It always starts with a single feature. For Francesca, it was her lips. They’d always seemed too small in comparison to the 27-year-old Londoner’s other features. By her third round of lip fillers, she’d moved on. She had under-eye filler before her wedding (“I essentially wanted to airbrush my face”) and then jaw filler. Most recently, Francesca froze her chin fat using a chemical called Aqualyx. Your chin swells up twice its size and the fat leaves your body in your urine (“magic!”).
The swelling wasn’t an issue for Francesca – she’d FaceTuned her neck in all her recent selfies. Distant friends, family and followers have no idea she had anything done. Even after all these procedures, she continues to digitally edit her angles and tweak her lips.
What Francesca wants is her version of Instagram Face. It’s a racially ambiguous look that cherry-picks the most aesthetically pleasing elements of different racial profiles: full lips, raised brows, chiseled face. The result is somewhere between Emily Ratajkowski and a Bratz doll.
Despite the popularity of Instagram accounts like CelebFace that expose celebrity surgery and savvy digital edits, the commonly-held assumption is that Instagram Face is the result of lucky genes or cosmetic procedures. The reality is that people blessed with good looks or cosmetic surgeons still use photo editing software.
Celebrities aren’t alone in pulling up their brows or tightening the angles of their face. When I spoke to women like Francesca about using fillers and Facetune, they spoke freely about their cosmetic procedures but shied away from how they were editing their face digitally. The general openness about cosmetic procedures on Instagram (mostly thanks to gifting and ads) has made it somewhat socially acceptable to share a decision like injecting filler – but the idea of a person later staring at a photo of their face and morphing it with careful strokes of a finger is private and perhaps even shameful.
Anna* a fashion and beauty “micro-influencer” has told her 25,000 followers that she has lip and cheek filler, as well as Botox. She won’t divulge how or where she edits her face to look like an ethnically ambiguous angel, but says that all her photos of the last six months have had the Facetune treatment.
“I don’t think there’s anything dishonest about it because it’s just enhancing what you’ve had ‘done’,” she tells me. “It’s basically airbrushing plus – celebrities will have surgery or filler and get airbrushing. This is a skint version of that.” Going over her procedures with edits has paid off for Anna. Her engagement and following have grown quickest over the past half year – something she proudly puts down to having the “Instagram look”.
Another UK lifestyle blogger tells me she has lip filler and Botox, but isn’t 100 percent certain about getting the brow lift she’s been considering. Instead, she uses Facetune to contour her brows to get the look. “I feel like what I’ve had filler-wise so far is subtle. A brow lift feels more extreme when I can get the result I like with editing,” she says.
Another influencer, Lucy Quigley, 22, says she has been using Facetune and filler to enhance her lips since she was 18. “I know truthfully how addictive getting my lips done was. I know if I did more to my face, I don’t know how I’d stop,” she says. To her, FaceTuning other areas of her face – like her teeth and eyes – stops her from having to go that extra step.
For many low-level influencers and ordinary young women, combining Facetune and filler is the best way to achieve Instagram Face for less money. A 0.5ml starting dose of lip filler can cost upwards of £150, so maintenance is hardly cheap. With make-up contouring, Facetune and a carefully chosen area of filler, I can see from Lucy’s before and after photos that it’s possible to entirely recreate the look anyway. “At 18, I don’t even look recognisable just because of my lips. My face shape has literally transformed,” Lucy agrees.
That may be true. But even if you wanted to get every non-surgical procedure available to you, you still wouldn’t look like your best Facetuned picture. Harley Street practitioner Dr Esho has clients frequently come in with photos of their own faces heavily altered with Snapchat filters or Facetune. “Previously, they might have brought in a photo of a celebrity,” he tells me on the phone between appointments. “Now it’s them – but an avatar.”
Esho says there are now two types of beauty ideals: subtle Instagram Face for real life and a more dramatic Instagram Face for what he calls your “social media me”. When people come to Esho with pictures of triple threat influencers – good genetics, great filler and even better photo edits – he does his best to point out which is which to manage expectations.
“Now every celeb or influencer photo is a combination of a digitised picture, filters, Facetune, Botox and fillers. It’s a big amalgamation of a lot of things that is never going to look real or look that good in real life.”
To Esho, it makes sense that Facetune and fillers go hand in hand: his procedures exist to enhance photo angles. It’s building volume on volume. But the complementary nature of both practitioner and patient working on Instagram Face causes problems. It's a potentially endless pursuit of perfection.
“You’ve had a brow lift, in the picture you want it higher,” says Esho. “You’ll take it to a position that surgery or enhancements can’t do. You want your jawline sharper so you get a jawline augmentation with filler but by the time you come to taking pictures, you want it even sharper, so you turn to Facetune to chisel it a bit more.” It’s the human drive for refinement – a drive that Instagram has rewarded by favouring the most algorithmically acceptable look.
Women who are well versed in all this, like Francesca, will always have a meticulous eye, able to catch what is natural, enhanced or digital. She’ll spot the more defined look of specific filler and areas that look softer with Facetune, where pixels have been manipulated. Younger girls, like her 21-year-old sister who has already expressed a desire to get filler in place of her heavily Facetuned pictures, are unlikely to know the difference.
“Whenever I’m smoothing my skin,” Francesca says at the end of our call, “I think ‘oh, I need to make sure there are some flaws there, a few pores’ just so you can tell I might be real.”