The Age of Instagram Face

Updated 08272022-081024

The plastic surgeon’s office was gorgeous and peaceful, a silvery oasis. A receptionist, humming along to “I Want to Know What Love Is,” handed me intake forms, which asked about stress factors and mental health, among other things. I signed an arbitration agreement. A medical assistant took photos of my face from five different angles. A medical consultant with lush hair and a deeply warm, caring aura came into the room. Careful not to lie, and lightly alarmed by the fact that I didn’t need to, I told her that I’d never gotten fillers or Botox but that I was interested in looking better, and that I wanted to know what experts would advise. She was complimentary, and told me that I shouldn’t get too much done. After a while, she suggested that maybe I would want to pay attention to my chin as I aged, and maybe my cheeks, too—maybe I’d want to lift them a little bit.

Then the celebrity doctor came in, giving off the intensity of a surgeon and the focus of a glassblower. I said to him, too, that I was just interested in looking better, and wanted to know what an expert would recommend. I showed him one of my filtered Snapchat photos. He glanced at it, nodded, and said, “Let me show you what we could do.” He took a photo of my face on his phone and projected it onto a TV screen on the wall. “I like to use FaceTune,” he said, tapping and dragging.

Within a few seconds, my face was shaped to match the Snapchat photo. He took another picture of me, in profile, and FaceTuned the chin again. I had a heart-shaped face, and visible cheekbones. All of this was achievable, he said, with chin filler, cheek filler, and perhaps an ultrasound procedure that would dissolve the fat in the lower half of my cheeks—or we could use Botox to paralyze and shrink my masseter muscles.

I asked the doctor what he told people who came to see him wanting to look like his best-known patients. “People come in with pictures of my most famous clients all the time,” he said. “I say, ‘I can’t turn you into them. I can’t, if you’re Asian, give you a Caucasian face, or I could, but it wouldn’t be right—it wouldn’t look right.’ But if they show me a specific feature they want then I can work with that. I can say, ‘If you want a sharp jaw like that, we can do that.’ But, also, these things are not always right for all people. For you, if you came in asking for a sharp jaw, I would say no—it would make you look masculine.”

“Does it seem like more people my age are coming in for this sort of work?” I asked.

“I think that ten years ago it was seen as anti-cerebral to do this,” he said. “But now it’s empowering to do something that gives you an edge. Which is why young people are coming in. They come in to enhance something, rather than coming in to fix something.”

“And it’s subtle,” I said.

“Even with my most famous clients, it’s very subtle,” the doctor said. “If you look at photos taken five years apart, you can tell the difference. But, day to day, month to month, you can’t.”

I felt that I was being listened to very carefully. I thanked him, sincerely, and then a medical assistant came in to show me the recommendations and prices: injectables in my cheeks ($5,500 to $6,900), injectables in my chin (same price), an ultrasound “lipofreeze” to fix the asymmetry in my jawline ($8,900 to $18,900), or Botox in the TMJ region ($2,500). I walked out of the clinic into the Beverly Hills sunshine, laughing a little, imagining what it’d be like to have a spare thirty thousand dollars on hand. I texted photos of my FaceTuned jaw to my friends and then touched my actual jaw, a suddenly optional assemblage of flesh and bone.

The plastic surgeon Jason Diamond was a recurring star of the reality show “Dr. 90210” and has a number of famous clients, including the twenty-nine-year-old “Vanderpump Rules” star Lala Kent, who has posted photos taken in Diamond’s office on Instagram, and who told People, “I’ve had every part of my face injected.” Another client is Kim Kardashian West, whom Colby Smith described to me as “patient zero” for Instagram Face. (“Ultimately, the goal is always to look like Kim,” he said.) Kardashian West, who has inspired countless cosmetically altered doppelgängers, insists that she hasn’t had major plastic surgery; according to her, it’s all just Botox, fillers, and makeup. But she also hasn’t tried to hide how her appearance has changed. In 2015, she published a coffee-table book of selfies, called “ Selfish,” which begins when she is beautiful the way a human is beautiful and ends when she’s beautiful in the manner of a computer animation.

I scheduled an interview with Diamond, whose practice occupies the penthouse of a building in Beverly Hills. On the desk in his office was a thank-you note from Chrissy Teigen. (It sat atop two of her cookbooks.) As with the doctor I’d seen the day before, Diamond, who has pool-blue eyes and wore black scrubs and square-framed glasses, looked nothing like the tabloid caricature of a plastic surgeon. He was youthful in a way that was only slightly surreal.

Diamond had trained with an old guard of top L.A. plastic surgeons, he told me—people who thought it was taboo to advertise. When, in 2004, he had the opportunity to appear on “Dr. 90210,” he decided to do it, against the advice of his wife and his nurses, because, he said, “I knew that I would be able to show results that the world had never seen.” In 2016, a famous client persuaded him to set up an Instagram account. He now has just under a quarter million followers. The employees at his practice who run the account like that Instagram allows patients to see him as a father of two and as a friend, not only as a doctor.

Diamond had long had a Web site, but in the past his celebrity patients didn’t volunteer to offer testimonials there. “And, of course, we never asked,” he said. “But now—it’s amazing. Maybe thirty per cent of the celebrities I take care of will just ask and offer to shout us out on social media. All of a sudden, it’s popular knowledge that all these people are coming here. For some reason, Instagram made it more acceptable.” Cosmetic work had come to seem more like fitness, he suggested. “I think it’s become much more mainstream to think about taking care of your face and your body as part of your general well-being. It’s kind of understood now: it’s O.K. to try to look your best.”

