The Afterword: The emergence of ‘InstaFace’ confuses female empowerment

(Arielle Chen | Daily Trojan)

To be honest, during quarantine, I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time staring at myself in the mirror. I’ve picked myself apart, criticizing the size of my pores and the shape of my nose, among other minor imperfections that have pervaded my day-to-day.

Though, to me, it feels like my insecurities have heightened out of the blue. I imagine it has a lot to do with the fact that stay-at-home orders have sent iPhone screen time reports through the roof. Spending more and more time on social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat has made me acutely aware of just how corrosive these platforms can be — particularly to the female psyche. Sure, that’s not a hot take by any stretch, but I feel as if I’m watching female beauty standards quickly and unforgivably move to a dangerous place.

We’re all familiar with Instagram and Snapchat filters that give you fuller lips, clearer skin and bigger eyes. The truth (whether you want to admit or not) is that many of us have or know someone who has turned to FaceTune, a photo-editing app, for a quick fix before posting a pic. And we’ve definitely all clocked other social media users for edit fails. These tools are so ubiquitous and normalized that no one bats a fake eyelash at them in the same way that cosmetic procedures like cheek fillers and lip injections have become lunch break pastimes for the professionally beautiful. Social media, photo editing apps and plastic surgery have combined forces to create a distinct cyborgian look, complete with a dark tan, catlike eyes, a cutesy ski-slope nose and full, lush lips. In the powerful words of The New Yorker, “the face is distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic” — think Kylie Jenner, Kim Kardashian, Bella Hadid and other public figure dotting Instagram’s “Explore” page. 

Simultaneously, for better or for worse, mainstream feminism has evolved to compliment rather than criticize this cultural shift. The burn-your-bra style feminism of the ’60s saw embracing the natural and rejecting the artificial (bras, curlers, high heels, etc.) as a symbol of independence from men and while I categorically reject the notion that a woman can’t be a feminist and prioritize her physical appearance, The New Yorker is not wrong that “a strain of mainstream feminism teaches women that self-objectification is progressive.” 

In 2020, many public figures are as open as they come about their plastic surgery journeys; popular YouTuber Tana Mongeau has posted a litany of videos documenting her cosmetic procedures: “Get a Face Full of Filler with Me.” “I Got a Nose Job?” and “i Got Kylie Jenner butt shots… oops (needle warning).” At this point, it is common knowledge that social media influencers lean into the plastic hard. And honestly, I’m torn about how I feel about this. On one hand, I am a huge proponent of taking control of your body and doing what feels right to you no matter what anyone thinks; whether what’s “right to you” means monthly fillers, a strict diet or nothing at all. On the other hand, I have to ask, when it comes to getting plastic surgery, where do we draw the line between “taking control of your body” and mutilating your appearance because of changing societal norms that are deceptively and insidiously imposed upon women? And how are young girls meant to tell the difference between the two? Can they?

What comes to mind is the concept of The Overton Window, a political model for understanding how ideas in society change over time and which currents of thought breach the mainstream. The Overton Window can both shift and expand, either increasing or shrinking the number of ideas politicians can support without risking electoral support. Basically, everything inside the window is fair game while everything that lies outside of it is taboo, too extreme or too far of a reach to tickle public sentiment. (Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, managed to shift The Overton Window by normalizing socialist policies previously thought to be radical and out of the question, such as taxing the rich.)

The way I see it, the Insta-thot industrial complex — composed of the Jenners, the Kardashians, the Hadid sisters and Hailey Rhode Bieber, among many other celebrities — is shifting The Overton Window of beauty in a big (and probably harmful) way. Female beauty standards are as unattainable as ever; we are desensitized to the most invasive cosmetic procedures and the criteria for “perfection” are narrowing and homogenizing.     

These airbrushed superhumans endorse and reinforce an impossible beauty ideal with every post, on every platform, as their followers — myself included — become more accustomed and receptive to it with each passing day (not to mention the fact that this blueprint for beauty depends entirely on cultural appropriation, which is a whole other article in and of itself). So, all things considered, just how much of the plastic-surgery-positive ideology is a choice for young women growing up in this climate? 

I am writing this column because I am a woman struggling to navigate this climate, and recently — left alone with my thoughts in quarantine — I have found it quite difficult and demoralizing at times. I have contemplated nose jobs, fillers and injections, totally convinced I want them in one moment only to find myself thinking in the next, “How much of this do I really want, and how much of it is because social media is telling me that this is what ‘pretty,’ this is what ‘hot,’ looks like?”

I don’t intend to come off as superficial or judgmental — I commend those who own their decisions proudly. But I have to wonder to what extent these decisions are really “ours” and to what extent they are the direct product of insidious social norms.

Rachel McKenzie is a rising senior writing about pop culture. She is also the opinion editor for Summer Trojan. Her column, “The Afterword,” runs every other Wednesday.