The Perfect Face Doesn’t Exist — But Will I Ever Be Happy With My Looks?

Artwork by Kristine Romano.
If you feel weird about your face right now, I'm here to tell you that you're not the only one. My job as Refinery29 UK's senior beauty editor means I put the newest skincare and makeup products on trial, taking plenty of selfies and videos along the way. But flicking through my camera roll lately, insecurity has begun to flood over me. Why are my pores so big? I think, as I scroll tentatively. Has my mouth always been asymmetrical?
When I reach a certain point in the rabbit hole, it's like a switch goes on. I snap out of it. Until the next time. A quick whip round friends and colleagues proves I'm not alone in my self-conscious musings. Things like acne scars, forehead wrinkles and lip size are among the gripes they have with their faces, too. When did we start to see our perfectly natural and normal features as flaws?
It's difficult to deny that the rise of social media has distorted perceptions of how we're supposed to look. On Instagram the Paris filter can erase pores, scars and blemishes in a flick of the wrist, while other supposedly playful filters will boost the size of your lips, slim your nose and bestow a set of razor-sharp cheekbones. That's before we've touched on the tens of editing apps which whiten teeth, smooth skin and enhance eyes in moments.

In a poll on Refinery29 UK's Instagram account, 76% of respondents revealed that social media makes them feel insecure about their looks.

There's a reason why everyone online looks the same lately. Consultant cosmetic and plastic surgeon Dr Paul Banwell calls it 'Instagram face'. "Instagram face is poreless skin, high cheekbones, cat-like eyes and long, cartoonish lashes," says Dr Banwell. He also pinpoints a tiny, 'neat' nose and full lips as markers. Socialising online with filtered images has warped our idea of beauty, Dr Banwell tells R29. "With the rise of filters and editing apps we're forgetting what 'normal' beauty looks like." He's right. In the name of transparency, I ditched the filters from my Instagram selfies a while ago but I'd already convinced myself I really looked like my tweaked images. Posting photos without those lip-plumping and skin-perfecting filters has been a hard pill to swallow. But why? "We're constantly celebrating a beauty that takes away any flaws and removes any pores in our skin," says Dr Banwell. Consequently, anything that doesn't fit the aesthetic — either online or IRL — is deemed not good enough.
Social media might be virtual but a poll of Refinery29 UK's Instagram followers confirmed the very real impact that unrealistic online beauty standards can have on self-esteem. 76% of respondents revealed that social media makes them feel insecure about their looks. Years ago, you might've picked up a magazine on a whim and mindlessly flicked through pages of beautiful models, artists and actresses. These days, thanks to apps like Instagram and TikTok, similarly tweaked faces infiltrate every moment of our lives — on the train, in front of the TV, before bed — and, as such, it's easy to believe that poreless skin and perfect symmetry is achievable in real life. "The use of digital enhancement on social media is so commonplace nowadays," agrees Dr Banwell. "Because these filters and edits have become ingrained among people like influencers and celebrities, it's altering others' perceptions of normal beauty ideals worldwide."
This isn't a new phenomenon but is it getting worse? In 2018 Dr Tijion Esho, founder of Esho., coined the term 'Snapchat dysmorphia' to explain the rise in people wanting to look like their filtered images. Dr Banwell seconds this: "Patients used to come to me with a celebrity's lips or breasts and ask me to emulate them. Now, they come to see me with a picture of themselves, but with a filter." These filters aren't true to life, nor are they achievable, he emphasises. "They will increase the size of a patient's eyes and change the shape of the face entirely, not to mention wipe out any imperfections where lines can't be removed in reality. The face just wouldn't be able to show any emotion." Mr Naveen Cavale, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, says that young women come into clinic or DM him on social media with pictures from Instagram. "They wonder if a specific look can be achieved on them," he says, but it's impossible. "It's a bit like giving me a BMW and expecting me to turn it into a Ferrari. It can't be done."

The Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation says that the increase in dysmorphia may be exacerbated by video calls or 'tweakments'.