There was a sort of cleansing, crystalline honesty to this high-end intersection of superficiality and pragmatism, I was slowly realizing. I hadn’t needed to bother posing as a patient—these doctors spent all day making sure that people no longer felt they had anything to hide.

I asked Diamond if he had thoughts about Instagram Face. “You know, there’s this look—this Bella Hadid, Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner thing that seems to be spreading,” I said. Diamond said that he practiced all over the world, and that there were different regional preferences, and that no one template worked for every face. “But there are constants,” he said. “Symmetry, proportion, harmony. We are always trying to create balance in the face. And when you look at Kim, Megan Fox, Lucy Liu, Halle Berry, you’ll find elements in common: the high contoured cheekbones, the strong projected chin, the flat platform underneath the chin that makes a ninety-degree angle.”

“What do you make of the fact that it’s much more possible now for people to look at these celebrity faces and think, somewhat correctly, that they could look like that, too?” I asked.

“We could spend two whole days discussing that question,” Diamond said. “I’d say that thirty per cent of people come in bringing a photo of Kim, or someone like Kim—there’s a handful of people, but she’s at the very top of the list, and understandably so. It’s one of the biggest challenges I have, educating the person about whether it’s reasonable to try to move along that path toward Kim’s face, or toward whoever. Twenty years of practice, thousands and thousands of procedures, go into each individual answer—when I can do it, when I can’t do it, and when we can do something but shouldn’t, for any number of reasons.” I told Diamond that I was afraid that if I ever tried injectables, I’d never stop. “It is true that the vast majority of our patients absolutely love their results, and they come back,” he said.

We talked about the word “addiction.” I said that I dyed my hair and wore makeup most days, and that I knew I would continue to dye my hair and spend money on makeup, and that I didn’t consider this an addiction but a choice. (I thought about a line from the book “Perfect Me,” by the philosopher Heather Widdows: “Choice cannot make an unjust or exploitative practice or act somehow, magically, just or non-exploitative.”) I asked Diamond if his patients felt more like themselves after getting work done.

“I can answer that in part because I do these things, too,” he said, gesturing to his face. “You know when you get a really good haircut, and you feel like the best version of yourself? This is that feeling, but exponential.”

On the way to Diamond’s office, I had passed a café that looked familiar: pale marble-topped tables, blond-wood floors, a row of Prussian-green snake plants, pendant lamps, geometrically patterned tiles. The writer Kyle Chayka has coined the term “AirSpace” for this style of blandly appealing interior design, marked by an “anesthetized aesthetic” and influenced by the “connective emotional grid of social media platforms”—these virtual spaces where hundreds of millions of people learn to “see and feel and want the same things.” WeWork, the collapsing co-working giant—which, like Instagram, was founded in 2010—once convinced investors of a forty-seven-billion-dollar vision in which people would follow their idiosyncratic dreams while enmeshed in a global network of near-indistinguishable office spaces featuring reclaimed wood, neon signs, and ficus trees. Direct-to-consumer brands fill podcast ad breaks with promises of the one true electric toothbrush and meals that arrive in the mail, selling us on the relief of forgoing choice altogether. The general idea seems to be that humans are so busy pursuing complicated forms of self-actualization that we’d like much of our life to be assembled for us, as if from a kit.

I went to see another Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, one who had more than three hundred thousand Instagram followers. I told the doctor that I was a journalist, and that I was there for a consultation. He studied my face from a few angles, felt my jaw, and suggested exactly what the first doctor had recommended. The prices were lower this time—if I had wanted to put the whole thing on my credit card, I could have.

I took the elevator down to the street with three very pretty women who all appeared to be in their early twenties. As I drove back to my hotel, I felt sad and subdued and self-conscious. I had thought that I was researching this subject at a logical distance: that I could inhabit the point of view of an ideal millennial client, someone who wanted to enhance rather than fix herself, who was ambitious and pragmatic. But I left with a very specific feeling, a kind of bottomless need that I associated with early adolescence, and which I had not experienced in a long time.

I had worn makeup at sixteen to my college interviews; I’d worn makeup at my gymnastic meets when I was ten. In the photos I have of myself at ballet recitals when I was six or seven, I’m wearing mascara and blush and lipstick, and I’m so happy. What did it mean, I wondered, that I have spent so much of my life attempting to perform well in circumstances where an unaltered female face is aberrant? How had I been changed by an era in which ordinary humans receive daily metrics that appear to quantify how our personalities and our physical selves are performing on the market? What was the logical end of this escalating back-and-forth between digital and physical improvement?

On Instagram, I checked up on the accounts of the plastic surgeons I had visited, watching comments roll in: “this is what I need! I need to come see you ASAP!,” “want want want,” “what is the youngest you could perform this procedure?” I looked at the Instagram account of a singer born in 1999, who had become famous as a teen-ager and had since given herself an entirely new face. I met up with a bunch of female friends for dinner in L.A. that night, two of whom had already adopted injectables as part of their cosmetic routine. They looked beautiful. The sun went down, and the hills of L.A. started to glitter. I had the sense that I was living in some inexorable future. For some days afterward, I noticed that I was avoiding looking too closely at my face.