There is an inconspicuous clinic on an unremarkable street lined with tall oak trees in which I spent the better part of an afternoon against my own good judgment and the advice of my close friends. I sat in a sterile waiting room — the walls were cream, the smell vaguely medical, fake plants punctuated each corner, and I did what people do in waiting rooms. I waited.
I waited, specifically, for a consultation for lip fillers.
“What brings you in today?” said the dermatologist, still staring down at her clipboard.
“I want my lips to look like Emily Ratajkowski’s,” I said, seated on the medical examination chair, the kind that’s covered in the squeaky vinyl you find in dentist’s offices.
“Who?” She looked up with a confused expression, and we stared at each other in silence for about 30 seconds.
“I just want my lips to looks like this.” And then I took my two index fingers and pushed on my upper lip until I imagined I looked like a real housewife of New York. “You know… but a bit more subtle.”
“Well, yeah, I thought that was kind of obvious,” I said, a bit confused by the question.
She pulled two blue latex gloves over her hands and proceeded with the consultation. She told me half a vial of filler would be enough, that she’d use a local anesthetic and that there were rare but occasional complications, mainly scarring and asymmetry. She told me to expect about eight weeks of bruising and for the filler to completely dissolve within 6 months. And then she told me that because elective cosmetic procedures aren’t covered by medical insurance, it would cost me $600.
I nodded my head quickly, impatiently adding in the occasional “Mhmm” at the end of each of her sentences, because I actually knew all of this from extensive internet research.
I never considered my lips to be a large insecurity of mine, which is notable because I’m concerningly prone to body insecurity. That was before I started spending an hour each day mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. I know I do this for at least an hour, because Instagram now displays that information because it wasn’t satisfied with stealing your time — it also wants you to feel guilty about it.
Nearly everyone thinks they’re immune to media messages. That tendency to believe mass media has a greater effect on others than on themselves is called the third-person effect, if you want to get technical. But I don’t. Sitting in a waiting room for my lip-filler consultation, I knew with absolute certainty that I wasn’t immune to subliminal messaging. I knew that Instagram was recently ranked as the worst social media for mental health, according to about 1,500 young people who were surveyed. Instagram usage and self-confidence have an inverse relationship — one goes up, and the other has to go down. But as a cosmetic dermatologist poked and prodded my lips, I didn’t need a survey to tell me that.
Cosmetic surgery is a bit of a conundrum. I find myself caught between the liberal notion that I should love and accept myself for who I am and the equally liberal notion that I should do whatever the fuck makes me happy. I’m caught between condemning the way plastic surgery homogenizes beauty standards, often in a way that values traditionally white features, and celebrating the confidence it can give the people who can afford it.
Every year, the number of cosmetic procedures performed in the United States increases by about 2 percent — a fact that the American Society of Plastic Surgeons advertises with gleeful pride. Social media isn’t necessarily the reason for this ongoing rise, but technology is changing how we see ourselves. Front-facing cameras are wide-angle, which helps fit more into the picture, but wide-angle lenses distort things at the center of the frame — like our noses. As we take more selfies, we begin to see our noses as bigger than they actually are, which might explain the popularity of rhinoplasty among young people. Face filters, which Snapchat invented and Instagram then stole, actively alter the face, which has led some cosmetic surgeons to use fillers to mimic face filters.
Technology companies now have the power to completely redefine beauty standards. This used to be the exclusive realm of fashion, film, TV and publishing — those weary gatekeepers who for so long exclusively decided who would be showcased and when, and what color their skin was. But now that media is all about ‘“us,” that power rests in Silicon Valley, and I’m not sure it even fully realizes it yet.
It turns out that I don’t have $600 lying around, so my lips don’t look like Emily Ratajkowski’s. I wish I could say I’m OK with that. But Instagram tells me I spent two hours on its platform today, so you can guess how I’m feeling about my lips.
Josh Perkins writes the Friday column on the absurd realities of modern communication. Contact him at [email protected] .