Last month, Canadian singer, The Weeknd, uploaded a selfie to Instagram in which he appears to have undergone several rounds of dermal filler. There he is with poutier lips, youthful skin, raised eyebrows, sharper cheekbones and a more defined jawline. So that’s what was underneath all those bandages: Instagram Face. But, of course, the rapper hasn’t gone under the needle. Instead, he’s wearing prosthetics for his new music video, Save Your Tears. It was also something that was alluded to in his Super Bowl LV halftime performance, where he was joined on stage by an army of bandaged doubles.
It’s a similar trope that makeup artist Inge Grognard used for the Balenciaga SS20 show, where models were made to look like they’ve had filler, with distorted, blown-up lips and accentuated cheekbones. Though different circumstances, both examples are a commentary on our global obsession with ‘tweakments’.
According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery’s Global Survey, 13.6m non-surgical treatments were carried out worldwide in 2019 — 4.3m of which involved hyaluronic acid dermal fillers, a 15.7 per cent increase on the previous year, and a 50.6 per cent increase since 2015. That’s a lot of filler.
Compared to plastic surgery, fillers are non-invasive, reversible, relatively low cost (although upkeep must be factored in), have minimal downtime, and, most importantly, are Kylie Jenner-backed. They’re even referred to as ‘lunchtime treatments’— something you can nip out and do on your lunch break, just like getting a coffee. As a result, they’ve become normalised as part of our beauty routine.
“‘Tweakment’ culture is something that we’ve been talking about for some time,” says Jenni Middleton, director of beauty at WGSN. “This was born out of a desire to look good on social media in our always-on-camera lifestyles. People got used to the perfection offered by filters and expected real life to offer them solutions that could replicate this.” And, as we’ve spent the past year in lockdown, staring at ourselves in the Narcissian pool of Zoom, it’s only going to intensify. So, where do we stand on this normalisation?
Dermal fillers and double standards
Culturally speaking, there’s a tendency to look at fillers and other non-cosmetic procedures as being motivated purely by vanity, but in fact, they can be intrinsic to a person’s sense of self. This is something that Reece Tomlinson, CEO of cosmetic treatment company, Uvence, observes in most clients. “While we all seek to look better, I would argue that confidence is the single largest reason people receive dermal fillers. Many people seek to assist with medical issues that may impact appearance, such as visible scarring or facial asymmetry. For transgender patients, it can involve changing the masculinity or femininity of one’s appearance to help them feel accepted by society.”
Artist Hatti Rees, 25, has been getting filler in their lips since they were 21, to help manage feelings of gender dysphoria. “As a non-binary person, gender dysphoria was alleviated by creating an almost un-human, genderless look,” they tell Vogue. For Rees, getting filler isn’t about looking better—it’s about looking true to their authentic self. Furthermore, they reject the idea that altering one’s appearance comes from a place of low self-esteem. “It actually takes confidence to modify your body. It’s brave and bold to be who you want to be.”
“Since getting regular filler in my lips and cheeks, I’ve started to feel comfortable in my own skin,” says Clem—yet, there exists a stigma around getting filler, to the point where Clem has asked for her details to be kept out of this article. “People can be very judgmental,” she says. “Guessing what work celebrities and people we know have had is something my friends do a lot, in a derogatory way.”
Psychotherapist Rebecca Sparkes puts this stigma down to society’s double standards—where womxn are expected to look a certain way and are then chastised for the ways in which they go about doing it. “It’s as if they are not competing on a level playing field,” says Sparkes. “Until the way we judge and shame women who ‘work’ at their looks (or not) changes, this stigma will still occur.”
The term ‘work’ is a slippery one. Why does getting filler classify as work, and somehow potentially cheating, while putting on makeup or following a 10-step skincare routine are seen as socially acceptable when we know a lot of work goes into them?
By normalising filler, people such as Clem and Rees don’t have to feel embarrassed, but rather, empowered in their decision to do whatever they want to their appearance in a quest for a sense of self. It also opens up a dialogue about why people choose to get filler in the first place and might even lessen the need to get it.
Spreading awareness could save lives
As Los Angeles-based surgeon Dr Paul Nassif suggests, it will go a long way towards minimising malpractice.“Historically, there has been some demonisation of aesthetic treatments, and, in some cases, rightly so in relation to an unregulated industry, inexperienced practitioners or unlicensed products,” he says. “The public were and still are placed at risk.”
The more we talk about fillers, the more aware we are of the dangers associated with them, which can range from lumps and discolouration to allergic reactions and even blindness. “An open dialogue will only improve the efficacy, safety, and patient satisfaction,” says Tomlinson.
But, of course, it’s more complicated than this. With the normalisation of filler comes a greater demand for it, particularly among impressionable young people. And the more accessible, the higher the chance of increased feelings of dysmorphia, dissatisfaction and even addiction in the more susceptible. “Potential psychological problems are most likely experienced by the people who are unwittingly trying things such as facial fillers to make themselves feel better, to prop up fragile self-esteem,” says Sparkes. “While everyone might do this to an extent, for some it leads to a ‘needing more and more’ response.”
Though, again, this might be where an open dialogue comes in. With more awareness comes a greater understanding of these potential psychological risks. “If you go to places where the doctors are trustworthy, they will stop you from going too far,” says the team at London’s Dr Dray Clinic. “Yes, it is possible to want more and more, but it is a part of the doctor’s job to calm the patient and explain what to do and not to do.” A reputable doctor will also turn younger people away.
Upholding beauty ideals
Perhaps then, the real problem with normalising fillers lies in the fact that it creates a new, narrow beauty ideal to aspire to—or maybe it just offers a new way of achieving existing ones. “Social media and reality TV shows are full of people with cosmetically altered faces and bodies, presenting as ordinary people,” warns Sparkes. “Insidiously, many people begin to feel that they are lacking, because their looks don’t match what they see, and what is ‘sold’ to them as ideal.”
Why do people have fillers? To minimise the signs of ageing, to ‘correct’ perceived imperfections, to boost self-confidence, and to feel more at home in our skin in a society that wants us to look a certain way—whether that’s by conforming to ideals in the case of Clem or by subverting them in the case of Rees.
Whether we normalise fillers or not, until we stop attaching value to things like youth and idealised notions of beauty, people will always want to change how they look. And shaming people for the ways in which they go about that doing isn’t going to help.