We weren’t meant to see this many beautiful faces
In a world of normalised filters, cosmetic surgery and beauty tweaks, “beauty overstimulation” is now a thing. But what’s it doing to our brains?
Ever get the feeling that, when you open your social apps, all the faces staring back at you are, well, gorgeous? Maybe that’s because it’s holiday season, festival season and Love Island season all at once. But even outside of that, our feeds look like a sort of eternal Hot Girl Summer.
It’s now easier than ever to edit our digital avatars. Apps like FaceTune, Snapchat and TikTok offer subtle face tweaks (you know the ones: slim nose with a shiny button tip, subtle blush, pouty lips), meaning you can rework your look with a single swipe. This, of course, is nothing new. Ever since early magazine imagery and the advent of Photoshop, people have worried about what retouching images would do to us as a society. But now, if social media algorithms are aggressively pushing glossy, symmetrical faces to the front of our feeds, is there a danger of digitally overloading our brains with beauty?
The phrase “beauty overstimulation” emerged recently courtesy of writer Eleanor Stern, who said on TikTok: “Not only are we being exposed to more beautiful faces on a daily basis, but people are making themselves more beautiful than ever”. It clearly struck a chord. “My self esteem improves by just going to [the] grocery store and looking at actual people”, one comment reads. Another: “I never take my mask off in public spaces honestly, I just don’t want to be seen by anyone anymore.”
In her book Survival of the Prettiest, Harvard scientist Nancy Etcoff notes that we’re always sizing up other people’s looks, and that our “beauty detectors” are always pinging. Platforms like Instagram and TikTok famously favour human faces over scenery or food snaps; people are encouraged to post selfies “for the algorithm”, and so the frequency at which we’re seeing faces on our feeds is higher than ever.
“We notice the attractiveness of each face we see as automatically as we register whether or not they look familiar,” Etcoff writes. “Beauty detectors scan the environment like [a] radar: we can see a face for a fraction of a second (150 milliseconds in one psychology experiment) and rate its beauty, even give it the same rating we would give it on longer inspection.”
Retouched images are now what we have come to expect from certain influencers, particularly the Kardashians, with their impossibly-long fingers and weird-looking calves. But with the influx of “beautifying” lenses on social media, like ones that add “light makeup”, ordinary people are now tweaking themselves beyond anything we’ve seen before. This leads us to believe that we’re falling short by normal standards, which can be even more damaging than celebrity comparisons.
While our brains are constantly judging looks, they’re also making comparisons. “Whenever any one of us looks at images of others, there’s a strong tendency to compare ourselves with those images,” says Dr Petya Eckler, a lecturer in body image and social media at the University of Strathclyde.
“If those comparisons are, as they’re called by academics, ‘upward comparisons’, you feel you’re lesser than the thing you compare to.” And with social media’s abundance of beautiful images, Eckler continues, the comparisons are likely to be “upward” as opposed to “downward” or “lateral” (where both parties are seen as equals). That has been found to be, she says, “quite risky for self-esteem, for fulfilling the self-worth of young people, both male and female.“
Dr Nadia Craddock, a body image researcher at UWE, says: “Studies have shown that on social media, comparing ourselves to people we consider peers is more potent than celebrities or models when it comes to body image, because we can better rationalise that we don’t have the same resources, like a glam squad.” Other studies show, Craddock adds, “that the more we invest in editing our own image, the worse we feel about our IRL selves. This matters because poor body image can affect every aspect of our lives – it can affect our physical and mental health and affect how we show up at work, social events, and in romantic relationships.”
As a direct result of this comparison and editing, beauty ideals are becoming more homogenised. In 2019, Jia Tolentino coined the term “Instagram face” in The New Yorker, where she described 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”.
Type “the most beautiful face in the world” into AI image generator DALL‑E, and a uniform group of humanoids stare back at you, all with long, straight brunette hair, a razor-sharp jawline and plump lips. All nine faces are caucasian, with tanned skin and electric blue eyes. None of them look natural, but more like a machine’s imagining of a ‘00s-era Victoria’s Secret model.
It’s unsurprising that artificial intelligence appears to be conforming to Eurocentric ideals of beauty. AI learns from the information that’s currently out there, so society’s biases become the ones adopted by our new computer overlords. This manifests in our apps, too – some of the filters, such as a “glow” look which lightens your eyes and adds freckles, only really work on white faces.
In her newsletter The Unpublishable, beauty critic Jessica DeFino offers a cutting takedown of the cosmetics industry: “Beauty standards are the products of patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism”. She goes on to describe how “what the beauty industry sells isn’t actually beauty” but “diet culture’s face-focused fraternal twin”. Skincare isn’t self-care, she argues. It’s “more like extractive capitalism … Beauty products can only replace the confidence that beauty standards stole”.
And these standards are always shifting. It’ll be interesting to see whether appetites for Brazilian butt lifts will plummet, given the Kardashians were recently spotted sporting smaller-sized bums. “The fact that these standards change over time is important because it means we could invest endless time, money, and energy trying to achieve one aesthetic only for that aesthetic to become passé,” Craddock says. “The goal posts are constantly moving.”
Even if we do manage to score, consumers are rarely winners in the beauty game. “We shouldn’t forget that all these apps and filters, they’re commercial entities – somebody’s making money out of our insecurities,” Dr. Eckler says.
“The ones that drive us to change our face features and all that, they exist so that the developers of those apps can make money. They’re profiting by making us feel insecure about ourselves. So I think, we [need to] stop and think: who’s benefiting from all this? Because obviously, it’s not me as a person, right? I’m yet to see a single piece of research that says this is good for you.”
Can’t we just delete our apps, go offline, and live a life of peace? For Gen Z and millennials, it’s not quite so easy. Social media is important in terms of staying in the loop, culturally and with your mates – think of all the memes you’d miss! – and is often necessary for certain career paths. Craddock’s advice is to “have strategies to disrupt endless scrolling on social media. Notice when you are caught in a negative spiral of comparing yourself to other people’s curated and likely edited images and take that as a sign to close the app and do something nice for yourself.
“Challenge yourself to not edit photos of yourself that you post online. This can have a ripple effect on your immediate network,” she adds, with a little self-esteem boost. “Whether you are aware of it or not, there will very likely be people that follow you that look up to you.”