Worryingly, Dr Banwell claims that more people are being duped with edited before-and-after photographs of plastic surgery and tweakments shared on social media. Forget celebrities and influencers for a moment. He warns that even supposed professionals are photoshopping images of their work and posting them online. "I've had a lot of people come forward saying, 'That's me [on the social media platform], but that's not what I look like,'" Dr Banwell says. This is pushing patients into the hands of untrustworthy practitioners and convinces individuals that the impossible can be achieved. 
62% of Refinery29's Instagram respondents said that they had considered tweakments such as Botox or filler. It goes without saying that opting for any kind of aesthetic procedure is a personal choice — and one we respect. But Dr Banwell has no doubt that the increasing demand for the button noses, lifted brows and plump lips that we've come to see as the ultimate aesthetic is in part down to social media. It's also important to be realistic about what you can achieve. Instagram face is an internet construct and it doesn't exist in real life.
The desire to achieve a perfectly symmetrical, Instagram-worthy appearance is becoming a scourge. Mr Cavale says that some young people in their late teens and early 20s have unrealistic expectations and he notices worrying signs that people are spending a large proportion of their lives thinking about their looks. Recently you might have spotted the term 'facial dysmorphia' used by people on apps like TikTok. Kitty Wallace, head of operations at the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, explains that body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is the correct diagnostic term and it includes facial features, too. "Most people with BDD are preoccupied with some aspect of their face and many believe they have multiple defects," says Kitty. "The most common complaints (in descending order) concern the skin, nose, hair, eyes, chin, lips and overall body build. People with BDD may complain of a lack of symmetry, or feel that something is too big, too small, or out of proportion to the rest of the body."

People wonder if a specific look can be achieved on them, but it's impossible. It's a bit like giving me a BMW and expecting me to turn it into a Ferrari. It can't be done.

Mr Naveen Cavale
The foundation cannot say whether the increase it is seeing in dysmorphia is caused solely by social media but, says Kitty, "video calls or 'tweakments' are likely to be exacerbating symptoms and increasing body dissatisfaction." A 2020 study confirmed that there is a negative link between self-esteem and taking, altering and posting selfies. It found a significant increase in the level of social anxiety, a decrease in confidence, a decrease in the feeling of physical attractiveness and an elevated desire to undergo cosmetic surgery. Sadly, Kitty says that the highest rates of BDD are seen in adolescent girls and that the proliferation of unrealistic images among this age group is certainly causing harm.
Mr Cavale says he has seen the effects of facial dysmorphia in clinic. "It's definitely a thing. There are people out there who become fixated and obsessed with their face and it's no different to body dysmorphia. Noses are the classic thing people fixate on a lot." The truth is that we all have asymmetries and they aren't something that needs fixing.
Sometimes, opting for surgery or tweakments might offset another insecurity, adds Mr Cavale. "Faces aren't straightforward," he says. "The face is such a complicated 3D structure." This is a lesson I personally learned the hard way. If you're an R29 regular, you'll know it's no secret that I've had a nose job. I subsequently got caught up in the social media whirlwind, bombarded with photoshopped and filtered images of beauty influencers, celebrities and models with slim, pinched-in noses. In comparison, mine didn't match up. Not 100% happy with the final result, I booked in for another tweak a year or two later. While I don't necessarily regret my decision, I can't say that surgery has made me any less insecure. I still scrutinise my nose. I began to worry about my other features, too. Like Mr Cavale mentioned, tweakments can often open the floodgates to other insecurities. There might always be something I'll consider refining, like my acne scars or jawline. It only goes to prove that chasing an ideal face is entirely unattainable, not to mention harmful and exhausting.
Happily, this is something we're slowly but surely beginning to realise for the sake of our own mental health. Not long ago, influencers were banned from using misleading beauty filters on social media adverts. Mr Cavale says that people are getting wise to how easy it is to fake things nowadays. "We're learning to spot the bullshit and this is a good thing. Though there is a demand [for surgery and tweakments], I now often get people saying that they don't really want 'the fake look', like pinched noses or slopey eyebrows," he says, referring to the Instagram-famous 'fox eye' trend. "For that reason, I believe there is hope and I trust things will get better."
Busting the myth that your face is only acceptable if it looks a certain way is what we aim to achieve with our beauty content this week on Refinery29. Changing Faces is an honest dive into the difficult relationship many of us have with our looks. We'll take a look at the real-life implications of selfie culture for our mental health, uncover the disturbing truth behind the makeup trends that are flooding your Instagram feed and unpack how we really feel about ageing.
We live in a complicated world which encourages us to celebrate individuality yet puts a certain image on a pedestal. It's troubling that so many of us are consumed with chasing a specific look. Let's reclaim the headspace we're wasting on obsessing over it.
Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here!

More from Beauty