It’s a truth universally acknowledged that social media isn’t real life. As much as we love it when celebrities ‘get real’ online about how long it takes to achieve a photo, how many stretch marks they really have or how unglamorous the minutiae of their life is, posts like that are merely drops in a FaceTuned ocean. Sure, we’re all digital super-sleuths (we spot and ridicule bad Photoshop before you can say ‘double tap’ and meme-ify false bragging in the blink of an eye) but somehow, knowing what you’re seeing is artificial doesn’t make it any less desirable.
And why would it? After all, the crux of social media is that it’s reciprocal. You have the same tools – or so you think – as that A-lister or influencer who looks #flawless in their most recent selfie. So you take a photo, you crop it, you edit it (as 44% of us do, according to Ofcom) and you upload it. But it’s not the same – after all, you don’t have a glam squad, or a pro retoucher, or a surgeon’s bill that runs into triple digits. But that doesn’t stop it being aspirational. For every big name posting rough and ready photos and bragging about their DGAF attitude, there are three other women claiming their suddenly plumped pout or fuller bust is the work of makeup or hormones. As my friend Giselle, 27, put it: "I just assume now that most of what I see on there isn't real, especially those body types that you just know aren't the products of so-called gym gains, puberty or genetics." Of course, retouching has existed for a long time, but the difference now is social media is interactive and gives you the agency and tools to fully customise your appearance – and with liking and sharing, we have the power to express approval or disapproval of someone’s looks. As academic Richard M. Perloff noted in a recent paper, on social media, users are the sources as well as the receivers; it's not a one-way street.
I asked Dr. Carmen Lefevre, a behavioural scientist at University College London, why we all compare ourselves to these artificial, moving goalposts. "It doesn’t really matter if we know a photo is fake or not – we all have an automatic response to things we see, so those kinds of photos still have a psychical impact. Cognitively, we know it’s not real, but it still ends up reinforcing an ideal or new standard," she confirmed. Which means if you’ve ever come away from a half-hour scroll through someone’s Instagram feeling lacking, you’re not alone. "The more time you spend surrounded by certain images, the more you normalise that kind of look. For example, if you see lots of celebrities with really long eyelash extensions, you’ll start to think that’s normal and see your own natural eyelashes as less attractive. It doesn’t make much difference to know that it’s retouching or a ‘tweakment’ or whatever – you still end up internalising those beauty standards," she explained.
In a 1983 study headed up by Professor Thomas Cash, researchers found that when participants looked at photos of attractive celebrities versus attractive peers, they reported more negative self-esteem when looking at peers. The researchers ascribed this to people believing that celebrities are less similar to themselves and therefore less of a comparison group. But now, in an age where you don’t have to have a blockbuster movie or hit record to command a following, where does that distinction lie? Eighty-two percent of the women Ofcom surveyed said they felt it was important to look their best in selfies and, on average, we take around six selfies before choosing one to upload. But only 16% of us feel we can confidently tell what’s real and what’s fake. My friend Tom, 24, who quit Instagram a year ago, said: "Even knowing how staged a lot of the content is, it’s near impossible to not be sucked in by the fantasy and compare it to your own image. It’s aspirational, but not in a positive or uplifting way. I knew the photos were Photoshopped, filtered and fillered, but unlike conventional print ads, you as another user have the same tools and platform at your fingertips. I’m not going to see myself on a billboard anytime soon, but I can upload another FaceTuned selfie." We all put our best foot forward online (and when potential employers and dates scope you out on Insta, why wouldn’t you?), but as long as the targets keep moving, we’ll never be satisfied. "The sinister thing," Tom added, "was that I didn’t care the photos were fake. I still wanted some of that."
It’s remiss to have this discussion without mentioning the Kardashians. With a combined following of 407 million, the family has launched any number of beauty trends (contouring, lip filler, full-but-arched brows, impossibly long lashes, strobing, nude lipstick…). "The Kardashians are an example of how the standard moves," noted Dr. Lefevre. "For example, a woman having an hourglass shape has been considered attractive for a long time, but they’ve taken it to the next level by having such small waists, large breasts and bottoms." As far back as the Victorian era, women laboured in corsets to have delicate waists, but when that ideal is pushed to the point of complete exaggeration – Kylie's curves are sharper than the hairpin bends of the Amalfi Coast – it becomes even more unattainable. Giselle told me: "It’s frustrating to see that in the space of five weeks someone suddenly has a new figure and we're told that it was just 'squats' or 'bloating from periods'. Then some of us, especially younger women, run to the gym and do 100 squats every day to look like these celebrities and realise, actually, that's not what they've been doing." Dr. Lefevre echoes this sentiment, having carried out research into orthorexia (disordered eating which focusses on consuming excessively healthy or ‘clean’ foods) and the relationship with Instagram: "A lot of the health bloggers we looked at were pretending all they ate was chia seeds and green juices, but of course that’s not the case for all of them."
And just like domestic labour and childcare, it’s a burden that falls overwhelmingly on women. Perloff noted in his study that girls as young as three were internalising beauty standards of thinness, while a 1997 study by Fredrickson and Roberts noted that women are more likely to have their social value inferred from their appearance. Beauty standards of tiny waist, huge arse, perky boobs, long hair, fluttery lashes, full lips and clear skin are hard enough to attain as it is – but when you're meant to look like you’ve got a Valencia filter slapped over your face at all times and have enough cash to drop on extensions, filler and Botox? Forget about it. No wonder so many brands are clamouring to launch ‘instantly blurring’ or ‘filtering’ foundations.
It’s trendy to make social media the scapegoat for all millennial ills. I don’t think Instagram is evil – I like taking selfies and usually I feel good about them. I also know that working in the industry makes me more critical of these photos (my boyfriend claims I’ve ‘ruined’ Instagram for him by deftly pointing our hair extensions, lip filler and false lashes as he scrolls). As Giselle noted, "Instagram’s birthed a beauty community who have a space to show their work, discuss products and have an impact on a brand's new product development by having a direct conversation about what they want," and most of the studies I looked at suggested social media has the power to subvert beauty ideals by giving a platform to women who mainstream media would typically ignore. So go ahead: scroll, double-tap, repost, take selfies, engage with something that’s as enmeshed in modern society as sending emails. Just know that your mind can play tricks on you, and that your subconscious might respond to things in a way your conscious brain might not. Look at the women around you and how beautiful they are in their own way, not confined to a square on a screen with controlled lighting. And take it from me – once you’ve seen a celebrity with millions of followers panic that her makeup artist can’t apply fresh contour in time for a selfie, and almost burst into tears when she can’t find good lighting, the whole thing feels less attractive anyway.