.
“What they found was an alarming increase in body image distress and disordered eating after the girls were exposed to American television (remember the body types on TV in the late nineties? The ‘heroin chic’ body type?). This was just with the introduction of television – not the introduction of social media which is now constantly at our fingertips,” explains nutritionist Michelle Yates.
“Since the 90s, things have only gotten worse with TV being on our phones, more cosmetic procedures available, social media, filters, and apps that can change the way you look,” she says.
The beauty paradox
Yet alongside this rise in self-consciousness, we often overlook the good that has come out of this greater exposure to media; an increasing beauty diversity.
Where in the 90s there were only a handful of mainstream black models and beauty icons- and even fewer beauty lines for black and darker skin tones- that total lack of diversity is thankfully now improving.
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Not only have the likes of Rihanna and Ariana Grande now been releasing makeup specifically for darker skin tones for years, but haircare companies are increasingly formulating products dedicated to afro hair, and we’re even becoming more and more inclusive around issues like acne (with celebrities like Hailey Bieber often spotted wearing their pimple patches with pride).
But in this age of improved diversity then, why are so many seemingly going under the knife (and needle) in an attempt to look, well, the same?
Dr Rossi agrees this is “a noticeable trend.” He adds, “The rise in social media has created increases in mental health distress because many people want to conform to specific looks for specific ideals, a beauty that is not applicable across all people.”
More concerningly, he says that the age of patients asking for ‘Instagram face’ style treatments is getting younger. “We have sources from the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery as well as the American Society of Plastic Surgery that show the increase in younger patients seeking treatments.”
As Dr Rossi explains, this flies in the face of what true beauty is all about. “As a dermatologist, I want to celebrate all different types of beauty and not just prescribe to one specific Instagram face or one specific ideal of beauty. We need to celebrate all cultures, ethnicities, races, and genders.”
This rise in the number of people seeking ‘identical’ features, from the same straight nose of Hailey Bieber to the pouty lips of Kylie Jenner and the raised brown of Gigi Hadid, carry obvious risks though.
One of them is due to lack of regulation around the industry. Over the past decade or so, Botox bars and spas have been popping up everywhere. According to renowned NYC aesthetician and ‘Facial Architect’ Akis Ntonos, there was an even bigger surge in cosmetic procedures following the pandemic, “We’ve seen so many practitioners popping up everywhere in the last few years – especially since Covid,” he tells us.
However, Ntonos tells us that it’s “the regulations for injectables that really need to change. The US isn’t great, but the UK is very unregulated and, frighteningly, people can take an 8-hour day course for injectables and then start injecting the public.”
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This has had a knock on effect on treatment safety, he claims. “The rate of problems from injectables being administered incorrectly has shot up to 1 in 5,000 people, so it’s really important to use a specialist that you trust and that won’t force you into procedures you don’t actually want or need.”
Beyond simply finding a trustworthy cosmetic expert though, it seems that those undergoing cosmetic treatments while suffering from a mental illness may ultimately feel worse afterwards.
According to a study by Oxford Academic Professor and Head of the Department of Plastic and Maxillofacial Surgery at the Henri Mondor University Hospital Jean Paul Meningaud, “Depression and anxiety may occur after aesthetic procedures with an increased incidence in patients with certain depression-prone personality traits.
“The pre-existing psychology of patients is also an important contributing factor to consider when evaluating surgical candidates. Pre-existing mood disorders such as depression and anxiety are shown with higher incidence in individuals pursuing aesthetic procedures and can predispose such individuals to worsening mood symptoms postoperatively.”
The answer, according to the experts? To make sure you’re using a licenced professional and never to have cosmetic treatments for the wrong reasons.
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Ntonos tells us, “I speak with my clients in-depth before we carry out any procedures. We analyse, map and measure the face, talking through any insecurities, to ensure the client is comfortable and informed. It’s an emotional process for many people, with so many of my clients coming to me asking for celebrity looks, particularly younger people.”
Dr Rossi agrees, “Anyone who is performing medical cosmetic procedures should of course be addressing the patient in a totally comprehensive way.”
“We should always be assessing the reasons why patients are doing certain procedures, and the mental health around that,” he adds.
“For some patients, after speaking with them, I cancel doing the procedure is it may not help them feel better about themselves and if there is an underlying deeper issue.”
Are times changing?
Thankfully, we can already see a rising number of influencers and A-listers being (slightly) more transparent about the filters they use and the tweaks they are making before posting their images online.
There is also an ‘Instagram vs Reality’ side of social media filled with girls showing how poses can be deceiving, revealing how celebs are Facetuning their images, and even talking about bad experiences they’ve had with Botox and dermal fillers.
It’s also becoming much more normal to see some of our most glamorous style icons share increasing numbers of candid shots, instead of the highly managed images we’ve become used to seeing.
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Yates agrees with this positive aspect of social media, “There are definitely some positive things happening on social media (and sometimes reality TV). Specifically, when creators use their platform to speak on these important issues, express vulnerability, and create more conversations around mental health and our unrealistic beauty standards.
“You can absolutely use these platforms in a positive way. Users need to be intentional on social media, and mindful of how certain content impacts them then make any necessary adjustments to their feed.”
Dr Rossi echoes that social media “on the one hand gives people a lot of information about how these procedures are performed, and some of the risks and benefits of them on another hand, it also shows people of all different races, ethnicities, backgrounds and cultures, celebrating their aesthetic in positive ways.
Ultimately though, we still have a way to go.
“I would like to see more requirements around getting a psychiatric evaluation by someone specialised in body image/body image disorders before being allowed to have a cosmetic procedure done. People need to understand that changing how they look will not necessarily make them feel any better and that the issues are much deeper,” Rossi concludes.
It’s ironic that at a time when we’re finally embracing beauty diversity, we’re increasingly being the given the tools- and motivation- to instead look more and more like each other (or at least like our favourite celebrities).
Social media, it seems, is largely behind the paradox but could also be our redemption now that more people are calling out the use of filters and treatments that alter our appearance.
While practitioners are still able to legally offer Kylie Jenner’s lips or Ariana Grande’s nose though, there will always be vulnerable, often young, people who’ll pay for it.
As Dr Rossi explains, “As a board-certified dermatologist, I always advocate for the safe practice of aesthetic medicine, including injectables, surgery, and non-surgical procedures. It’s also important to celebrate all different types of beauty and not prescribe to just a Western or Caucasian antiquated ideal of beauty.
“We want to move away from an Instagram Face that is heavily filtered, photoshopped or altered in a way that may not preserve the natural boundaries of facial proportion.”
Meet the experts
Akis Ntonos is a dermatology nurse practitioner, an injectable specialist and co-founder of Aion Aesthetics, a premier aesthetic and injectables clinic in New York.
Dr Anthony Rossi is a board-certified dermatologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. One of the most sought-after surgeons and laser experts in the field of dermatology, he is internationally recognised for his pioneering research and clinical work.
Michelle Yates MS, RD, LMNT, is a registered nutrition therapist with a masters in Health Psychology. She is the owner of Yates Nutrition, offering help with nutrition and body image.