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The Rise of 'Instagram Face'

Social media acts with its own rules, and the beauty ideal escalates.

An awakening has been taking place in the physical world, against the beauty model that has been dictated to us for years. But in the digital arena, where younger generations spend most of their time, social media determines what is considered beautiful.

These two opposing struggles are taking place in parallel. In the physical world, the struggle goes against the latent pressure exerted on women to conform to an unrealistic beauty ideal. As part of the struggle, various media outlets have presented women whose bodies don't correspond to the so-called ideal. All those women who had previously been excluded from the covers of magazines, from television series, and from the public agenda, have become "legitimate." At the same time, influencers have begun to upload to social media photos of themselves without makeup, and even photos in which they highlight stretch marks, body hair, or other supposed flaws.

Meanwhile, social media acts with its own rules, and the beauty ideal escalates without any barriers and brakes.

One example that encapsulates the processes is Tai, the AI chatbot developed by Microsoft, which was supposed to simulate a teenage girl who invited users to communicate with her via a Twitter account, so it could become an intelligent virtual entity quickly, learning humanity through social media interactions.

Within hours of being aired, it turned from an innocent app that answered questions like the weather forecast or recommended restaurants into a neo-Nazi who shared its hatred of Jews and sympathy for Hitler. It learned that the neo-Nazi's favorite candidate, Donald Trump, was "so cool" and that feminists should be humiliated. Microsoft was forced to discontinue the experiment and issue a public apology.

Tai's story provides an important lesson of the escalation that the human race goes through on social media. In the absence of a framework of rules on what is allowed and what is forbidden, escalation will be guided by the two forces that drive us: aggression and sexuality. Returning to the beauty ideal, not only does it not promote a healthier ideal, it brings about new and unfamiliar mental disorders.

'Instagram Face'

Technology has reshaped our beauty ideal and is doing a great job communicating that gospel to the masses. One bizarre legacy of the past decade is the popularity of the “cyborg look,” which has been adopted among influencers.

The most accurate description I have seen of the phenomenon was suggested by Jia Tolentino of The New Yorker: "the gradual emergence, among professionally beautiful women, of a single, cyborgian face. It’s a young face, of course, with poreless skin and plump, high cheekbones. It has catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; it has a small, neat nose and full, lush lips. It looks at you coyly but blankly, as if its owner has taken half a Klonopin and is considering asking you for a private-jet ride to Coachella. The face is distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic — it suggests a National Geographic composite illustrating what Americans will look like in 2050, if every American of the future were to be a direct descendant of Kim Kardashian West, Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and Kendall Jenner (who looks exactly like Emily Ratajkowski)."

It is unclear what came first: Were the filters created in the image of the influencers, or did the influencers shape their faces to resemble their own poltergeist? Either way, the cyborg look spread rapidly, and today the Instagram face has become the new beauty ideal.

The Rapid Internalization of the New Beauty Norms

The internalization of accepted beauty norms is much more effective when there is active involvement in the learning process. The active involvement of users is reflected in the gamified interaction offered by the social media platforms, including the ability to Like, write a comment, compare, and share.

Once the desired beauty ideal has been internalized, users are given tools or features to change their appearance to suit the accepted ideal such as editing the image or choosing the ideal filter or background.

A survey conducted by the Renfrew Center Foundation among 1,710 adolescents in the United States revealed that more than 50% filter their images before posting them — and you will not be surprised to hear that the majority of them are women. One significant consequence of obsessive filtering is the emerging tendency to self-reification and self-evaluation — treating myself as a third person, as an object to be observed and valued, in the same way another person observes and judges from the side.

Social media encourage users to be involved and take an active part in the process of evaluating others and themselves. Users examine their images, editing and shape them to fit the accepted beauty ideal.

Snapchat Disorder

The effect of the filters is already far beyond amiable amusement or unharmed retouch. The filters and the entire game played on the networks affect the mental health of the users. According to a study published in the JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery journal, apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and FaceTune allow users to achieve a level of perfection that was previously only observed in beauty magazines — only this time they are in the role of model.

Plastic surgeon Tijion Asho noticed that if in the past patients came to him and brought pictures of celebrities they want to look like, today they come with filtered pictures of themselves. The phenomenon of people wanting to look like their digital persona is called "Snapchat dysmorphia." According to a study conducted at the American Academy of Facial Surgery, 55% of plastic surgeons testified that they have performed plastic surgery aimed at helping women resemble their image in Snapchat.

Humanity has always cherished beauty. But in the last decade, our obsession with looks has reached a new peak. The time spent on social media creates an urge to achieve an impossible beauty ideal so powerful that the fix it is not cosmetic intervention but mental health care.

More from Liraz Margalit Ph.D.
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