In October, Instagram announced that it would be banning face filters designed to mimic plastic surgery from its platform. The news was released by Facebook’s augmented reality platform, Spark AR, which says that a billion people have made use of its face-transforming filters in the last year alone. These filters, which can take forms ranging from minimal glitter to all-out alien transformation, have also encouraged users to experiment with body modification. In particular, FixMe and Plastica are in the spotlight, since they enable users to depict exaggerated features, smoothed-out skin and, in one case, the bruising associated with surgery.
The announcement comes off the back of growing disquiet about the relationship between social media, appearance and mental health; newspapers previously investigating ‘Snapchat dysmorphia’ are now reporting on the rise of so-called ‘Instagram face’. Popularised by a particular cohort of celebrities and influencers, many social media users are feeling the pressure to emulate this very current online aesthetic.
The rise of ‘Instagram face’
The look is often characterised by the Bratz doll-like beauty of Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner’s enlarged lips and sculpted cheeks, but also extends to a slew of other public figures ranging from Bella Hadid to Ariana Grande. As reported by Vice in its recent investigation into the nebulous world of fillers and injectables, it’s a look that has fuelled a boom in non-invasive procedures, especially among young women.
So where do plastic surgery filters come into it? Instagram’s argument is that they are harming users’ wellbeing. When asked for comment, a Facebook spokesman tells Vogue: “We want filters to be a positive experience for people. While we’re re-evaluating, we will: one, remove all effects from the gallery associated with plastic surgery; two, stop further approval of new effects like this; and three, remove current effects if they’re reported to us.”
On the face of it, this makes sense. Especially given that in 2017, the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery found that 55 per cent of surgeons reported seeing patients who cited selfie-taking as a reason for seeking their services. Although these filters make for a stark example of that connection between online image and perhaps unhappy offline desire for transformation, really they only scratch the surface.
There’s still a long way to go…
Mary McGill, whose research as a doctoral scholar at the National University of Ireland Galway looks at selfies and post-feminist digital cultures, says in response to the news: “I welcome any change that makes navigating our intensely visual culture easier, but I think this is a pretty meagre gesture. The issue goes way beyond a few filters to a range of practices and norms that sites like Instagram have introduced into our lives.” What kind of norms does McGill mean? “These practices treat the female body and face as objects to be surveyed and evaluated in evermore forensic ways. All beauty apps act on the presumption that our bodies require perfecting; ergo, they are automatically defective.”
One such beauty app is FaceTune, Apple’s most popular paid app in 2017. The chance to minutely edit facial detail offers something subtler than a cartoonish filter—and potentially more pervasive. Noses can be straightened and jawlines reshaped. As such, people can create slightly tweaked digital avatars of themselves. It’s an image that some feel they can’t match up to away from the all-seeing eye of their smartphone. The consequence is a growing number of young women taking photos of their own edited faces to plastic surgeons in order to achieve a similar look IRL.
Dr Rosie Findlay, fashion theorist and course leader for MA Fashion Cultures at the London College of Fashion, tells Vogue: “These ways of thinking about our bodies and ourselves pre-date social media, but it’s been intensified because […] it encourages us to train our gaze on ourselves and manage our appearance in a very mediated way.” She says there’s a continuity from the mid-2000s conversation about Photoshop and plastic surgery, but as with the minor edits of FaceTune, there’s been a distinct shift from gleeful exposés of very visible work to something less noticeable. “If you can amend yourself, or augment—which is such a gentle word for these kinds of surgical interventions—if it’s subtly done, it’s like it’s you, but just slightly improved. I think that’s the goal of this aesthetic; if you’re still closely recognisable to your pre-surgery self, than it’s [considered] successful.” She’s quick to point out the class implications of this, though—the contrast between ‘subtle’ and ‘too much’ creating new beauty hierarchies.
What’s next for beauty in the digital world?
The internet has undoubtedly changed our conception of beauty. It’s a complicated and often contradictory development. On the one hand, there have been great leaps forward in acknowledgement of more diverse bodies and looks, as well as the chance for all of us to present ourselves as we wish to be seen. There’s also plenty of room for playing with convention. One can easily find celebrities making fun of set standards, as with singer King Princess’s tongue-in-cheek use of those selfsame plastic surgery filters. It also offers a space for blurring of fact and fiction. Recently, makeup artist Alexis Stone used prosthetics and other special effects over the course of several months to convince his Instagram followers that he’d had botched plastic surgery.
On the other, the ideals offered to us still largely encourage a very homogenised version of beauty. Just look at the recent claim from a cosmetic surgeon that Bella Hadid is the most beautiful woman in the world, which is based on the golden ratio—a famously Eurocentric way of mapping out ‘physical perfection’. These ideals mostly prize the appearances of women whose IRL looks, whether honed by diet, personal training, a skilled makeup artist, surgical modification or all of the above, are combined with seamless photo-editing. This in turn exerts fresh pressure on the rest of us to likewise enhance ourselves—or feel lacking—as we become the stars of our own Instagram story. So sure, banning the odd filter along the way might help, or at the very least spark conversation, but it’s going to require a much larger and more difficult discussion of how beauty is constructed, upheld and relentlessly emphasised in the online world for anything to really change.