Thick brows? Check. Pillow lips? Check. Spider lashes? Check… As ‘Instagram face’ tutorials turn young women into heavily made-up lookalikes, Rosie Green asks whatever happened to individuality?
Here’s a modern-day challenge for you: take a random selection of teenage and 20-something women from around the country – an air hostess here, an accountant there, add in a college student and, yes, maybe a would-be contestant on Love Island. Now, line them up and see if you can actually tell them apart.
I’ll bet they all have airbrushed-smooth skin, heavily drawn-on brows, pillow lips, Betty Boop eyelashes, razor-sharp cheekbones and a cartoon-like ski-slope nose. Imagine Elsa the princess from Frozen and Kryten the robot from Red Dwarf had several love children – they would look like this line-up.
Call it Instagram face, call it Love Island contouring – there’s a sea of indistinguishable, waxwork faces out there. It’s the look that launched a million online make-up tutorials and beauty influencers such as James Charles, whose YouTube channel has 15.7 million subscribers, making him a multimillionaire at the age of 20. The power of these influencers is huge. Charles’s fanbase – of predominantly teenage girls – is so dedicated that when he hosted a store opening in Birmingham’s Bullring shopping centre earlier this year, traffic was gridlocked throughout the city for more than four hours due to the huge turnout.
This heavily contoured, doll-like make-up is also, of course, the look of Instagram royalty, the Kardashian clan. Kim has even monetised it and peddles contouring palettes in her Kim Kardashian West beauty range, as does her half-sister, billionaire Kylie Jenner, in her Kylie Cosmetics line. And it’s troubling for parents who fear that their daughters would rather look like a blow-up doll than simply be at ease in the skin they’re in.
One concerned mother summed up the worries of many when she spoke to me about her 24-year-old daughter. ‘Every morning, she takes two hours to apply her make-up. She’s caked in foundation that’s too dark and looks like it’s shovelled on with a trowel. To me, she looks ridiculous and so much prettier without it. I think peer pressure makes her do it. She and her friends all look the same; they seem to have lost the will to be unique.’
I understand her concerns – my daughter is only 11 and now sees this look around her so regularly that she thinks it’s completely normal for your face to be so obviously made-up. I try not to judge others but is this over-sexualised look really one I want her to aspire to? Definitely not. I also don’t want her to feel that she has to live up to unrealistic standards of beauty. Or that she has to look identical to her friends just to fit in. Nor do I want her to decide that if she doesn’t like her features she should simply fake different ones rather than learning to love who she is – flaws and all. Some may think that I am worrying about this prematurely – she’s not yet a teenager, after all – but a survey by cosmetics brand Simple found that more than half of 12- to 14-year-olds wear make-up most days, and 17 per cent refuse to leave the house without it. A report for the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation into why teenage girls drop out of sport reported that one of the reasons was ‘they don’t want to get sweaty and ruin their make-up’.
Heather Widdows, professor of philosophy at Birmingham University, who has written a book, Perfect Me, about the demands on women to be beautiful, believes that these new beauty standards compromise our quality of life. ‘All of us – men, women, young women (less so older men) – are doing more work on our bodies,’ she says. ‘From “routine maintenance” (body hair removal, lotions and potions) to large amounts of exercise, to surgery, we are spending more time, effort and money – and, more emotional energy and psychological investment – to look better. As a society we are placing more emphasis on looks than we used to, across all demographics. People are doing more just to be normal. Increasingly we feel the pressure to go beyond this – to be “perfect”.’
Unsurprisingly, social media has played a key role in the rise of this look – hence the term ‘Insta face’. It’s a style that’s created 100 per cent for the camera. ‘People use so much highlighter that you can probably see it from space,’ laughs Caroline Barnes, an A list make-up artist to the likes of Kylie Minogue. ‘But in pictures, when combined with a certain light, it looks perfect. It’s only in real life that this much make-up doesn’t translate at all well.’
So as long as your face looks perfect in a picture to be shared with followers, it doesn’t seem to matter that it might look ludicrously painted-on to a person in the street. This is the message our young women and even pre-teen girls are receiving from the world around them.
Why, in these times of such female empowerment, do we accept this idea that faked facial symmetry is perfectly normal? Why do people countenance hours of make-up application to create selfies that look so different to their actual face that at times I have had to double-take when meeting people for the first time having only previously seen them on Instagram?
The effect of seeing fake faces all over social media becomes clear when Dr Sophie Shotter, an expert in facial filler injections at The Cosmetic Skin Clinic, tells me that young women often show her pictures of themselves, enhanced via a snapchat ‘pretty’ filter, and ask her to make them ‘look more like that’.
But am I being too judgmental? I know that if I was 13 now I’d be all over these YouTube videos where you get a tutorial in how to draw on thick eyebrows. I loved make-up back when I was a teenager (I still love make-up now). Not to ensnare boys (although there was that), but because I loved the glamour and the transformative effect of it. My mother was a hippie, whose idea of making an effort might stretch to brushing her hair. So my teenage rebellion took the form of my Revlon lipstick and a Boots 17 shimmering eyeshadow, both of which I prized over anything else.
The crucial difference is that I never wanted to paint my features into such homogeneity that my mum could barely tell me apart from my best friend.