It started with a DM. A friend sent Sana M. an Instagram post of a fashion blogger, showing how to perfect the cyborgian face. It’s a young face with enough make-up to make it look fresh and flawless. Long eyelashes and thick brows complement catlike eyes, while the small, pointed nose, with a sprinkle of faux freckles, and high cheekbones highlight the shade on the fuller lips. Sana became an instant fan. She had found the ideal no-make-up make-up look, and no longer needed beauty filters or apps to make her selfies look better.
Within weeks of seeing the post in December last year, she had perfected the blogger’s tricks. One thing continued to bother her, though. “My dad gave me such a thin nose. I wasted so much make-up on it but always such blah photos,” says Sana, a law student who spends most of her days attending classes on Zoom and building a presence on Instagram, where she has 5,000-odd followers. She got it “fixed” in February, getting an appointment for a “nose filler”, or a non-surgical nose job.
Her parents were “chill since it wasn’t like I was getting a surgery. And I had saved my pocket money for it.” The procedure cost ₹25,000; her parents gave ₹20,000. Soon after, the Delhi resident felt the need to “improve” her lips. “It saves so much time; I don’t have to spend half an hour doing make-up. I am just waiting for this corona to end, so I can get it (lip fillers) done,” she says. The procedure will cost her ₹25,000-30,000. “It (the nose filler) has made me more confident and the photos...come out so well, I get so many likes. It’s like I have an Insta filter on my face but it’s all natural.”
People have always looked for ways to enhance their looks—be it lining the eyes with kohl in the Indus Valley civilisation, binding the feet of women to keep them dainty in imperial China, or the restrictive whalebone corsets of Europe. The idea of beauty has been an ever-shifting one—today, technology is the driver. On the one hand, social media is giving people power to widen the definition of beauty, making room for all shapes, sizes and shades. On the other, it is offering entertaining cookie-cutter filters and apps like Facetune and Easysnap that give users porcelain, doll-like skin and retouched bodies, narrowing the definition of beauty.
In an era of self-broadcasting, the phone in our hand has become a mirror that can offer any flattering filter to increase engagement on social media. And the thrill of receiving likes is so rewarding that more people, many in the 20-40 age group, are getting help from doctors to alter their bodies to match their filter-versions.
The flawed filter
Dermatologist and aesthetic surgeon Kashish Kalra started witnessing the trend of people bringing in pictures of their “filtered” selves—a phenomenon now recognised as “Snapchat dysmorphia”—three years ago. “People would come to me with requests for a certain kind of pout they made in a selfie. Last year, a 15-year-old girl came for a lip filler to increase (the number of) her Instagram followers. She had a very natural lip line with good volume, so I said no. Next day, her mother came. She said her daughter was fascinated with the virtual world and was conscious about her looks. I told them to seek a counsellor’s advice,” recalls Dr Kalra, who runs Dr Kalra’s Skin Clinic and is a consultant at the Max Smart Super Specialty Hospital in Delhi. “During the lockdown, we didn’t do any procedures but had a steady stream of queries, almost daily. So much time at home, scrolling through social media, has made us more conscious about our looks.”
Since 2017, he says, the demand for invasive procedures, like nose jobs, lip fillers, breast augmentation, Brazilian butt lift (which uses the body’s own fat), liposuction and hair transplant, has increased 40-50% in metropolitan cities. Non-invasive procedures, like body hair removal and body contouring, have become more popular. Many of these procedures take a minimum of 15 minutes, can last for months and cost upwards of ₹25,000, depending on the doctor.
“Plastic surgery has been around for years but now more people, mostly young, are opting for them because they want to look nice on social media,” says Dr Kalra. “There’s more demand for non-surgical interventions like fillers since they are quicker and less risky. More people also want tummy tucks and breast implants now because they want to share their vacation photos. We often get influencers who want to look flawless.”
The demand is not limited to the big cities. Plastic surgeon Vikas Kakkar, who has been running a clinic in Amritsar for eight years, says requests for breast implants, dimple creation, liposuction and vaginal rejuvenation have gone up in the past two years. “We used to get one patient in two months (for breast implants) earlier. Now, we are getting four a month,” says Dr Kakkar. He has done 30 vaginal rejuvenation procedures in two years.
