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The photoshop community ‘fixing’ celebrity faces to sinister levels


TextDaniel Rodgers

Performing a variety of surgical procedures digitally, the Instagram and TikTok accounts promote an unsettling definition of beauty

Cultural turning points are rarely the grand, seismic events you read about in textbooks. Sure – there’s 9/11 or Obama being elected to office, but there’s also the iPhone, Caitlyn Jenner coming out, and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. And whether we like it or not, there are plenty of smaller (more trivial) moments which work just as hard to keep culture ticking. Think that Snapchat dog filter or Bella Hadid’s alleged nose job.

It’s at the intersection of these two particular phenomena that a disturbing new trend has emerged: Instagram accounts dedicated to photoshopping celebrities and giving them imagined cosmetic procedures. Accounts like @goddess.women, @fixedyouu, and @beauty.kingdome have gained significant momentum over the past few months and now churn out daily edits of Gen Z friendly celebs such as Zendaya, Billie Eilish, Selena Gomez, and the Hadids. 

The edits are uncanny, eerie and, in many ways, indistinguishable from Instagram’s already pathological use of Facetune and filters. But what does the rise of these accounts say about our current relationship with body image and our perception of self? And how will this impact their highly engaged, mostly adolescent and almost exclusively female audience?

“I truly believe our appearance defines us,” says the individual behind @fixedyouu (who wishes to stay anonymous). “We might not admit it but there is an undying curiosity about what we could or would be like if we were perfect looking”. The concept of perfection is, for so many reasons, problematic but it’s deeply embedded within the culture of beauty – having been reflected back to us through insipid advertising campaigns, before and after tabloid spreads and celebrity ‘glow-ups’.

It’s the ‘best version of ourself’ that we’ve read via “because you’re worth it” slogans and “you deserve it” messaging. Even outside of marketing, the moralistic value we assign to beauty ideals are well documented – like when taller men and slimmer women earn more than others. It’s the tired, but intoxicating, notion that being more conventionally beautiful equals happiness, wealth, and partnership. 

“I truly believe our appearance defines us. We might not admit it but there is an undying curiosity about what we could or would be like if we were perfect looking” – @fixedyouu

Of course, we know this equation to be untrue but when @fixedyouu reveals that: “I have never liked my appearance and I probably never will”, it does make it all the more powerful. The solution here, or so it’s implied by the account handle, is cosmetic surgery. Despite being a public account, @fixedyouu is apparently only targeted “towards the plastic surgery community”, otherwise known as Instagram’s ‘Sx’ community – an undercover collective comprised of private accounts manned by anonymous “dolls” (cosmetic surgery patients) who compile moodboards, document their surgery journeys, and share best practice tips to other Sx members. “In this community we yearn to learn about new ways of improving our appearance,’ the anonymous founder explains. “What’s great about my page is that it gives you a relatively realistic idea of what certain surgeries would look like on different face shapes.” 

In this sense, the faces of celebrities (or even prison mugshots and historical figures like Frida Kahlo and Anne Boleyn) function as substitutes for their own – they become avatars through which the retoucher exorcises their own insecurities. On one hand, it resembles our unboundaried relationship with celebrity, an entitlement to access and an ownership over their appearance. But on the other, it provides a platform for us to live out our truest fantasies digitally. Be it by way of cosmetic surgery edits or WarNymph (Grimes’ digital avatar) or even the futuristic filter art of Ines Alpha – it’s part of the ever growing phenomenon of wanting to look more beautiful online than in real life.

Yet what these accounts fail to acknowledge is “the true extent of the physical, emotional and psychological damage that is caused by people in their pursuit of beauty ideals”, says Dr Bamford of the London Centre for Eating Disorders and Body Image. This type of “image altering fosters a sense of lacking in people” which can lead to “depression, anxiety, and body image dissatisfaction… a known risk factor for disordered eating”. 

Social media, alongside tabloid culture and reality TV, has supercharged and shamed the body into a site of constant critique and self-optimisation. The dysmorphic culture of the ‘before and afters’ inherent to these accounts, are “just another tactic used by the media to exacerbate people's body dissatisfaction”. When coupled with a captioned list of ‘procedures’, they become almost instructional. It results in the types of images that the “young and vulnerable” tend to obsess over with macabre voyeurism – both admiring and resenting those who have the physical (or financial) assets to fulfil beauty ideals. 

If being tanned, blonde, and big boobed were the hallmarks of 00s glam, it’s now being pillow lipped, giftedly jawlined, and cat eyed. It’s something writer Jia Tolentino describes as “distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic” in her essay, “The Instagram Face”. Indeed, with the exception of light skin celebrities such as Rihanna, Zendaya, or Beyoncé, these accounts rarely feature black or dark skin subjects. It means that even in a world of imagined beauty, black bodies are excluded from the narrative. 

One TikTok account (@photoshoppetopia) quite rightly came under fire for its edit of Zendaya, which gave the actress smaller lips, a slimmer nose and a narrower jawline. It was captioned “perfect facial features”, which in the photoshop community seems mutually exclusive to Eurocentric proportions. But what’s most conflicting, is the lack of accountability that the people behind these accounts seem to take – many of whom refused to talk, in fear of aggravating the “hate” or the “extreme feminists” who comment on their work.

“I realise that the way I photoshop my photos could be seen as promoting a certain type of beauty (small noses, big eyes, perfect teeth)” says the 30-something New Yorker behind @just.a.tweak. But it’s fair game “as long as it’s been made clear that these images have been photoshopped”. Except by that point, it’s simply too late – the images have already become an object of aspiration. What’s more, research from the University of Warwick has shown that flagging models as ‘enhanced’ or ‘manipulated’ (counterintuitively) increases our desire to emulate their appearance. This, in turn, widens the gap between retouched images and our very real image of self.

“It seems indicative of how the culture of beauty is moving beyond physical Beverly Hills-style procedures and mutating into something more digital, cyborgian, and (potentially) more sinister. What remains though is the damaging belief that beauty is nothing if not untouchable. If it is within reach, then it’s simply not beautiful”

In fact, to assume that these images are just passively received by young people is to do them a disservice. These are digital natives, the vast majority of whom are accustomed to their own filtered reflections and au fait with retouching technology themselves. They’re well aware that these depictions of beauty are artificial, it’s just that many do not care. And with comments such as “she is so pretty” and “perfection!” on a recent post of Meghan Markle, it’s clear these users still idolise and engage with the edits as if they were real. 

In the words of @just.a.tweak, “people like to see beauty”. But at the hands of these particular accounts, the “art form” of photoshop becomes a hugely socially irresponsible practice. When so many accounts offer their retouching services to users via DMs, it seems indicative of how the culture of beauty is moving beyond physical Beverly Hills-style procedures and mutating into something more digital, cyborgian, and (potentially) more sinister. What remains though is the damaging belief that beauty is nothing if not untouchable. If it is within reach, then it’s simply not beautiful. 

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