Facial dysmorphia can strike at any moment. Last night, I found myself in an Instagram spiral, scrolling through images and videos of perfectly groomed influencers. What was startling was that they all looked similar, albeit on a spectrum that ranged from beautifully normal to downright otherworldly.
Variations on snatched jawlines, high cheekbones, slim noses, pouty lips and cat-like eyes stared back at me from beyond my iPhone screen. And you know what? I quickly started thinking about the fact I wasn’t as beautiful as these women and that perhaps I should think about getting my lips done again. I did it once years ago and was non-plussed by the results—and yet, 20 minutes scrolling the app as I was nodding off (and quite possibly in a more vulnerable state), I was convincing myself a little filler here and there wouldn’t be the worst idea. My jawline is a little slack, I thought. And I could do with a bit more "bone" in my cheeks.
Our Vision is Drunk
I’m not alone in this sort of Instagram-enabled facial dysmorphia. In fact, it’s so common that aesthetic doctor Kate Goldie has authored a study on this modern phenomenon, set to be published this year. While Instagram may be a catalyst (and a very good echo chamber), Goldie believes this sort of dysmorphia is happening in real life too. “You might have lunch with a friend who has had their lips done, go to the bathroom and look in the mirror and think yours need doing too,” she tells Byrdie. Instagram is just exacerbating this reaction because we’re seeing a wealth of the same look in an abundance of images during one session of scrolling.
"What's interesting is that it’s an actual physiological change that is happening to us," Goldie explains. "It’s like being temporarily drunk—our brain shifts its baseline, but it’s a visual illusion." So, looking at images of disproportionately filled faces actually changes what we think is attractive. And it happens fast—looking at filled faces and filters for just 90 seconds can shift your brain for hours afterwards. So, if you constantly look at Instagram you’ll just keep topping it up and never reset.
Our "visual diet"—so what we see each day, can have a powerful effect on us. We need to be mindful of what we're looking at. “It’s partly how fashion trends work, but with beauty, we have people starting to make more permanent changes to their faces,” notes Goldie. And it can be a gradual process of “small tweaks over time that can start to look distinctly abnormal outside of your social circle.”
Reset Your Mind
It may all sound quite scary, but we can reset our mindset back to its sober state fairly quickly by looking at the other extreme.
“You need to cleanse your palette,” says Goldie. “Go hang out with your grandma!”
Our mind will keep updating what’s normal from an average of the faces we see, so the more we look at one type of face, the more we will think that’s beautiful and normal. And while Goldie’s study didn’t assess it, she does believe that some people are more susceptible to facial dysmorphia than others. And worryingly, injectors are not immune from this phenomenon, and they see a lot of sculpted faces. So, if you do decide you want to have a little minimally invasive tweakment, such as Botox or filler, be sure to look at the faces they have worked on to be sure they have an aesthetic that’s in line with the sort of look you want.
Goldie, who works out of a space on the renowned Harley Street in London, noted that she could see people who couldn’t see their own face or remember what’s normal. "I was at an aesthetics conference and heard two people talking about how weird someone looked and, when I saw their faces, I was shocked as they looked just as weird," she notes.
The study isn’t just a way of helping patients to understand what’s happening in their brains, but for injectors too. “As doctors, we always want to find ways to be better artists and this is one aspect of it," she explains. "We’re empowered to subtly changes faces, but we have to be careful. If a face is too 'perfect,' it becomes bland, and part of the art of what we do is to achieve a balance between those two things—uniqueness and symmetry. Good artists are aware.”
The combination of being able to create a fake "visual diet" using social media technology, like plastic surgery Instagram filters and face tuning apps, coupled with the fact it’s easier than ever before to have filler or Botox injected means we’re at a worrying intersection for the future of our faces. Botched injections or even an excess of well-done treatments at a young age could affect our faces—and what we perceive as normal and beautiful—much further down the line. Want to keep your visual diet in check? Add these age 50+ influencers to your follow list on Instagram.
Couture AC. The looking glass selfie: Instagram use frequency predicts visual attention to high-anxiety body regions in young women. Comput Hum Behav. 2020;108:106329. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2020.106329