In 2007, magazines plastered paparazzi pictures of Tyra Banks in a swimsuit, under headlines "Thigh-ra Banks", "America's Next Top Waddle" and "Tyra Porkchops". A year later, The O.C. actor Mischa Barton was shamed in The Daily Mail for her thighs after pictures of her on holiday became a story. Shaming celebrities still takes place in 2020 – but it's happening on celebrity 'before and after' accounts on Instagram.
Accounts like Celeb Face (1.5 million followers), Celeb Before and After (263k) and Exposing Celeb Surgery (145k) dissect the cosmetic surgeries they believe celebrities have had done, usually by comparing 'before' and 'after' images, pre- and post-procedure(s). The captions read like accusations: #rhinoplasty, #lipfiller, #botox. Sometimes, irresistibly, the before and afters are presented as GIFs, transitioning between the two pictures to maximise the impact of difference.
These kinds of before and after accounts aren’t new but now they’re online, available to everyone and, crucially, generated by user-led content, not by the media. Users say they feel uncomfortable with how the pages shame celebrities but still they can’t quit scrolling. On top of this, experts worry it’s another trigger for body and beauty dissatisfaction among users.
"I started seeing [before and after accounts] roughly a year ago when they began appearing on my Instagram Discover page," says 26-year-old Sarah. She describes her use as roughly twice a month but refuses to follow any of these accounts because of how "clearly bad" they are. "They are so obviously unfeminist," she adds.
People think the online sphere has dramatically changed the media, but the formats of tabloids are replicated online.
"People think the online sphere has dramatically changed the media, but the formats of tabloids are replicated online," says Adrian Bingham, professor of modern British history at Sheffield University and an expert in tabloid media. From true crime to gossip pages – for which there is also a big appetite on Instagram – much of what goes viral online originated from tabloids, he adds.
But owners of the Instagram accounts are reluctant to embrace the comparison and insist there is a moral obligation for them to post.
"I tried really hard for it to not be about shaming," Dana Omari tells me. She is the owner of one of the biggest before and after Instagram accounts, @igfamousbodies (181k followers). Dana explains that she tries to ensure there is either an educational or complimentary point to her posts.
Her rationale is journalistic. In her eyes, celebrities not telling us the truth about their cosmetic procedures is "actually quite dangerous". Dana cites Kylie Jenner’s decision to stay silent about getting filler in 2014, aged 15, and creating a company the following year to sell lip products as an example of this.
"They have so much influence and some of them try to sell us things," she goes on. "When Kylie Jenner wasn't truthful about her lip injections for the first year, she sold masses of her lip kit, because she said, ‘Oh, I just over-lined my lips’. And so when younger people tried that or bought her kits, they found it didn’t work."
In terms of feminism, there are absolutely questions to be asked here. There is no escaping the fact that pretty much all of the pictures shared on before and after accounts are of women, even though countless men in the public eye are reported to have undergone work. (I implore you to google 'Joe Biden + Botox' right now.) The most popular figures featured are Bella Hadid, Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian; some accounts are even dedicated to 'uncovering' work on specific celebrities, like Kendall Jenner. Omari says she knows there’s a lack of equal representation on her account and that she wants to show more men but that it is much harder to showcase as what they’ve had done is often more subtle.
While Omari thinks her posts are necessary and provide a public service, it’s hard not to sympathise with Jenner and other celebrities a little and interrogate why they may conceal any work they’ve had done or even why they get it in the first place. Celebrities are under insurmountable pressure to be thin and beautiful by a Western standard but are considered less worthy if they’ve worked for it.
This context is something many of these accounts aren’t interested in exploring on their pages. Many accounts will say that they’re "exposing celebrities' lies" about cosmetic surgery or enlightening users to the "reality of celebrity beauty". Others, in contrast, will proclaim to "love the glow up" or use the caption "beautiful then, beautiful now” to justify posting the image. None engages with the idea that before and after pictures are designed to shame the person in question and stem from magazines doing just that. Some echo the tone of catching celebrities out.
The body changes so slowly. We're not used to recognising those little changes in our bodies and appearance. And so when we see something which kind of indicates a very drastic change, it's quite shocking.
"They straddle this strange line of clearly shaming celebrities who have had plastic surgery or fillers and trying to make women feel less bad about their normal, natural faces while also filling a very similar gap left by '00s and '90s body-shaming tabloids," Sarah says of her own fascination with this part of the internet.
But there’s a flipside. Victoria, also 26, follows two or three before and after accounts and finds they help to assuage the anxiety of being a young woman on social media today, a huge part of which is being bombarded with unattainable levels of beauty at every turn. These accounts, she says, offer her reassurance that even the most beautiful faces had some help from Hollywood’s best surgeons and Photoshop. It’s good to "think that I could be that hot one day when I’m rich," she tells me.
Helena Lewis-Smith, a senior fellow at the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England, Bristol – the world's largest research group focusing on body image – has similar thoughts. She believes the format is appealing because people are fascinated by bodily and facial changes.
"The body changes so slowly. I think it's because we’re not used to recognising those little changes in our bodies and appearance. And so when we see something which kind of indicates a very drastic change, it's quite shocking," she explains.
While research on the impact of before and after cosmetic procedures is limited, studies have shown that users dislike a person more if they’re shown to have airbrushed their images, as they perceive it to be disingenuous, she added. Perhaps that explains why we’re so keen to find out whether people have had work done? We feel we are uncovering the truth.
In addition, Helena says that in before and after images designed to show weight loss, young people experienced increased body dissatisfaction if the after image showed a smaller body with a six-pack or athletic physique. "But when people had put on weight but were at peace with their body, people felt better about themselves."
Our fascination with before and after photos is – as ever – linked to how we feel about ourselves. In a world where we are encouraged to buy into perfection, there’s something reassuring about the fact that, more often than not, we’re being peddled a lie.
While mainstream feminism has grown to critique and condemn the widespread shaming of women in the public eye, it’s apparent that the practice continues in the guise of secret scrolling. It might seem like we’re making ourselves feel better, reassuring ourselves that even beautiful people get surgery, but it’s clear that users aren’t feeling any better for it. And so the cycle of compare and despair continues.