“What’s your Instagram?” When asked by a new acquaintance, this question universally signifies a successful social interaction. So when I say that I don’t have an Instagram, some are surprised—“You don’t have an Instagram?” A select few assume my absence stems from a sense of moral superiority, but I’m quick to set them straight: It’s not that I’m too good for Instagram; it’s that I’m not good enough. I just couldn’t hack it. Like many of my peers, I used Instagram in high school to keep up with friends and classmates. At the time, my complaints about the app were generic: It was a timesuck, and it enabled my undignified impulses to obsess over exes and celebrities. But when I left for college, keeping up became a fraught task.
As I perused Instagram from my freshman dorm, many of the young women I went to high school with—whom I’d seen nearly every day for four years—looked unrecognizable. Their noses were smaller, lips fuller, waists thinner, hips wider, breasts rounder, butts bigger. Their follower counts had ballooned overnight to the hundreds of thousands. I became obsessed, comparing their old photos with the new ones. Were the differences the result of Facetune, surgery, or both? Their beauty seemed impossible—breasts that seemed impossibly high on their chest; nipples impossibly centered on their breasts; stomachs so impossibly flat there was no way they could house internal organs. I felt gaslighted: I couldn’t reconcile what I was seeing with my memories, or my understanding of biology. The confusion arose from my faith in photography. In the 2008 book Still Moving: Between Cinema and Photography, art historian Tom Gunning writes about the “truth claim” of traditional photography, which describes the prevalent belief that photographs are accurate depictions of reality. Surviving on Instagram requires constantly negotiating photography’s truth claim with a barrage of photos that obscure the truth. I realized I wasn’t cut out for this negotiation and deleted my account.
I recently encountered a maxim I wish I’d heard as a freshman: “You’re not ugly, just poor.” Its use has proliferated alongside Instagram accounts dedicated to what I call celebrity before and afters. These accounts post images—usually composites of side-by-side photographs—that reveal discrepancies in stars’ appearances as a result of surgical and/or digital alteration. There are dozens of before-and-after accounts, many with substantial followings: @beauty.false and @celebface have more than 1 million followers each, while @celebbeforeafter and @s0cialmediavsreality each have follower counts of more than a quarter million. Their bios often include refrains like “welcome to reality” and “we know the truth.” One bio disclaims, “This isn’t a hate page, I’m just trying to show you that even celebrities aren’t perfect naturally.” Account admins position themselves as muckrakers and clarify that their goal isn’t to shame celebrities but to enlighten their fans. The phrase “You’re not ugly, just poor” is polysemic. In some cases, it does intend to shame; in others, it intends to educate. It can also read like consolation, a reminder not to hold yourself to impossible standards. Or it can sound like encouragement, that with a little cash, you too can look this good. It can even feel like an indictment of the rich and how they’ve warped our self-image by engineering physical ideals accessible to a select few. But across usages, “you’re not ugly, just poor” communicates that beauty is often not naturally occurring; that the wealthy can simply buy beauty; and that, by and large, current beauty trends require pricey cosmetic intervention.
None of this is news. Plastic surgery has been around for a century and photographic manipulation for nearly two. Women in the spotlight have always been artificially enhanced. Dating back to the ’30s, Hollywood stars routinely underwent cosmetic procedures, usually on the studio’s dime: Rita Hayworth received painful electrolysis to push up her “ethnic” hairline; Joan Crawford had her molars extracted to emphasize the hollows of her cheeks. Meanwhile, manual retouching, plus lighting and makeup, created less-than-realistic images of stars in their off-hours. Now, through Instagram, famous women—all women—have the agency to turn the camera on themselves and disseminate their likeness on their own terms. But the app hasn’t encouraged authenticity so much as promoted homogeneity, ushering in what the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino calls “the age of Instagram face.” The most notable purveyors of Instagram face (and constant fixtures of before-and-after Instagram accounts) are the Hadid sisters and the Kardashian-Jenner sisters. Their facial features are the same ones that suddenly appeared on the faces of my former classmates: a button nose, a plump pout, large (often slanted) eyes, pronounced cheekbones, perfect skin. Also popular—and rarely achievable by genetics alone—is Instagram body: an hourglass figure acceptable in its thicc and skinny variations. Calculated poses and makeup tricks like eyelash extensions and overlined lips help create the look of Instagram face and body. But the Hadids and Kardashian-Jenners—and the many women molded in their image—owe their appearances mostly to plastic surgery and photo editing.
