Online beauty standards have developed a taste for the gothic. Pillowy faces are being replaced by a gaunt, hollowed out aesthetic. Those not blessed with the requisite bone structure have found the solution in a gruesome cosmetic procedure called buccal fat removal.
The question is what to do when sculpted faces become less popular, as they inevitably will. When cherubic cheeks are back in vogue, what then?
For years, a particular type of cosmetically-enhanced, homogenous beauty has reigned supreme for women in the western world. The big lips, contoured nose, high cheekbones and wide, uplifted eyes make up a look that writer Jia Tolentino dubbed Instagram Face — a reference to the social media platform’s ubiquity and editing tools. Like Instagram, it is now falling out of fashion.
Beauty ideals are out of reach by design. Achieve one and the next will escape you. Pencil thin 1990s eyebrows make way for fluffy laminated brows. Athletic silhouettes are replaced by curves. But it all becomes more fraught when cosmetic treatments are added to the mix, promising to help clients inch closer to the ideal — if they have the money, time and pain threshold. Following trends by swapping skinny jeans for straight legs or long hair for choppy cuts is easy enough. Reversing changes made to the shape of your face is not.
This is a problem for the influencers who make money uploading selfies. Reality TV star Kylie Jenner, one of the most famous examples of Instagram face, has made a fortune using her own image to sell her beauty products online. Earlier this month, however, the newsletter Garbage Day featured digital strategist Leila Brillson, who highlighted research in which young internet users said that they did not connect with Jenner because her face was too “millennialized”.
Brillson finds it inevitable that the cosmetic procedures used to obtain a perfect, Instagram-ready face would lose popularity. “The beauty standard for millennial women — that unobtainable, curated look — I think the generation behind us are looking at how that ages and are choosing a different path.”
Social media amplifies the effect of punishing ideals. Along with Instagram face there was the “Zoom boom” in cosmetic interventions for people unhappy with how they looked on video calls. Snapchat dysmorphia describes users who wish they could look like their online selves.
I blame filters. In 2015, social media company Snapchat bought San Francisco company Looksery, using the company’s face tracking tech to map augmented reality images on to the user’s image. Since then, social media photo filters have gone into overdrive. The earliest added dog ears and rainbows. Now they are designed to be hyper-realistic and show users what they would look like with aesthetically enhanced features. You no longer need FaceTune or other digital editing tools. Filters can give you a sharper jaw, better hairline and clearer skin in an instant.
The rise of high street clinics offering non-surgical treatments can make those digital images real. Syringes full of Juvéderm and Botox freeze and fill features, moving contours and erasing wrinkles. Thanks to injectables, you can change the entire shape of your face.
It is hard to overstate how normalised this has become. Magazines that once reviewed face creams now brief you for your first lip filler appointment. Young customers are encouraged to freeze their face now in order to prevent wrinkles later. They are indoctrinated into an expensive, never-ending habit. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reports that in 2020, some 12,000 cosmetic botox injections were carried out on teenagers.
If they follow the trend, those numbers will rise. An annual audit by the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons shows that cosmetic procedures doubled in 2022 compared with the year before. This is partly pent up demand thanks to Covid. But procedures are up on pre-pandemic levels. The association cites social media. “Knowledge of plastic surgery has traditionally been through word of mouth, but this has now risen exponentially through digital word of mouth via Instagram,” says former president Rajiv Grover, who compiled the audit.
Non-surgical treatments are even more popular. The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery’s Global Survey recorded some 17.5mn carried out worldwide in 2021, a third more than surgeries.
Even this does not come close to the true number. There are no reputable figures for so-called tweakments made on the high street, sometimes by practitioners with minimal training. In San Francisco, I walk past a tiny shop every day that opens straight into the street and offers on the spot injections to passers-by.
Nothing lasts. If you freeze one set of wrinkles, others appear. Filler can migrate. Lip injections can transfer above the mouth — an unfortunate phenomenon known as filler moustache. Trendsetters will turn up their identikit noses and move on. Just don’t expect them to embrace a natural look. The era of millennial face may be coming to an end but extreme beauty standards are going nowhere.