This past summer, I booked a plane ticket to Los Angeles with the hope of investigating what seems likely to be one of the oddest legacies of our rapidly expiring decade: the gradual emergence, among professionally beautiful women, of a single, cyborgian face. It’s a young face, of course, with poreless skin and plump, high cheekbones. It has catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; it has a small, neat nose and full, lush lips. It looks at you coyly but blankly, as if its owner has taken half a Klonopin and is considering asking you for a private-jet ride to Coachella. The face is distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic—it suggests a National Geographic composite illustrating what Americans will look like in 2050, if every American of the future were to be a direct descendant of Kim Kardashian West, Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and Kendall Jenner (who looks exactly like Emily Ratajkowski). “It’s like a sexy . . . baby . . . tiger,” Cara Craig, a high-end New York colorist, observed to me recently. The celebrity makeup artist Colby Smith told me, “It’s Instagram Face, duh. It’s like an unrealistic sculpture. Volume on volume. A face that looks like it’s made out of clay.”
Instagram, which launched as the decade was just beginning, in October, 2010, has its own aesthetic language: the ideal image is always the one that instantly pops on a phone screen. The aesthetic is also marked by a familiar human aspiration, previously best documented in wedding photography, toward a generic sameness. Accounts such as Insta Repeat illustrate the platform’s monotony by posting grids of indistinguishable photos posted by different users—a person in a yellow raincoat standing at the base of a waterfall, or a hand holding up a bright fall leaf. Some things just perform well.
The human body is an unusual sort of Instagram subject: it can be adjusted, with the right kind of effort, to perform better and better over time. Art directors at magazines have long edited photos of celebrities to better match unrealistic beauty standards; now you can do that to pictures of yourself with just a few taps on your phone. Snapchat, which launched in 2011 and was originally known as a purveyor of disappearing messages, has maintained its user base in large part by providing photo filters, some of which allow you to become intimately familiar with what your face would look like if it were ten per cent more conventionally attractive—if it were thinner, or had smoother skin, larger eyes, fuller lips. Instagram has added an array of flattering selfie filters to its Stories feature. FaceTune, which was released in 2013 and promises to help you “wow your friends with every selfie,” enables even more precision. A number of Instagram accounts are dedicated to identifying the tweaks that celebrities make to their features with photo-editing apps. Celeb Face, which has more than a million followers, posts photos from the accounts of celebrities, adding arrows to spotlight signs of careless FaceTuning. Follow Celeb Face for a month, and this constant perfecting process begins to seem both mundane and pathological. You get the feeling that these women, or their assistants, alter photos out of a simple defensive reflex, as if FaceTuning your jawline were the Instagram equivalent of checking your eyeliner in the bathroom of the bar.
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