Plastic surgery is something most people, I reckon, have very complicated thoughts about. It used to be this very drastic and dramatic thing that only super rich people seemed to do, and it wasn’t just about an aesthetic choice either. It was about fitting in, it was about middle-aged people having a midlife crisis and deciding that the problem was the wrinkles on their faces, not their childhood trauma. Crucially, it appeared to be rooted in feeling that there was something wrong with your natural face and therefor the need to go to the doctors to fix it, like you would for a broken bone. Plastic surgery – and the beauty industry in general – has always been surrounded by controversy, yet despite this, cosmetic treatments are on the rise. In the USA, 13.1 million people went under the knife in 2010, and that number has risen to 18 million in 2018.
If you take a little peek throughout history, it doesn’t take long before noticing that beauty standards have always been absolutely wild. Take the early 12th century for example: in China the hottest trend of the day was to completely shave your eyebrows off and draw them back on in blue paint. Eerily, this trend has repeated itself, though minus the blue paint. Everyone remembers the scene in documentary series Educating Yorkshire, where a teenage girl very confidently asked, “Do you like my eyebrows? I shaved ’em all off”, right? Also, take the early noughties as another example. All that denim, wire thin brows, heavy lip gloss, and technicolour eye shadow: a trend even Beyonce didn’t shy away from.
These days it’s the insta-face that has become ubiquitous. The plump lips, ombre eyebrows, thick, doe-like lashes, and distinctly white yet ethnically ambiguous tanned skin are the look. Instagram has contributed to a democratisation of the beautiful face, since the influences on beauty trends are now coming from everywhere. Ariana Grande’s a perfect example of this. The bigger her tulle dress gets, the darker her skin gets. Similarly, the Kardashians are often blamed for this meteoric rise in temporary cosmetic treatments like brow lifts and lip fillers. Day by day, you can’t really see the difference between Kylie Jenner’s ever migratory eyebrows, but one look at a picture when she was a young teen and one when she was 19 will show a huge difference – more than what the wills and whims of puberty can account for.
The thing is, like all trends, the “insta-face” will fade into obscurity at some point. Like double denim and frosted tips, we’ll look back one day at overdrawn lip liner and shudder. So what’s all the moral panic about? If it doesn’t really matter in the long run, why does anyone give that much of a shit? Well, I think it goes back to class. The expense of beauty procedures has always been a method for shutting out the lower classes. Once again, take a look through history and you’ll find trends that, one could suggest, were created purely to exclude poor people from the luxury of being beautiful. From the huge lace dresses of the Victorian era to Rococo golden jewellery, being beautiful has always cost a lot, both literally and metaphorically (corsets that rearrange your insides, anyone?).
In 2018, $16.5 billion dollars was spent on plastic surgery in the US alone. That is, like, so much money. With that, you could buy a house in central London and still have enough left over to buy a Freddo. And that’s just plastic surgery; that’s not taking into account all the money spent on other cosmetics. However, plastic surgery is now far less invasive, and costs less, too.
Instagram accounts of Beverly Hills plastic surgeons regularly gain thousands, even millions of likes and views promoting that sought-after “insta-face”. A recent New York Times essay said that these sorts of body modifications – fillers and the like – had become increasingly affordable, with lip fillers averaging at $680 a pop. But babes, that ain’t affordable. Natural Collection’s £2.49 lip gloss is affordable.
The only time throughout history that really stands out as a time when the working classes could properly participate in beauty trends is the Georgian era – basically, Jane Austen times. The clothes were simple, lace and frills were minimal, and the beauty trend was to have a clear face with your hair pulled back. The only extravagance really was a bonnet.
Earlier I mentioned that Instagram had, in a way, democratised beauty. People of colour, the LGBT+ community, and generally non-conforming people have more visibility than ever. There are increasingly different types of beauty being recognised and celebrated, even if the “insta-face” is fairly generic. Yet there’s still one elephant in the room: in popular culture, we seem to love beauty but despise beautiful people. From movie to movie, we see the beautiful, popular girl being framed as shallow, conceited and vain. The jock-boyfriend then realises it’s actually the nerd who’s beautiful, but obviously, only after she’s taken off her glasses, put on a bit of lippy, and straightened her hair. Being obsessed with looking beautiful somehow makes you a bad person. You’re only allowed to be beautiful if you’re not the type to stoop low enough to strive for beauty yourself. A fairy godmother, a loving aunt, the all-knowing bestie, is always the one that plonks the nerd down in the chair and gives her a make-over.
These days you don’t need a fairy godmother when there’s Facetune and Snapchat filters; made infamous for their face-changing and skin lightening qualities. With just the swipe of a finger, you too can see what you’d look like if you’d had a little cosmetic work done. The blurring of all these lines between the face in the mirror and the face in the filter has become an incredibly lucrative industry, and not just for the surgeons; for the patients themselves. Anyone can be an influencer now, which I suppose means anyone can be beautiful. But only as long as you’re using the right filter.