Is "Instagram Face" de-racializing human faces?
A few months ago, I read an article by Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker titled The Age of Instagram Face
. The article talked about the ever-emerging “one-face fits all” on Instagram and the continuous quest for sameness through plastic surgery. It essentially highlighted how Instagram, and various facial editing apps and software like Facetune, have created a single type of face and body that is verifiably (literally with a blue check-mark) and “objectively” beautiful.
When you read the words “Instagram Face,” you know what I am talking about. This face has likely stared back at you from countless social media feeds – A canvas of poreless, light-reflecting skin, wide-set cat-like eyes behind huge eyelashes, sky-high cheekbones, an imperceptible nose, and pillowy voluptuous lips in a nude color. This face looks almost like a 3D rendition of a human. Cyborgian. Feline. Like a Bratz Doll
. A face that looks like it could be the spawn of a Kardashian or a Jenner or a Hadid. And social media is out to inundate us with an army of these faces. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, and a collective effort to try grapple with race, I started to wonder about its prevalence in our society and our desire to covet it. And whether Instagram Face is in fact deracializing beauty. To better understand this, let’s go back a bit.
A tale as old as time
Plastic surgery and cosmetic fillers have made "Instagram Face" the go-to look for women who profit off of their beauty. But is it pedaling a deracialized beauty ideal?
Beauty standards and norms have historically been geographical. In 2015, Buzzfeed did a video series
featuring models that represented ideal body types throughout history
. The series, that went all the way back to Ancient Egypt, illustrates the different types of bodies and faces that were considered “attractive” for the historical period and place they were in. For example, the Ancient Egyptian ideal of beauty was long braided hair framing a symmetrical face, a high-waist, and slim narrow shoulders. In Ancient Greece, women were thought of as “deformed men”, so a fuller and bulkier figure was considered the ideal standard. During the renaissance in Italy, women were viewed as tokens to elevate their husbands’ status. Therefore, plump women with fair skin and hair, and high foreheads, were considered the epitome of beauty - their fair features indicating a life free of hard labor in the harsh Mediterranean sun. People only had access to a small subset of the world’s population and so their understanding of beauty was relegated to what was in their immediate vicinity, and those that were economically privileged set the standards.
All that started to change in the late nineteenth and twentieth-century, especially after the Industrial Revolution. As transportation and travel became easier, people were exposed to more diverse populations, races, and cultures. As media and film became mainstream, especially as world globalization emerged, a single beauty standard began to form — a euro-centric beauty standard. Enter Instagram. The app, which launched in 2010 and has grown to over 1 billion users
every month, has made it so that we literally have access to the daily life of a Russian heiress half-way across the world. The lives and consciously curated feeds of over a billion people are at our fingertips, ready to taunt us through a little portal of anxiety at any moment.
As Instagram has grown in popularity, so has its extremely specific aesthetic. And once again, those with the financial assets to capitalize on the opportunity have benefited. The plastic surgery and filler industry, once the sad hobby of Real Housewives and Nancy Pelosi, are now part of a grooming and maintenance routine for millennials and increasingly, Gen Z. In 2018, over 10 million people went under the knife for aesthetic reasons, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery
. 12 million people had non-surgical injectable procedures. While these figures represent a myriad of issues including problems with self-esteem and identity, there is another more insidious consequence of Instagram Face — the simultaneous de-racialization of human faces, along with the racial appropriation of “exotic” features from other races, to create a racially ambiguous beauty ideal. Tolentino, calls this “the algorithmic tendency to flatten everything into a composite of greatest hits that have resulted in a beauty ideal that has favored white women capable of manufacturing a look of rootless exoticism.” A Caucasian base with influences borrowed from a variety of ethnicities gives you Kim Kardashian West. Or Kylie Jenner. Or Emily Ratajkowski or many Victoria Secret models.
Our faces and bodies are dictated by what gets the most engagement and likes on the internet — and it doesn’t seem to have a place to celebrate the individuality and uniqueness of humans that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to have different shades of skin, different textures of hair, and different shapes to their faces and bodies. The effects of this go beyond issues of self-esteem and pressure to conform. There is another message being sent to millions of young people — race isn’t beautiful. Ethnicity isn’t beautiful. Ethnic features aren’t beautiful. What is beautiful is this ambiguous ideal defined through a lens that is devoid of race.
