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Rhinoplasty effect filter
RhinoplastyCourtesy of Foxall Studio

Is there a black market for plastic surgery filters emerging?

Designers are starting to share ‘secret filters’ online to avoid Instagram’s recent ban

Last month, the company behind Instagram’s AR face filters, Spark AR, announced that it would be removing all Instagram filters associated with plastic surgery and postpone the approval of new effects associated with plastic surgery. The news came after a spike in uses of filters such as Teresa Fogolari’s “Plastica” and Daniel Mooney’s “Fix Me” filter, which depicts facial surgical marks and went viral.

There is mounting evidence linking Instagram use to mental health issues and body dysmorphia, including a recent psychological study that showed evidence that girls and women are more likely to want a cosmetic procedure if they spend lots of their time on social media. “The face filter department at Instagram must have been trebling in size every day and eventually they had to draw a line before the recriminations followed,” says Andrew Foxall, creative director at Foxall Studio in London. Still, many users are unhappy with the ban, advocating for their free choice to use these filters or pointing out the irony in banning cosmetic surgery filters on a platform filled with influencers and celebrities that have gone under the knife. 

When Foxall heard about the ban, he and his team quickly put together their “Rhinoplasty” effect filter and submitted it to Instagram, despite knowing it would be rejected. “Our filter is violent in the sense that it shows something painful in the short-term, but when you think that plastic surgery is self-initiated, then it skews the argument,” he explains. They now use a secret link to spread the filter to those interested in using a “black market” filter (one that has not been approved by Instagram’s new wellbeing policies for AR filters). 

The effect draws inspiration from an editorial shoot Foxall shot with Robi Rodriguez a few years ago in Istanbul. While living in Istanbul, Foxall noticed more people were parading around their rhinoplasty surgeries, walking through high-end shopping malls with bruising, swollen cheeks and eyelids. For Foxall, the filter is a virtual way to communicate that observation about the society we live in and how plastic surgery interacts with it. 

“AR uses go way beyond fantasy,” the creative director explains. “We liked that this rhinoplasty filter would allow users to process the procedure of cosmetic enhancement and start to form an opinion on it.” Foxall believes AR provides an important tool for people to physically imagine something that they would otherwise be unable to. He insists that the studio is not posing any view on plastic surgery or body modification with this filter, but rather just providing a tool for people to use to explore the idea.

The interest Foxall has had in this “secret filter”, which went “global in the first few hours” (tracked by Instagram impressions and newsletter opens), indicates a potential market for more banned filters. “We are moving into a phase of tighter communication and feedback loops,” explains Foxall. “So secret filters can be part of that. Instagram has helped spread AR but AR itself is its own thing.” Foxall plans on using the secret link to share the filter until Instagram also bans that. Then, he says, they will offer people the opportunity to use it in their studio. 

“AR uses go way beyond fantasy. We liked that this rhinoplasty filter would allow users to process the procedure of cosmetic enhancement and start to form an opinion on it” – Andrew Foxall 

The question then becomes: do people really care enough about filters to go searching for banned ones? The immediate flood of social media response to the announcement indicates yes and 16-year-old Enzo Trigoso from Miami, who tweeted about the announcement, makes a strong argument for this to be the case. Trigoso misses the banned filters because they made his self-esteem rise and were a tool to help him feel better about his looks. “I’d definitely be interested in looking elsewhere for similar filters,” he says. “I still look for filters with similar lip augmentation.” “Butterfly Look” by Erick Gerber and “Cherry on the Cake” by Barbara Malewicz, both overly enhance the lips and give them a much fuller look. 

Cydney, a 21-year-old based in California, says she misses using the “Plastics” and “LV” filters by “Sendom”, who is directing fans of these now-banned filters to Facebook. “I know they deleted them because of impressionable teens and the possible influence it might have on their body image,” says Cydney. “Honestly, I have body dysmorphia and the filters didn’t necessarily make me any more dysmorphic.”

While Instagram’s new wellbeing policies seem well-intentioned, it doesn’t factor in the fact that they opened the door, showed their users what AR can do, and there may be no way of closing it now. Evidence of the overwhelming popularity of facial enhancement through AR is clear – Brenda Cardenas, creator of futuristic “Beauty3000” filter went from 120 followers to 25,000 followers in about a month and a half after releasing it. Less than a year later she has over 800k followers. 

The new policies also do nothing to address that many of the most followed accounts on Instagram are of surgically-enhanced influencers (like the Kardashians and Jenners) with re-touched images. Foxall’s “Rhinoplasty” effect filter, it seems, is just the beginning of the filter “black market”, as boundary-breaking designers and devout filter users are only too willing to flout the ban together.