There’s not much of the human experience Instagram hasn’t ruined. Every couple who adopts a dog has to start a gimmick ‘Gram account for their new pup. At least two guys from your high school are really into r/malefashionadvice and post their #OOTD pictures with their cluttered room behind them. At least three girls from your high school are caught in a pyramid scheme to sell you essential oils or leggings. Two of them have messaged you “Hey Girlie!”
But above all, Instagram has ruined the human face. Fox eyes, fillers abound, and plenty of rhinoplasties – it’s nigh impossible to find an influencer who hasn’t made modifications to their face or body on top of extensive filters and Photoshopping. It’s not just Kardashians, Jenners, and Hadids. It’s hundreds, if not thousands of women who make a career slow-walking around Paris in designer clothing with no indication how they pay for it all. Neither Givenchy nor plastic surgery come cheap.
Much ink has been spilled on the phenomenon of the influencer. Of the wealthy women who got lucky with search engine optimisation and have made a lucrative career out of being aspirational and relatable. Much ink has been spilled in mainstream beauty magazines about how empowering it all is.
Recently, a Dove body wash commercial caught my eye. It shows the process from selfie to facetuned photo to Insta post, but in reverse. The young subject of the video had doctored her own photo to look older and sexier. The ad, titled “Reverse Selfie”, ends with a call to action:
“The pressure of social media is hurting our girls’ self-esteem. More screen time during the pandemic has made things worse. Have the selfie talk today. Go to dove.com to find out how.”
On the Selfie Talk webpage, there is nothing particularly special. Dove provides toolkits to parents and teachers for talking to teens about “think[ing] positively about their bodies and the way they look”, “learn[ing] about the impact of social media on on body image”, and “recogniz[ing] unrealistic beauty standards in the media” among other things.
There is nothing nefarious or disturbing on Dove’s pages*, aside from the problems that they identify, which they are correct about. It’s probably a good thing that someone out there is writing toolkits for parents to explain to their young children that they are perfect the way they are. The American Girl Care and Keeping of You can only do it alone for so long.
But Dove makes some interesting claims, like “80% of girls say they compare the way they look to other people on social media.” Surely this number is low, but it kind of buries the lede: everyone compares the way they look to everyone all the time. It’s kind of the key feature of the beauty industry. The Dove Self-Esteem Project alleges to have reached 69,675,323 (and counting!) young people since 2004, but, joke’s on all of us, I suppose, because the number of plastic surgery procedures have increased 131% since 2000. Some specific procedures have increased as much as 4174%.
I don’t need to hammer in the irony of a brand telling you “you’re perfect the way you are! but buy our product to make yourself more perfect :)”, but, man, is that a depressingly common trend. So common, even plastic surgeons have retooled their pitch to customers to highlight just how perfect they already are.
Articles written about “Instagram face”, or the modes of plastic surgery that permanently transform you into a Kardashian, often harp on the futility of changing your face to the trend du jour. What will you do when fox eyes go out of style? Can you even undo a Brazilian butt lift? Do you really want to look like 2016 forever? They, however, fall in girlboss line when it comes to plastic surgery: they don’t want to shame those who chose to get plastic surgery, because it’s their individual choice to better themselves. Dozens of doctors happily post “be yourself 🙂 no one else will be” in the same feed they show off their most radical transformations. If you have any interest in makeup or fashion, it’s only a matter of time before the algorithm throws these posts at you. Nothing says love yourself like an Instagram page with highlighted stories of plastic surgery successes. “Satisfy your soul, not society” by paying $8000 for a new nose.
Consider what influencers are as a whole. They are not beautiful people who are just beautiful, they are beautiful people who sell you tonics that purport to make you as beautiful as them. The ongoing effort by activists to expand our societal understanding of beauty (the “everyone is beautiful crowd”) think they are winning when beauty brands use diverse models in their ad campaigns. It’s one thing for Dove and Glossier to do it, but for plastic surgeons? The cynicism is unreal.
