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Gen Z's new status symbol

Eve Upton-Clark   

Gen Z's new status symbol
LifeThelife6 min read

It's easy to identify a photo from the early days of Instagram and Snapchat. Grainy, greenish sunset photos and dog-eared selfies littered social media during the mid-2010s. Augmented-reality filters went viral for their ability to shrink noses and brighten complexions. They weren't fooling anyone, but they weren't supposed to.

Fast-forward nearly a decade, and filters have significantly stepped up their game. Unlike the flower-crown filters of old, which superimposed a mesh face on your on-screen selfie using facial-tracking technology, the latest filters digest the image's pixels to spit out an entirely new face. Today's online world is awash with images of poreless skin, perfectly arched brows, and plump lips, but it's not always clear who's getting a digital facelift and who has had a real one. The faces that hold social currency on social media — with fox-lift brows and buccal fat removed — are increasingly bleeding into real life.

Noninvasive and antiaging "tweakments," such as lip fillers and Botox, are at an all-time high. From 2019 to 2022, there was an 18% increase in facial cosmetic procedures in the United States. In that time, the number of Botox injections jumped by 73%. And according to the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Gen Z is helping drive up demand. In a 2022 survey, 75% of facial plastic surgeons reported that more clients under 30 were requesting forehead pokes and lip plumping. Their primary goal? Improving their selfies.

Even before the remote-work boom, writers noticed social media was shaping the way people looked. In 2019, The New Yorker declared it "The Age of Instagram Face," an emerging look popularized by the Kardashians and other influencers that consisted of plump, high cheekbones, catlike eyes, and lush lips. People were starting to look the same, the story argued. Five years later, as even more of our daily interactions take place in the visual-heavy online sphere thanks to remote work, the trend has intensified.

It's not just nice to look better. It's become that we feel like failures if we don't.

Increased accessibility, reduced stigma, and new pressure to keep up with the digital Joneses are propelling a plastic-surgery boom. Increasingly, changing your face is just a matter of staying with the times. "Even though we know that nobody looks like their Instagram profile," Heather Widdows, a philosophy professor at the University of Warwick, told me, "we always compare our actual body to everybody else's Instagram profile."


Visual social-media platforms have long been found to harm young people's sense of self. A 2018 study of teen girls found that the more time they spent using social media, the more likely they were to experience "body dissatisfaction" and depression. Research published by the American Psychological Association in 2023 found that teenagers and young adults who decreased their time on social media by 50% for a few weeks experienced significant improvement in how they felt about their weight and appearance. But people are spending more and more time online, scrolling social media and staring at themselves in Zoom calls.

Even in the early days of social-media filters, researchers were concerned about their impact. A 2018 opinion paper by researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine argued that filters were having a disastrous effect on people's self-esteem, labeling the trend "Snapchat dysmorphia." At the time, the most-used face filter on Instagram featured hearts over the eyes and Cupid's arrows flying across the screen — not exactly a replicable look.

Since then, though, filters have become more realistic. TikTok tricks like Bold Glamour and Teenage Look seamlessly change faces pixel by pixel, creating a fantastical virtual mirror that psychologists say can lead to body dysmorphia. Imperfections are blurred, skin is brightened, and proportions are altered. Old-face filters are a warning: Here's how wrinkly and saggy you'll look if you don't get work done.

A 2020 study by the City University of London found that 90% of the 18- to 30-year-old women they spoke to used social media filters to improve how they looked. A 2019 study found that people who used YouTube, Tinder, and Snapchat — especially their image-editing features — were more likely to be accepting of cosmetic surgery. A 2022 study that looked at Gen Z Instagram users found that people who used filters to edit their photos were more inclined to get cosmetic work done.

Social media has also reduced the stigma of cosmetic work. Plastic surgeons share videos delving into the intricacies of various procedures, while regular users share "day in the life"-style videos that guide audiences from the treatment room to the recovery journey. The 2022 study found that people who followed an influencer who had gotten cosmetic work done were more likely to want to undergo their own procedure. Anne-Mette Hermans, one of the study's coauthors, predicted it would become "more and more normalized."

Remote work has affected how we present ourselves online. People may not see your bag or your shoes, but everyone sees your face.

The shift from surgical procedures to minimally invasive injections has also made cosmetic work safer and more available to average people. "We might have always wanted to look younger," Widdows said, "but there wasn't a lot we could do to actually look younger."

In a 2019 survey by Vice of Snapchat users in the UK, 59% of 13- to 24-year-olds indicated they saw tweakments like Botox and fillers as comparable to getting a haircut or manicure. "Pricewise, there is not always that much difference between going to a high-end hairdresser and dyeing your hair versus getting one or two zones of Botox," said Hermans, an assistant professor of health and well-being at Tilburg University in the Netherlands who studies societal beauty ideals. And when people jump on the bandwagon, it creates a domino effect, she said. "More people are getting it done, which leads to more people knowing about it and getting it done."


Rather than the no-movement face of the 1990s or the "duck lips" fad of the 2010s, today's aesthetic trends lean toward a "you, but better" appearance. The body obsession of the 2000s has been replaced with an antiaging obsession. A market-research firm called Circana found that 19% of Gen Zers used antiaging serums. Prejuvenation, an approach involving a mixture of skincare treatments and cosmetic injections, is being hailed as a global antiaging trend.

"The paradox as a woman is you're not supposed to look like you're aging, but you're also not supposed to do anything about it," Hermans told me. "The solution is basically these natural 'tweaks' that make it look as if you've had nothing done."

While the desire to defy aging is age-old, it's unsurprising that a generation immersed in social media would be particularly sensitive to the natural aging process. "When you have a global beauty ideal," Widdows said, "these kinds of procedures become normal."

Widdows argued that we've shifted away from showcasing status through possessions like the "it" bag or car — now we're after the "it" face. Remote work has affected how we present ourselves online. People may not see your bag or your shoes, but everyone sees your face. "We are moving into much more of a culture where the image speaks louder than the word," she said. "That's why we see people taking pictures not of celebrities to cosmetic surgeons, but their own doctored, filtered, perfect selfies."

After scrolling social media or staring at your filtered face in a video, seeing your reflection — bloated, saggy, aged — may be a sobering reality. "The gap between the identity we present on social media and the self we see in the mirror is growing," Widdows told me. "It's not just nice to look better. It's become that we feel like failures if we don't."

As more people get cosmetic work done, the rest of us lose touch with what's normal. It's easy to see why more and more are folding under the pressure to change their appearance.


Eve Upton-Clark is a features writer covering culture and society.




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