By inhabiting a body, every woman unwillingly enters into a social contract. I know this—all women do. Her body can’t just be a body; it is also a site for public opinion and contestation. For famous women, even if their appearance is seemingly unrelated to their profession, that scrutiny intensifies. So should we accept celebrity before-and-after accounts as yet another stipulation in the social contract? In one sense, before-and-after accounts are heinous: They perpetuate a cultural obsession with evaluating women’s appearances, reduce women to their basic physical components, and practice textbook objectification. They almost exclusively scrutinize women’s faces and bodies, though celebrities of all genders undergo cosmetic enhancement. They also define methods of enhancement too broadly, ranging from surgery and editing to natural lighting and normal puberty. Staged photo shoots are deliberately juxtaposed with unflattering candid shots (invasively obtained by paparazzi). And reasons behind physical modification aren’t considered, so blackfishing white women are lumped in with Black women who adopt Eurocentric beauty norms to survive a white supremacist culture. On the whole, these accounts epitomize the digital panopticon in which all women are trapped—always being watched but unable to see who’s watching.
Yet, in another sense, they provide a palliative reality check, debunking what appears to be superhuman beauty. Critics condemn before-and-after accounts as “ruthless,” “savage,” and “obviously unfeminist,” but noting a physical change is not always the same as criticizing it. (@celebrityplastics explicitly states their “aim to show the world the HOTTEST trends in cosmetic surgery from the best plastic surgeons in the industry, along with detailed analyses of their celebrity clientele.”) Just as sports commentators pore over replays of professional athletes’ performances, one could argue that these accounts also examine the aesthetic “performances” of stars whose appearances are their profession. What to some is a mean-spirited endeavor can also be interpreted as a taxonomic project. I think of a recently passed French law, which mandates that all digitally altered images—like those that feature retouched models—be labeled accordingly. Shaming women’s altered appearances is obviously misogynistic, but seeing alterations labeled—flagging that the lips are artificially filled, the poreless skin is airbrushed, and not even Bella Hadid always looked like Bella Hadid—admittedly makes me feel less inadequate for not stacking up.
Before-and-after Instagram accounts provide a palliative reality check, debunking what appears to be superhuman beauty.
Have I internalized a hierarchy of beauty in which I see “natural” beauty as superior? And why should I feel better knowing a woman who is more beautiful than I am doesn’t “wake up like this”? It doesn’t change the fact of her beauty or render it any less real. Or was I soothed by knowing that perhaps, one day, if I pulled myself up by the bootstraps, I could achieve this beauty too? That if I worked hard and saved up, I could get myself the rhinoplasty and lip injections to look like Kendall, Gigi, and the girls from high school? Curious, I revisit the Instagram pages of my remodeled former classmates: One has more than 400,000 followers; another has 500,000; another 600,000. Their bios list contact information for publicists and managers; their photos tag the modeling agencies that have signed them and the brands that sponsor them. They might now qualify as D- or even C-list celebs; since before-and-after accounts very loosely define “celebrity,” I imagine their side-by-sides might one day appear on @celebbeforeafter or @beauty.false. I keep scrolling: They’re in Malibu, then Mykonos, hawking makeup and face masks and SkinnyMint detox bundles that will make you—yes, you!—look as good as they do. (In this instant, I realize yet another possible motive of before-and-after accounts: to combat false advertising.)
Maybe I like before-and-after accounts because I’m jealous, bitter that some women’s looks afford them revenue streams and lifestyles beyond my reach. Or maybe I’m frustrated that while some women profit from the panopticon, many women in the public eye are victimized by it. Pointing out Kendall Jenner’s Botox and Facetuning does nothing to ameliorate this. My mind folds in on itself: Cosmetic surgery is a sexist scam that drains women of their personal capital; no, it helps women exert control over their bodies and feel like the best version of themselves. Women use photo manipulation because of patriarchal pressures to look perfect; no, some women feel genuinely empowered by it. Before-and-after accounts challenge beauty standards that are achievable only via cost-prohibitive surgery and deceptive retouching; no, before-and-after accounts dehumanize women by subjecting them to rabid aesthetic scrutiny. Who cares if women choose to change their bodies or photos? But do they always feel they even have a choice? When I look up from my screen, I see that three hours have passed. After all this, I’ve arrived at no tidy conclusion about beauty or celebrity or scrutiny or comparison, except that my power extends only so far as my own personal participation in all of it. I acknowledge the twisted comfort I take in before-and-after accounts but decide it prudent to stay away for a while, if only to avoid falling again into this ethical vortex. If nothing else, I’ve at least confirmed my unfitness for Instagram. I close my laptop and make my way outside for a head-clearing walk, but not before catching my face in the mirror and tugging at my lips to see what they might look like filled with Juvederm.