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At the intersection of technology and beauty lies a new reality where you can change the way you look with a click of a button – or, more accurately, with a tap on an app designed to make you look like a better version of yourself.
Apps such as Beautify and Facetune are designed for quick and easy portrait editing, allowing users to change everything from the size of their eyes to the smoothness of their complexion. These digitally augmented images, which take the concept of photo filtering to an extreme, are how millions of people represent themselves on social media platforms such as Instagram. But what happens when the fantasy of how you look in photo editing apps becomes too tempting not to live out? As new trends in cosmetic surgery indicate, people are getting surgical procedures to look more like they do in the photo-edited versions of themselves on Instagram and in Snapchat filters. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Surgeon Lara Devgan, MD is Chief Medical Officer at RealSelf and owns and operates a practice on Park Avenue in New York City. She says patients are bringing in altered photos of themselves, rather than asking for Kate Middleton’s nose, for example.
“People are focused on their starting point [or baseline],” she says. The patient who references an optimized version of themselves is seeking a more realistic result than the patient who wants to look like a celebrity who can spend an extreme amount of time and money to look a certain way. Devgan explains that people who seek only a tweaked improvement from their baseline “understand aesthetic medicine” and its limitations. “When people think of their end result as a short fall from perfection, that’s not a positive thing,” she says.
Devgan, who has worked with the queen of selfies Kim Kardashian, argues that this subtler approach goes hand-in-hand with body positivity and feminism. “It’s more anti-feminist to shame people for electing plastic surgery than to just let them be who they want to be,” she says.
When starting from a baseline of the self, surgical augmentation takes on a healthier perspective. And not just theoretically, but empirically within the field of plastic surgery. Instagram, Snapchat or app filters offer minor adjustments in facial reconstruction. “In a Facetuned photo, cheekbones are a millimeter more prominent; eyes are a micromillimeter bigger,” Devgan says. These results are, on the whole, more attainable, according to Devgan. The filtered photos also help her see exactly what her patient has in mind, which is essential in managing expectations as a reconstructive surgeon. Of course this doesn’t mean that an altered photo is always easy to replicate in real life. “It depends on a patient’s anatomy. Someone with thick skin and sebaceous tissue may want a delicate nose, but that’s not achievable in anyone’s hands.”
Instagram is a large part of what makes Devgan, who has over 137,000 followers on the platform, so relatable to her patients. In fact, many of them ask to have their “before” and “after” photos featured in her feed – a trend Devgan admits is more popular with millennials than with older patients.
Social media is not only a space where new beauty standards are being broadcast, it’s also directly responsible for disseminating the message that these beauty ideals are attainable – if you’re willing to go under the knife. However, these days, this is more a euphemism. Many of the types of augmentation procedures that can help you look like your Facetune-filtered self are non-surgical injectables, lasers and photofacials.
Celebrity aesthetician Graceanne Svendsen – who manages the New York practice of RealSelf surgeon David Shafer, MD – performs several facial procedures a day. She says Instagram helps draw new patients. “You don’t give out business cards any more,” she says. “You give out your Instagram [handle]. Unless you have a hot Instagram, you don’t exist. You’re not a player in the game.”
Svendsen also sees an uptick in sharing the experience of having work done. “We film at the office all the time. The more incredible a procedure, the more ‘wow’ factor it has, the more viral a post,” she says. Echoing Devgan, Svendsen says young patients are posting procedures of themselves. “It’s almost a tribal, primal approach to beauty,” she says. A post communicates, “Hey guys, this is what I did and everybody who is involved.” Svendsen, who has over 15 years’ experience, says that younger clients who come to the practice via Instagram are the most educated population she’s come across. “They know what’s hot,” she says.
But not everyone agrees this trend is a move in the direction of body positivity. An article published in the journal JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery suggests that filtered images are eroding levels of self-esteem. “A little adjusting on Facetune can smoothen out skin, and make teeth look whiter and eyes and lips bigger,” the authors write. “A quick share on Instagram, and the likes and comments start rolling in. These filters and edits have become the norm, altering people’s perception of beauty worldwide.”
The article references Snapchat dysmorphia, a type of body dysmorphia derived from desiring to look like a filtered or Facetuned version of yourself. People who undergo surgery to make the fantasy a reality are suffering from low self-esteem, and failing to address the underlying issues of body dysmorphia, according to the authors. However, they do not provide any data on whether photo apps are leading to an increase in cosmetic surgery. The authors do underscore that the widespread phenomenon of photo-editing and sharing promotes a version of beauty that’s not based in reality. This can be triggering for people who feel pressure to live up to illusory aesthetic standards.
Beauty standards – whether hegemonic or democratic – have always had the potential to empower or cripple, depending on a multitude of factors. Individual psychology and collective zeitgeist contribute to how people internalize beauty standards.
Technology is changing the quest for beauty. Of course the impulse to achieve good looks isn’t a new phenomenon. The ancient Greeks devised a mathematical formula that determined the ultimate ratio for facial symmetry. Today, there’s Facetune. Technology increases the agility with which people can play around with images and the frequency with which they access representations of themselves. But what effect these images have on selfhood is completely an individual choice.