Our faces and bodies are dictated by what gets the most engagement and likes on the internet
Beauty beyond a nip-tuck and a good anti-wrinkle cream
The pervasiveness of euro-centric beauty ideals is nothing new. For years, fashion magazines, television, media, and Hollywood, have been criticized for the lack of diversity on-screen and in-print. The popularity of fairness creams in the Asian and African markets are further proof of that. But over the past decade or so, this thinking has gone beyond skin color to modern eugenics of sorts, practically eradicating racial variations in facial features to create a single type of beautiful face. A composite of the best features of other races on a white base. To be beautiful means a rhinoplasty, double eyelid surgery, calf reduction surgery, breast augmentation, a butt-lift, lip fillers, cheek fillers, Botox, and countless other procedures. Achieving the beauty ideal no longer involves a little nip-tuck and some anti-wrinkle cream. It means letting a surgeon go to town on your body with a carving knife. It means looking at your body the way a management consultant would look at a deal and investing in all the high-yield opportunities.
This perverse narrative and beauty ideal are sold to women as empowering — both economically and like some strange “control over one’s body and sexuality” narrative and it couldn’t be more demeaning, disempowering, and at its core, racist. This ideal tells people of color and Black people that all the variation in their bodies and features that are a result of thousands of years of evolution simply does not measure up to an algorithmic standard of beauty. It tells young people that they need to invest thousands of dollars into eradicating their uniqueness and conforming to a single beauty standard to achieve Instagram, and by extension, socio-economic success. This is further exacerbated with photos of celebrities and models, many of whom have over the years started to subtly inch towards that exact algorithmic ideal through various procedures.
Ok, so what? It’s just Instagram, right?
Except it’s not. Instagram, like most social media platforms, is more than a space for keeping up with friends and family. It is a space for business. It is a space for influencers, entrepreneurs, brands, marketers, and people who are trying to build their companies, to promote their products, and to make a living off the platform. The algorithm decides what content gets seen and what doesn’t. What content gets pushed out to millions of eyeballs and what doesn’t, and that directly affects how economically successful someone is on the platform. If you are an influencer or a brand that uses Instagram to market your products (and most do), eyeballs matter. There is a direct correlation for example between the number of Instagram followers and engagement on social media posts. There is a direct correlation between the number of followers and the types of brands you can work with, or the amount of money you can command for your content. And so, there is a direct correlation between being thin, white, and cis-gendered (the western ideal for beauty) and your economic success on Instagram. What benefits people IRL benefits them on Instagram.
This has forced thousands of people of other races to emulate that look and follow that model. For example, Negin Mirsalehi
(@negin_mirsalehi), a Dutch model and influencer of Persian descent has 5.9 million followers on Instagram. She has been written about as an entrepreneur and force to be reckoned with in Harper’s Bazaar and is a Forbes 30 Under 30. She also looks nothing like the looks she was born with. Gone are her distinctive Persian features, to be replaced with the algorithmic ideal I talked about earlier. The pictures of her original face and body are also hard to find (she obviously doesn’t share them on her Instagram feed), but they are out there.
An entire generation of young people is essentially deracializing their faces and bodies, and ultimately, identities to fit the Western ideal of beauty for Instagram success.
So where do we go from here?
You may have heard this before, but it is no longer okay to simply not be racist. You need to be anti-racist. That means, if you have the privileged position of being an influencer who fits the mold, speak up for your fellow influencers and entrepreneurs. If you work with brands that claim to be “inclusive” and you don’t see any inclusion or diversity around you, ask why people with diverse faces and bodies are not invited to the table. After all, these brands sell to consumers with diverse faces and bodies who want to be represented. And if you are an influencer of color or are Black, embrace your beauty and uniqueness instead of feeding the beast and opting for a more algorithmically acceptable look. Things only change when people actively stop participating in the systems that continue to prop up prejudice. Instagram is a visual medium. If more brands start working with and promoting Black people, people of color, trans-gendered people, disabled people, and people with different body shapes and sizes, the algorithms will be forced to change. To be an ally means to speak up against the systems that benefit you to make space for others. If more brands hire diverse people, if more Black influencers and influencers of color start to get eyeballs, our feeds will soon become more than pink, orange, and white toned squares of skinny, blonde, white women. They will include the beauty and diversity that is reflective of who we are as a society. They will be reflective of the human race. And that is beautiful.