Tag Archives: plastic surgery

The Lure of the Generic Face

Laurie and Debbie say:

instagram face filter montage

EIther Coco Chanel or George Orwell (two very different people!) or both, said ““Nature gives you the face you have at twenty. Life shapes the face you have at thirty. But at fifty you get the face you deserve.”

Jia Tolentino’s “The Age of Instagram Face” in the New Yorker demonstrates how much less true that is now than it was when Chanel said it. Tolentino’s piece covers two closely linked and deeply disturbing trends. Tolentino writes first about the use of face filters and FaceTune on Instagram, Snapchat, and other picture and selfie apps:

Snapchat, which launched in 2011 and was originally known as a purveyor of disappearing messages, has maintained its user base in large part by providing photo filters, some of which allow you to become intimately familiar with what your face would look like if it were ten-per-cent more conventionally attractive—if it were thinner, or had smoother skin, larger eyes, fuller lips. Instagram has added an array of flattering selfie filters to its Stories feature. FaceTune, which was released in 2013 and promises to help you “wow your friends with every selfie,” enables even more precision. A number of Instagram accounts are dedicated to identifying the tweaks that celebrities make to their features with photo-editing apps. Celeb Face, which has more than a million followers, posts photos from the accounts of celebrities, adding arrows to spotlight signs of careless FaceTuning. Follow Celeb Face for a month, and this constant perfecting process begins to seem both mundane and pathological.

That may be, but popular and reassuring trumps mundane and pathological every day, especially when people are desperate for praise and recognition. Tolentino interviewed “celebrity makeup artist Colby Smith” who estimates that 95% of the most-followed people on Instagram use FaceTune.

Technologically, we have never before been able to so thoroughly modify images of our faces, and especially to modify moving images of our faces. Makeup has been around for centuries, plastic surgery of varying quality for many decades, and yet this is a sea change. It is disappointing, though not surprising, that this ability is primarily being used to make us look more alike, and more generic, rather than more individual.

If you manipulate your face on social media, what happens when you go out in the world? You won’t look the way you’ve presented yourself; you’ll have to show the “imperfections” that you can hide on line. And that takes us to Tolentino’s second topic: the development of plastic surgery.

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, Americans received more than seven million neurotoxin injections in 2018, and more than two and a half million filler injections. That year, Americans spent $16.5 billion on cosmetic surgery; ninety-two per cent of these procedures were performed on women. Thanks to injectables, cosmetic procedures are no longer just for people who want huge changes, or who are deep in battle with the aging process—they’re for millennials, or even, in rarefied cases, members of Gen Z.

Tolentino goes into detail about what plastic surgeons can do, how they do it, and what it costs (the least expensive procedures are $6,000 or so; a full suite of recommended changes could come to $30,000). The procedures are done using FaceTune and similar apps as trial runs: what if we sharpened your chin here? you would look like this. what if we pulled up your cheekbone here? you would look like this.  So the same apps we use to modify our faces on line can be shopping apps for what work we want done.

The result:  If you have the money, you can modify your face online, and then modify your face in real life to match or approximate what you’ve done online. If you want to look more like Kim Kardashian, you can.

So what do people (still mostly, but certainly not all women) want to look like? Tolentino ventured to Smith that it was …

a beauty ideal that favored white women capable of manufacturing a look of rootless exoticism. “Absolutely,” Smith said. “We’re talking an overly tan skin tone, a South Asian influence with the brows and eye shape, an African-American influence with the lips, a Caucasian influence with the nose, a cheek structure that is predominantly Native American and Middle Eastern.”

This is whiteness co-opting various “interesting” ethnic looks, taking facial features in the same way white people took tribal art objects, native lands, and so much more.

This media-fueled, profit-taking movement toward sameness impoverishes us all: the glory of the human face is in its variety and the way our lives inscribe themselves on our faces. So many kinds of diversity are at stake here: racial, ethnic, age, etc., but also the elusive and essential quality of individuality. It’s the only way you can have the face you deserve.


Follow Debbie on Twitter. Thanks to Wayward Cats for the pointer.


Do These Eyes Make Me Look Too Asian?

Laurie and Debbie say:

History repeats itself, and racist body-shaming history is no exception. Whether it was Jewish teenagers getting nose jobs as high-school graduation presents (which both of us remember) or African-American teenagers straightening their hair to look more “presentable,” the push to get young women to change their bodies to look “more normal” or “more like ‘everyone else'” is tireless. (Who is “everyone else?” The dominant version of pretty or beautiful at the time, which is always white, and otherwise varies by size and shape.)

Writing at ThinkProgress, Jessica Lewis interviews Jade Justad, who is raising money for Creased, a short film on Asian eye surgery.

When Jade Justad was 13 years old, she went to a makeup counter at the mall with her girlfriends. Everyone else was white; Justad has a white father and a Korean mother. The crease in her eyelid, more pronounced now that she’s 30, was less defined at the time. The woman at the counter did up all her friends first. Then she approached Justad, an apprehensive expression on her face.

“I can do this to open up your eyes,” she said finally. “And westernize them.”

“I’d never thought before that there was something wrong with my eyes,” Justad said by phone. “When I share that with other Asian women, they say: yup, that happened to me.”

As Lewis explores in the interview, and as detailed far more in Patricia Marx’s New Yorker article, “About Face,” Asian eye surgery (also called “double-eyelid surgery”) is not as simple as a racist urge to “Westernize” Asian eyes. However, if you’re a 13-year-old girl in the United States who is being told that your eyes are somehow wrong, it is that simple.


Lewis’s post and Justad’s proposal are about America. They talk about Julie Chen,

… arguably the most famous woman to undergo and openly discuss double-eyelid surgery. … in 1995, when Chen was a reporter at WDTN-TV in Daytona — told her … “You will never be on this anchor desk, because you’re Chinese… Because of your Asian eyes, [when] you’re interviewing someone, you look disinterested and bored because your eyes are so heavy, they are so small.’”

Later on, a “big-time agent” told her, point-blank: “I cannot represent you unless you get plastic surgery to make your eyes look bigger.”

“Now it’s like, I sometimes wonder,” Chen said. “But I will say, after I had that done, everything kind of, the ball did roll for me.”

Racism, pure and simple. Here’s Justad again:

I started feeling like, I would be prettier if I were white. And that was really shameful for me to think about. I didn’t want to talk about it. Because I have a lot of pride in being Asian-American. But that’s the cost of being completely assimilated into a culture where I simply see myself as an American girl, but I’m a woman of Asian descent. I start getting these messages that I’m still a bit of an outsider. And what 18-year-old wants to be an outsider?

This is the same impulse that causes African-American children overwhelmingly to select white dolls as prettier, that causes people to file into plastic surgeons’ offices to change something–anything–that identifies them as “not white” and thus “not right.”

Telling our stories is one of the few weapons we have to combat this noxious pressure to look “right.” You can support Justad’s film on Kickstarter if you are so inclined. Even before it is finished, the film is doing good work: “Even girls who didn’t get cast, Justad said, reached out to her after the audition to thank her for making the movie. ‘They’d never seen a casting announcement asking for monolids.'”