Do you remember the Kylie Jenner lip challenge in 2015? The internet went under her spell as countless teens took to social media to share videos of themselves suctioning their lips inside a shot glass, hoping to recreate Kylie’s voluptuous (and artificial) lips. The results of the challenge were grotesque: Participants would end up with bloodshot, bruised and swollen lips, and some teens were sent to the ER for their injuries. Looking back on the challenge six years later, I have come to realize that a trend I initially found hilarious as a child was, is in fact, a symptom of a much larger issue: the mindless replication of the Instagram look.
What is the Instagram face? Go on the Instagram Explore Page, and you will soon find out. Most women able to garner fame and praise through their appearance on social media have very similar faces; it is as if their features follow a specific template. Based on my observations as an avid social media user, the “look” often includes:
- A youthful, heart-shaped face
- A small button nose with an upturned tip
- Full lips with a defined philtrum
- Full, but well-groomed brows
- Upturned, cat-like eyes
- A defined, forward-pointing chin and a chiseled jawline to match
- High cheekbones
- Defined lashes sometimes achieved through extensions
- Tan, dewy skin
- The length of the nose perfectly trisects the rest of the face
- Distance between the eyes being equal the width of one eye
- Natural-looking makeup
- Voluptuous bust and buttocks
- A tiny waist with defined abdominals
- Long, shiny hair
- Never repeating an outfit and always trendy
The Instagram look is racially ambiguous, as it includes many features commonly found in Black women, Indigenous women and other women of color. However, BIPOC women who naturally have these features, compared to rich white and white-adjacent women who have gone through cosmetic procedures to achieve the same features for aesthetic’s sake, are rarely given the same level of acclaim or endorsements for their natural beauty.
The Kardashians are known for going under the knife and appropriating ethnic styles to achieve a racially ambiguous look, all the while denying they have gotten cosmetic procedures, thus further raising beauty standards for women. Kylie Jenner underwent a lip-enhancing procedure in her teen years that broke the internet, making her the pioneer of the Instagram face. She has been able to market and create a lip product line so successful it elevated her to the status of a “self-made” multi-millionaire. Through excessive tanning, getting procedures to plump their lips and creating a more curvy figure, the Kardashians are effectively appropriating Black and brown features as their own. By becoming the trademarked beauty standard in the 2010s, the famous family did erase and is still actively erasing BIPOC beauty and encouraging more white and white-adjacent women to follow suit in appropriating these features.
Consider how we take naturally full lips on Black girls for granted, but Kylie Jenner’s surgically altered ones are admired and emulated. White models routinely use fake or spray tan to appear darker and more exotic, while darker-skinned women are rarely praised for their natural skin tone. BIPOC women often face colorism and even sometimes pressure to become lighter. Also consider how East Asians have always been mocked through the racist gesture of pulling one’s eyes back, but when white models are doing said gesture in the name of fashion or a more “lifted” look, they are deemed as beautiful.
The appropriation doesn’t end at BIPOC features — Instagrammers and celebrities alike are also appropriating BIPOC styles and creativity. A lot of the styles popularized by social media, such as bandannas and streetwear, were worn almost exclusively by Black and brown people before the age of social media. Through appropriating Black and brown creativity, white influencers and celebrities have commodified styles that used to be more accessible to the general public. For instance, certain Nike sneakers used to be much cheaper when they were much more popular within minority groups. After the popularization of sneaker styles such as the Jordan Mids, resell prices then skyrocketed to maximize profit, thus excluding the communities that popularized the style in the first place.
The majority of society are viewing these flawlessly posed and edited images of Instagram models. Upon being bombarded by these images of beautiful women online, people will subconsciously raise and isolate the standard for what it means to be feminine and attractive. While cis-gendered, heterosexual men are viewing these influencers for their own enjoyment, as they are likely attracted to the models’ physicality, women and female-presenting people are almost always viewing these models for inspiration, in pursuit of their beauty, which then turns into critical self-deprecation. We are socialized to view each other as competition. The patriarchy encourages us to center our physical attractiveness at the core of our identities, and as a result we often view ourselves critically and take actions, such as putting on makeup or getting cosmetic procedures, in hopes of becoming more “beautiful.”
Instagram models prey on other women’s insecurities. While following and viewing your favorite influencers can start out innocently, it almost always leads to some kind of comparative self-esteem issue. The majority of women and girls do not have the same access to makeup artists, trainers or nutritionists as these models. Therefore, women who do not have these resources may feel bad about themselves when compared to the highly manufactured images of Instagram models. Young women, and especially teens, without a fully developed identity and body image, can easily develop self-image issues and even eating disorders in pursuit of the elusive ideal.
This beauty standard is so elusive that the small fraction of girls who do fit into it are getting brand endorsement deals, which used to be unthinkable before the age of social media. These opportunities naturally invoke some level of insecurity in other women. Like the name “influencer” entails, the influencers take advantage of their followers’ insecurities and influence them to purchase more makeup or trendy clothes that often come from unethical fast fashion brands.
Some women have gotten multiple forms of cosmetic procedures to replicate the Instagram look. Procedures such as breast lifts and buttock lifts have increased exponentially since the beginning of the century, coinciding with the rise of social media.
At “best,” men dismiss women they find unattractive. At their worst, men abuse women they find unattractive, especially in romantic partnerships. Because of how society treats beauty as an integral part of a woman’s identity, and if their beauty does not meet a certain standard, they could face professional and societal limitations, in comparison to women who do fit that standard. As beauty standards become more particular and less attainable, society as a whole becomes more accustomed to the aesthetic expectation of these women online, and in real life, there will be a larger bracket of women who they might deem unattractive. To some extent, this will lead to the mistreatment of women who are deemed as conventionally unattractive.
On most social media platforms, once you interact with influencers, the algorithm takes notice and pushes more posts of the same genre to you. Thus, Instagram models are gradually becoming omnipresent on most people’s timelines and explore pages. While viewing these carefully curated images can be exhausting and make us insecure, consider that nobody is perfect in the way these images are. The pictures you see on social media are posed and edited: Sometimes even with a team behind the model, helping her create the best image of herself. Knowing how harmful these beauty standards are to young girls, there are now influencers who are actively defying them by posting untouched images of their faces and bodies, showing their authentic selves.
To whom this may concern: Please do take social media breaks if you need it! Unfollow the influencers and delete the apps if that helps, and always keep in mind that pictures posted by celebrities are often as manufactured as can be.
MiC Columnist Zoe Zhang can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org