Sep 28th, 2021, 12:26 PM

The Era of the "Instagram Face"

By Karina Safaoui
Image credit: Unsplash/Brooke Cagle
At a time when it's increasingly impossible to escape beauty standards set by social media, truly freedom is when self-love and acceptance rise above the need to change for an idealized image.

Standards of beauty have been a fixture of history, traversing across cultures, empires, and eras, allowing those who inhabit societies to have a tangible visual representation of an ideal, something to aspire to, something that is pleasing and provides us with some sort of categorical meaning of the word.

The Italians during the Renaissance heralded a rounded body, full hips, and large breasts as their ideal, while 10th century China valued small feet and porcelain skin. There is a constant state of evolution for standards of beauty within a society, like the art we consume or the styles that we wear; sometimes these trends are swept away by the winds of time, never to be seen again, and sometimes they return to grace.

Though it seems to be that within our current time, the effects of these cycles will be more detrimental than ever; there are increased methods of dispersal and consumption of these standards via social media and the dramatic increase in accessability to plastic surgery treatments or 'tweakments' (minimally invasive treatments). The commodification of beauty has reached an all time high and is only projected to increase; forever inflating the monolithic status of the beauty industry and allowing for another monolith to cash in - social media. The explosion of social media usage and influence coupled with the rise in plastic surgery, is not only a testament to our society's perversion of visual conformity, but our inability to escape blatant distortion and manipulation generated by social media and the beauty industry. 

Image credit: Unsplash/Brooke Cagle

We have shifted into an age where visual conformity is pervasive. We are filtering content and distorting our own perceptions of ourselves and our unique qualities in order to conveniently fit within the confines of a homogenous and unattainable representation of 'beauty'. There is the all-too-familiar 'Instagram Face', whose features seem to be an amalgamation of an array of ethnicities; taking the most 'desirable' characteristics of each and producing a racially ambiguous and perfectly symmetrical ideal as a result. The same features that are now being revered happen to be those that were relentlessly scrutinized and reduced to 'undesirable' in the eyes of the Eurocentric colonizer: voluminous lips and full derrieres taken from the Black community, cat-like eyes courtesy of the Asian community, high cheekbones, the hallmarks of Native American and Middle Eastern women and a tiny button nose derived from the Caucasian influence.

The filters heavily utilized on Snapchat and Instagram ascribe to and disseminate this artificually generated and constructed beauty ideal; 'enhancing' or 'distorting' individuals each time they place their face on the screen and forcing them to play right into a model that leaves no room for true individuality, self acceptance, and 'self-love' - only for a perverse aspiration for genetic and visual sameness. As a result, there is a trend that is emerging where patients use their own filtered faces as the ideal for plastic surgeons to recreate; and though it is an 'enhanced version' it still remains solidly within the confines of the larger beauty ideal that is being represented. Patients are able to tailor procedures to their own idealistic image of perfection, focusing on whatever parts they deem need altering, and completing some of these procedures, such as Botox and filler, with virtually no down time. These injectables (Botox and filler) have become so nonchalant that according to the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS) annual survey, 80 percent of all treatments performed by facial plastic surgeons were cosmetic, non surgical procedures. Newly attainable thanks to accessibility and relatively low cost and improvments in technology, the results were subtle, yet noticable changes in appearance for patients. 

Faces are not the only parts being distorted and shifting dramatically in appearance, there was a tangible shift from the adulated 'skinny body' of 10 years ago to the infamous 'slim-thick' ideal. The 'slim-thick' ideal has been the dominant standard within the social media realm, initially made popular by the Kardashians and other influencers, the characteristics are a large derriere, thigh gap, abs, and fully rounded breasts. A body type that rarely occurs in nature, but is frequently occuring within the most pervasive and dominant media forces of our time: reality TV and social media.

Butt augmentations as a result of this phenomenon, were the fastest growing type of cosmetic surgery in 2015; with estimates stating that there was an overall buttock procedure occuring on average every 30 minutes daily. In addition to the obsession with the rear, there is a desire to achieve a flat tummy and thigh gap, leading to the increase of EmSculpt: known as the first and only noninvasive muscle and body fat-shaping procedure. A handheld tool uses magnetic fields in order to activate muscle contractions in the body, breaking down fat and building muscle in a way that makes actual health and fitness seem almost like an archaic method of body goal achievement of the past.

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, there were 15.9 million surgical and minimally-invasive cosmetic procedures performed in the United States in 2015; resulting in a 2 percent increase over 2014, but an overall procedural increase of 115 percent since 2000. Like the changing standard of beauty, the procedures that patients are requesting and their accessibility to these treatments are in a constant state of evolution and increased viability. Patients are able to tailor specific areas with more intense precision and imagination, producing an enhanced version of an individual that will undoubtedly become the new norm. I suspect that this hightly specific collaboration between patients and surgeons will produce a new 'trend': one that is more aligned with an enhancement of specific features to create a more 'natural' look that still remains within the bounds of the ideal beauty standard. 

Image credit: Unsplash

But with all our societal talk of body acceptance and self love, how can we reconcile this need to match an ideal that we cannot help but desire to fall into lockstep with because we have no respite from its pervasiveness? Where do we go from here and is there ever a point that we can 'go back'? There is a contradiction that exists when as as a society have never been more vocal about the value of 'self-love', but are also undergoing more cosmetic procedures than ever before with no end in sight. Does that metric of 'self-love' exist independently of an objectifiable standard or externalities? Or have the two become so intertwined as a result of this visual commodification and perverse conformity?

I believe self-love is an acceptance of whatever features you are endowed with, for they will be with you for the remainder of your life. Will it be easy? Absolutely not - but no journey of self growth, love and fulfillment ever is. And who's to say that three, five, ten years from now those same features that were once vehemently regarded with disdain are now en vogue? There is no viable way to achieve whatever beauty ideal is being promoted because it's very essence is one of elusivity, evolution, and marketability.

Multi-billion dollar industries thrive upon this lack of contentment within ourselves and society's unwillingness to actively recognize our own worth independent of externalities. Whether those externalities entail the objectifying patriarchal gaze, the impossible comparisons and standards presented by the media, cultural standards, or even our friends and family. The freedom lies within the right to choose whether one undergoes any sort of procedure to their bodies. But I would argue that one is truly free when self-love and acceptance rise above the need to change for an idealized image, whether we want to admit that image is a result of a manufactured ideal is entirely up to us.