But they’re doing it for a reason — plastic surgery is a volatile profession. Since the 2000s, the popularity of certain procedures has ebbed and flowed, and despite an increase overall, the real money makers are on the decline. Some surgeries have grown in popularity — like facial fat grafting — thanks to influencers, but could people be opting for less medicalized answers to their woes? The most famous of nonsurgical enhancements, the legendary botox, has seen a huge loss in clientele, and other injectable acids aren’t to blame for its decline.
Plastic surgeons are running offense online. In their videos, surgeons map out what procedures your favorite Kpop star underwent, what you need to get done to look like Angelina Jolie, and their favorite patient success stories. When you get through the stan comments denying their faves have ever had surgery done (despite mandatory surgery being a pretty open secret), plenty of people are intrigued by the extent of plastic surgeries one can even have. It doesn’t take long to find comments like “I NEED IT💳💥”. Of course, the teens of Tiktok don’t have $20,000 to spend on a new face but the seed is planted. Pay no mind to the “she looked better before” comments — it’s very misogynist of you to suggest the new face she bought doesn’t make you happy and is therefore bad.
And it’s not just doctors selling to patients, but selling to other doctors too. In a post on the Reflective MedEd blog, Dr. Anu Antony, a plastic surgeon in Chicago, contemplates the psyche of her elective surgery patients. She even ponders, if elective plastic surgery “may not necessarily be an internalization of societal values, but rather stem from agency of the individual.”
Girl, what????????????? Individuals living in vacuums don’t think well, huh, my tits need to be bigger.
The rest of Dr. Antony’s blog is even more insane**, but here is a sample of some real sentences:
Those opposed to aesthetic plastic surgery might consider a nature versus nurture argument. Must we choose to embrace our genetics or do have the power to decide who we are?
This argument would be a banger in a Corporate Feminism 101 class about a woman being able to lead a company even though she menstruates.
This is a historical time in the US, where there is a lot of intolerance. However, we are a country founded on choice.
The Founding Fathers fought for your right to get a nose job. But not to vote, sadly.
The crux of the feminist movement centers around having equal rights and opportunities – having choice.
Yeah, if your entire education on feminist literature comes from Tumblr posts.
I don’t mean to spend the entirety of this essay ragging on the good doctor, I just couldn’t resist the detour. But as cynical as Dr. Antony’s view on plastic surgery is, it’s bog standard.. There are dozens of doctors on TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram who frame their work as the logical conclusion of feminism. It’s not that you shouldn’t change yourself to conform to beauty standards, but that no one should judge you for conforming. You can’t fault these doctors because they’re not wrong — feminism as skewed by a consumption-driven society is necessarily a defense of consumption, even when said consumption is mutilation.
It’s not feminism but misogyny that makes plastic surgery profitable. If Dove succeeds and is able to train young girls to “recognize unrealistic beauty standards in the media,” then they can shield them from the inner turmoil of being ugly. If they don’t feel ugly, they don’t need someone in scrubs to plasty their blepharo to the tune of $253,000 a year. Maybe it’s a little mean, at worst, to say you don’t like the outcome of a surgery posted online specifically to invite feedback and engagement, but it’s far worse to work in the insecurity industries, whether that be beauty, fashion, or plastic surgery. Misogyny is medicalizing the insecurities wrought by glossy pages stuffed with the writhing limbs of beautiful women selling you jeans, giving it a cute name like body dysmorphic disorder. Did BDD even exist before the 80s? People with BDD are not especially preoccupied with their appearance more than anyone else — they just say what everyone else is thinking out loud. When you can’t afford plastic surgery, you get a diagnosis instead.
So, surgeons do the bare minimum to absolve themselves by taking up the mantle of self-empowerment instead, which, like feminism, has been kneaded beyond recognition to fit into a marketable mold. Everything you do should be empowering, including changing your body permanently.
*Dove, like every brand, has its fair share of problems. They’ve had a few inadvertently racist advertisements, and their parent company, Unilever, also manufactures and sells skin whitening products and, well, Axe body spray to name a few.
**Dr. Antony’s bio on her Rush University Hospital page notes she “draws inspiration for breast reconstruction from her time spent studying art, painting and sculpture in Italy.”