Last month, Demi Moore opened the show at Kim Jones’s debut couture collection for Fendi. Although the actor was followed down the runway by the likes of Naomi Campbell and Bella Hadid, it was Moore who had people talking thanks, in large part, to her seemingly accentuated cheekbones and lips.
Her “new” look sparked endless discussion on social media, and the press speculated on procedures the 58-year-old star may have undergone to achieve this apparently altered face. Was it filler? Buccal fat removal? Just some intense contouring? Like so many other stars, musicians, and models over the years who have committed the crime of aging in the public eye, the details of Moore’s transformation were pored over, side-by-side photographs scrutinized and dissected.
The obsession with celebrity transformations
This game of digital spot-the-difference is just one example of our enduring cultural fascination with celebrity transformations. Formerly the bread and butter of weekly gossip magazines, this obsession has found a new home on social media. Today, Instagram is filled with eagle-eyed accounts that exist solely to satisfy our collective appetite for uncovering and exposing the perceived enhancements and modifications, whether digital or surgical, of famous people.
With clinical precision, these accounts pick apart transformations, poking a hole in the illusion of perfection and thriving on the schadenfreude that results. For their services, accounts such as @CelebFace and @Beauty.False attract millions of followers. But what motivates someone to dedicate large portions of their time to playing celebrity surgery sleuth? What is the goal and, the biggest question of all, what effect is this having on both them and us?
“Every day on social media, we are faced with these images of ‘perfect beauty’ and it makes you lose confidence,” says Anastasia of @Beauty.False. Inspired by her own feelings of insecurity and hoping to help others in the same position, Anastasia set up the account to lift the lid on notions of “perfection” and bring comfort to those who compare themselves to it. “A huge amount of work and money goes into a celebrity’s appearance, but because of the lack of information, the audience thinks it’s natural. It makes us think, ‘Why am I so far from this perfect appearance?’” But when you see all the work behind the look, Anastasia says, you realize the reality: “You start to understand that your idols are ordinary people—just like you.”
This is something that resonates with Dr. Michael Keyes, the cosmetic surgeon behind Instagram account @CelebrityPlastics. He believes it is important to open his followers’ eyes to what can be achieved with cosmetic surgery. “I feel that from a moral standpoint, it is important to educate the public that these procedures exist, so someone sitting at home doesn’t feel bad that they don’t naturally look like their favorite celebrity,” he says. “Unfortunately, many celebrities lie about the procedures they’ve had done, which can cause people to attribute their ‘natural’ good looks to genetics, to their skin-care line or their fitness programs, which they conveniently charge for.”
More harm than good
The desire to lift the veil for the sake of transparency and the self-esteem of many is understandable. However, despite the good intentions behind many of these celebrity “before and after” accounts, this dissecting of the bodies and faces of people, even if they are famous, is causing us more harm than good. “Evidence suggests that looking at these kinds of before and after images don’t make people feel better, it actually makes them feel worse,” says Viren Swami, professor of social psychology at Cambridge’s Anglia Ruskin University, U.K., who specializes in body image and human appearance.
Despite the initial spike of satisfaction one might feel when the “perfection” we’ve been told to strive for is exposed as an illusion, what these images are ultimately doing is reinforcing the idea that there is a beauty ideal, and if we throw enough money at the situation, we too can attain it. And when you haven’t got the means or the resources to do so, it’s just one more way in which you aren’t measuring up to expectations. To quote that infamous meme: “You’re not ugly, you’re just broke.”
Indeed, when presented with a “before” you realize there is an “after” and rather than boosting our self-esteem and body image, this just emphasizes that our natural selves aren’t “good enough.” “They tell us that there is a possibility that you can do better,” says Swami. “When people view these images, they end up feeling more anxious about their bodies, they have lower self-esteem, and they’re much more likely to be willing to consider cosmetic surgery in the future.”
A catch-22 situation
Something that can also often get lost in the frenzy is that celebrities are under more pressure than anyone to conform to impossible standards of beauty. Living under the microscopic lens of the paparazzi and social media, they are taunted and shamed for so-called imperfections and then vilified and shamed when they take steps to live up to the ideal. It’s a catch-22 model of beauty where you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
No matter what you feel about celebrities, the type of aggressive body shaming that Moore and countless others have been subjected to is toxic—and not just for them. In fact, as Swami cautions, the way we relate and react to celebrities has a huge impact not only on their psychological well-being, but on ours, too. “When you start viewing celebrities as a combination of body parts that you are going to be the judge of, the likelihood is that you will end up treating other people in your life and yourself in the same way,” he says.
After spending time studying the subtle shifts in Moore’s face that led to her changed appearance, what are the chances that, the next time you look in the mirror, you will start studying your own face in the same way, analyzing and diagnosing every detail? We are training ourselves to be hyper-aware of every feature and every “fault,” and this awareness can, in turn, only lead to finding faults in ourselves.
With so much of our culture—who succeeds, who is rewarded, who wields influence and power—predicated on appearances, the fascination with the looks of those in the public eye is inevitable. But when you find yourself succumbing to that fascination, the urge to scrutinize every “tweakment” a celebrity may or may not have undergone, and, as a result, how your own face measures up, try to alter the angle of your approach.
Remember that the main purpose of the human body is not aesthetic. Start thinking of your own body, and everyone else’s, in terms of all the things it does for you rather than how it looks. This shift of focus, Swami says, will help you value yourself and others for more than just appearance.
“There is a big difference between your aesthetic body and your functional one, but people often forget the functional body they have and focus on the aesthetic,” he says. “When we focus on the functional—how your body helps you breathe, how it helps you move—that’s when we feel much better about ourselves.” Something to keep in mind next time you’re scrolling through Instagram.
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