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Why has Instagram now decided that botched surgery is cool?

In the age of non-invasive surgical procedures, a slew of new Instagram filters are allowing people to live out their excessive surgery fantasies without going under the knife

Remember the early 00s? Me neither. It was an innocent time, defined by crimped hair, mismatched spray tans (à la St Tropez), and faces caked in Maybelline Dream Matte Mousse. An era of extreme, and sometimes botched, surgery, dominated by the trout pout, Goldie Hawn’s duck-billed lips in The First Wives Club, Katie Price and her ‘knockers’, Jodie Marsh and her ever-shrinking nose – basically, fodder for British tabloids with headlines like, ‘Katie Price’s Fresh Hot Baps’ and ‘Wildenstein Goes Frankenstein’, and cemented through (ethically questionable) makeover shows like Extreme Makeover and Bridalplasty.

With the rise of fillers and non-invasive procedures quite literally changing the face of beauty for the subtler, you’d think the days of waxwork faces and botox was over, but apparently not. Scroll through Instagram and suddenly everyone’s stretching and enlarging their facial features to gravity-defying extremes, and the only difference: they’re using face filters. Now, we know that AR face filters have been having a moment ever since cute dog faces and custom Kylie Jenner lip filters were a thing, and it only felt like yesterday that futuristic face filters were all over our feeds, but the release of filters like ‘Princess Carolyn’ and ‘Bad Botox’ – characterised by exaggerated, hollowed cheekbones, needle-point noses, and waxwork skin – has seen the emergence of a new trend that’s getting millions of hits per week, begging the question: Is botched surgery now cool? 

“Plastic surgery is a topic that always inevitably pops up when talking with friends or when scrolling on social media, but in Italy, where I am from, we have prime examples of botched procedures, and exaggeratedly enhanced features are an undying trend in cosmetic surgery,” says Teresa Fogolari, whose face filter ‘Plastica’ – a quick-fix way of morphing your face into Amanda Lepore – has amassed over 170 million uses in less than a month. Her ‘Princess Carolyn’ filter, amusingly named after the anthropomorphic pink cat in Bojack Horseman of the same name, is equally amplified, featuring settings that warp your eyes to feline proportions, lift your cheekbones, and plump your lips to pufferfish proportions. “Princess Carolyn was inspired by Jocelyn Wildenstein, an internet icon with botched surgery I often came across on social media growing up,” Fogolari tells us, before adding: “It’s had over eight million hits in five days.”

For AR designer, Silich Masha, it’s much the same. Her botched surgery-inspired ‘Bad Botox’ has been used over 100 million times, a favourite of fashion socialites like Lily Bling and Anthon Raimund. In fact, ‘Bad Botox’ was so popular that it prompted Ukraine-based Masha to create an additional (and self-explanatory) ‘Rhinoplasty’, and a combination of the two, ‘Modern Ideal’. She explains: “My friend wanted to have botox for a long time and asked me to enlarge her lips on Photoshop, at first as a small lip augmentation. I made it into a filter on Instagram, but every time my friend asked, ‘can you make them bigger?’ and ‘Bad Botox’ was created.”

Undeniably, botched surgery is an iconic look (literally) frozen in time from a bygone era, but you can’t help but wonder it’s so popular among young millennials and Gen Z-ers who – as alluded to earlier – can hardly remember the celebs these filters reference. You could say that this harking back to the 00s is a collateral nostalgia resulting from fashion’s current mood, a throwback obsession with Y2K style, or perhaps, it’s a morbid fascination with surgery – something that’s already evident with the popularity of Instagram accounts like @celebface, which expose the before and afters of celebrity surgery to a fanbase of over one million followers. 

For Clare Varga, head of beauty at trend forecasters WGSN, the popularity of extreme surgery apps isn’t so much grounded in the actual desire to change our faces to Jessica Rabbit extremes, but rather, it’s a collective fascination with cosmetic surgery as a whole. “We have a morbid curiosity with surgery – the good and especially the bad, and we all wonder what we would look like, what we would change,” she tells us. “Fire the question ‘what would you have done?’ at anyone and I guarantee their response will be instantaneous because they’ve already thought about it. What these apps offer a little piece of fantasy, I dip into a world that is beyond most people’s means.” 

“Fire the question ‘what would you have done?’ at anyone and I guarantee their response will be instantaneous because they’ve already thought about it. What these apps offer a little piece of fantasy, I dip into a world that is beyond most people’s means” – Clare Varga, head of beauty, WGSN  

Besides, nowadays the images we project online are just as important, if not more, than IRL. Given that most of what we do is for the ‘gram anyway, face filters like ‘Plastica’ and ‘Bad Botox’ give us the opportunity to explore different versions of ourselves as we would a new make-up look. In this sense, face filters are a standard extension of our makeup bags, along with FaceTune and Photoshop. “When it comes to unlocking the popularity face filters – or any form of virtual beauty – it’s important to understand that young consumers (Gen Z especially) don’t differentiate between their URL and IRL purchase. For them a virtual product carries the same kudos as physical product in the real world,” says Varga.

But there’s also an undeniable irony to these filters. In a world of standardised beauty, the Kardashian ideal, and FaceTune, every image we consume is fed to us through highly-curated and edited channels. Scroll through your Instagram filters now, and you’ll find hundreds of settings tailored to fixing your blemishes and elevating your looks, so botched filters are a response to that – meaning, they’re so obviously fake that they’re not trying to fool anyone, which paradoxically, makes them real. “‘Plastica’ was created in less than two days as an impromptu ironic response to popular face-perfecting filters I see on Instagram,” agrees Fogolari.

Perhaps it’s this generation’s quest for authenticity in these postmodern times, in the only way they know how: the internet. Between the constant streams of fake news, edited images, deepfake, and so on, nothing is real anymore, but at least filters like ‘Bad Botox’ aren’t trying to fool anyone. Sometimes all you need is to make fun at the absurdity of it all, and if turning your face into a snatched Amanda Lepore for a quick second is what does it for you, then all the better for it.