“Why be you when you can be me?”
That question was part of a ’90s social marketing campaign created by Concerned Children’s Advertisers and Health Canada. In the clip, two young girls are walking through a “boutique” that offers products and procedures to help consumers change their appearances and personalities.
“Don’t settle for just being yourself,” a woman’s voice says as one of the girls is examined by a makeup artist who covers her lips with bright red pigment. “Why be you when you can be me?” she says.
The ad campaign seems more relevant now than ever, with that question representing exactly the type of attitude social media is perpetuating: Why be you when you can be like all the popular, beautiful people, like Kylie Jenner?
Social media influencers these days are starting to look like beauty clones. You know the look: a full pout, perfectly arched eyebrows, maybe some expertly applied eyeliner, topped off with a healthy dose of highlighter and cheek contouring. With a few makeup brushes, a contour palette and some matte lip color, you can be well on your way to looking like everyone else.
Why, though, is looking like everyone else something we aim for? There are a number of factors that play a part, including a possible desire to fit in and a tendency to mimic celebrities and influencers.
Others have written about what has been dubbed “Instagram makeup” and “Instagram face” before, but the trend is still going strong. HuffPost spoke to Rachel Weingarten, a beauty historian, Renee Engeln, a psychology professor and author of Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession With Appearance Hurts Girls and Women, and Dr. Michael Brustein, a clinical psychologist, to get some answers.
So, How Did We Get Here?
In the days before social media, as Weingarten explained to HuffPost, our beauty habits were defined by factors like geography and ethnicity. For example, she said, if you lived in a certain part of Asia, you may have used skin whiteners, or if you lived in France in the 1700s, you probably powdered your wigs.
“It kind of was isolated to a moment and a place and maybe your religion and beliefs,” she said, adding that around the late 1800s and part of the 1900s, magazines were opening people’s eyes to new things.
“But the time that things really started to affect beauty was probably the ’40s and ’50s, when celebrities started to show up in magazines as beauty ideals,” she said. “Then everybody started copying the celebrities.”
Thanks to the internet, Weingarten said, people no longer have to travel to see beauty trends from all over the world, nor do we need to wait for them to make their way to us. Because of that, we learn about trends that are popular in other parts of the world more quickly than we ever would have in the past, and we can participate in them. (Just think about Korean beauty and how quickly it exploded in the U.S. You can even buy specialty products at CVS and Walgreens.)
“The other thing that happened is people are no longer clearly defined by their ethnicity, their race, even their gender,” Weingarten said. “So, there’s this weird conformity where it used to be if you were Asian or Caucasian, that limited your beauty. If you had African-American hair, that made you look a certain way. You don’t have to do that anymore.”
“What we have now is a sort of aggressive version of what the ultimate in multicultural beauty could look like,” she added, explaining the popular makeup looks we see on Instagram ― again, it’s the sharp cat eyes, full matte lips and well-groomed brows ― could technically work on someone with any skin tone or nationality. In that sense, the look is accessible, which is perhaps why so many people online conform to it.
People Want To Fit In
And speaking of conforming, people want to fit in. One way to do so, especially online, is to model yourself after social media’s most popular figures.
Celebrities, especially those like Kylie Jenner, who has cemented a massive following on her selfie-filled Instagram account, “have really come to represent beauty trends,” Engeln said. Brustein agreed, noting that celebrities are a huge driver of society’s beauty ideals, and in attempting to fit in with these ideals, many people mimic celebrities.
Generally speaking, celebrities and Instagram models are seen as “what’s considered attractive,” Brustein said, adding that he thinks people want to fit in and live up to these ideals to help make themselves feel good.
“They’re modeling it after celebrity, and I think, really, that’s what drives it,” he said. “‘If I have this, I feel good, I feel worthy, I feel validated.’ And then they put it on their Instagram and it’s reinforced through social media as it’s passed around. It makes people feel confident.”
“Humans are social creatures by nature, and we have a powerful drive for social acceptance,” Engeln added.
At present, it’s all about the Kardashians and what some have called “The Kardashian Effect” ― i.e., “the Kardashians’ ability to influence consumer habits.” Look at Kylie, known largely for her overly plumped pout. So many people wanted the now-20-year-old’s lips for themselves that they were willing to physically harm themselves to achieve the look, even if it was temporary. Kylie’s influence over beauty trends has helped her create a billion-dollar beauty empire.
“At this point, [Kylie’s] look has become symbolic for beauty for some reason. It is more inclusive, let’s say, than the blond, blue-eyed look of the early ’70s or the ’50s. People feel that this is accessible beauty,” Weingarten said.
Obviously filters and editing apps play a role in this trend, too. Not only are individuals styling themselves like each other, but they’re also editing their photos using the same tools. For instance, an app like Facetune allows users to smooth their skin and/or make their eyes appear bigger and brighter.
Then there’s the cosmetic surgery aspect. While not everyone is open about possible work they’ve had done, there is a chance people are enhancing their looks with needles and fillers. We know Snapchat and Instagram filters are inspiring individuals to pay a visit to the plastic surgeon, but one could argue that the seemingly “unfiltered” images of “flawless” individuals have a similar influence.
What Does It All Mean?
For Weingarten, Brustein and Engeln, the emergence of this homogenized expression of beauty can be problematic.
On one hand, some people may find that conforming to a beauty standard can help with confidence and self-esteem. As Brustein explained, “fitting in gives people a sense of cohesion. They don’t want to be seen as the outsider.”
That confidence boost, though, will likely be short-lived, especially if you become increasingly obsessed with presenting an altered version of yourself on social media.
“In the long run if you’re preoccupied with fitting in, it could lead to negative emotion or distress because your identity is tied in with meeting these expectations that are derived from a social norm developed by the media or by a celebrity who we imbue with power,” Brustein said.
It should be noted that not everyone who participates in the current Instagram trends will find themselves sinking into a black hole of dissatisfaction with their own lives. It’s all about keeping things separated and not allowing your social media self define who you are, Brustein said.
Weingarten finds the trend of people looking the same “very disturbing,” and in her opinion, it quells “the experimentation that teenage girls used to have.”
“The pressure to look a certain way starts younger than ever. Girls don’t get to try on and fail anymore,” she said. “One of my fondest memories of being younger was trying on these ridiculous makeup trends, but [now] they’re just copying, there’s nothing original there anymore. It is sad.”
As Engeln put it, the fact of the matter is “we don’t all look alike.”
“We don’t all look young and we don’t all have full lips and smooth skin, and when you see this kind of uniformity, it’s a real denial of human physical features,” she said. “I think that’s ugly no matter what. That kind of denial hurts people. It makes them feel erased, and for women in particular, it makes them spend God knows how much time trying and trying to reach that look that they may be genetically unable to reach.”
It’s also important to remember that not everyone on Instagram or social media in general is perpetuating this homogenized beauty standard.
“One of the good things social media does is allow people to seek out feeds that do represent more diversity. So you don’t have to have a feed where everyone’s face looks the same. You can opt out of that,” Engeln said. “I think that’s the promise. Social media is democratizing in some ways. You’re not just letting fashion magazines dictate what faces we see. I think that’s really great.”
Additionally, there’s no need to shame those who participate or find solace in conforming to the current beauty trends. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to fit in, but, as Engeln explained, when we’re constantly seeing images that are so far from what people look like in real life, there can be some psychological costs.
“It’s not just [that] you see that picture of someone else looking perfect and you feel bad,” she said. “Even for the person who posted that picture ― they have to contend with the gap between [what’s in a] picture they made of their own face and what they see in the mirror when they wake up in the morning.”
“Most of us do not wake up flawless,” she said.