Besides the exposure to social media, Dr Kakkar attributes the rise to greater purchasing power. “People are ready to pay to look good. We have people who spend their monthly salaries on a treatment.”
Four hundred kilometres away, in Modinagar, Uttar Pradesh, doctors are seeing a steady rise in hair transplants. “People between 20-35 are coming, especially before marriage. It’s not like people were not losing hair earlier; it’s just that everybody wants to be perfect in their wedding pictures now,” says Sandeep Kansal, consultant plastic surgeon at the Kailashi and Nutema hospitals in Meerut.
While there’s no official data, a 2019 report by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery shows a 5.4% rise in procedures completed in 2018. The top two nations, the US and Brazil, accounted for 28.4% of all aesthetic procedures, followed by Mexico, Germany and India. India’s share was 3.9%, or 895,896 procedures; 505,103 of these were non-surgical. The rest were surgical.
Vinod Vij, consultant plastic and cosmetic surgeon at the Fortis Hiranandani Hospital in Vashi, Maharashtra, too attributes the spike to “the selfie craze”. “People use filters and realise how much better they appear with modifications, which makes them consider cosmetic changes,” says Dr Vij, estimating a 25% increase in requests since 2018. “Even during the lockdown, we got queries almost daily. See, aesthetics surgery is about making one look better and feel good. Things become problematic when people feel there’s something wrong with their nose, lips or any other body part. These filters, selfies and influencers are fuelling unrealistic demands and expectations. People sometimes want completely new faces.”
So deep was the impact of Instagram’s augmented reality (AR) filters, which made people look like they had had lip injections, fillers or a facelift—basically plastic surgery—that the Facebook-owned app banned them in October last year amid concerns they were affecting users’ mental health. A spokesperson for Facebook told Lounge: “We recognise that creators predominantly use face alteration and feature augmentation to create artistic, surreal, fantasy effects that many enjoy, and that these effects are widely available across other platforms. We want AR effects to be a positive and safe experience for our community, while allowing creators to express their artistic perspectives. We will continue to ban effects that directly promote cosmetic surgery.”
Zooming in on a selfie
Soon after the lockdown forced Samantha K. to return home to Bengaluru, she noticed she had undereye hollows. She tried yoga, slept more, ate better, but they didn’t disappear. They bothered her the most when she looked at herself during office Zoom calls. “All my attention was on my face. I barely paid attention to what people were discussing,” says Samantha, 29, who works in marketing. By September, she had decided to get an undereye filler. “It was stress that was causing them. My stress is still very much there, but at least I look pretty on the screen.”
Make-up artist Priya Sureka, meanwhile, is considering getting “permanent make-up” so that she can closely understand the technique and offer it to clients in the future. It lasts for months, depending on how much you are ready to spend (the price can range from ₹5,000 to lakhs of rupees), and includes tattoos for thick brows and insertion of colour for rosy cheeks and pink lips. “It’s getting popular in India,” says Sureka, the make-up head for Enrich salon, which has branches in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pune and across Gujarat. Sureka says her work has become relatively easier now, since customers know exactly what they want. “There are so many tutorials. Everybody has become so aware because of social media and people know what works for them since they are always looking at their selfie camera.”
We are living in a time when we are flooded with images of ourselves, agrees Vasant Mundra, consultant psychiatrist at Mumbai’s PD Hinduja hospital. “Earlier, we would catch a glimpse of our reflection at a shop, and move on. Now our mirror is always with us. Even during video chats, our eyes are mostly on ourselves. We are studying our own faces, thinking about how we look to others. Frankly, nobody is studying us so much.”
For social media influencers like Dolly Singh, that’s not the case. With over a million Instagram followers, she uses quite a few filters but also regularly shares her real self. “The idea of beauty has always been fractured, in a way. We earlier used to look at films, TV. Now it’s social media. It’s definitely not healthy. I myself went through a time when I was enjoying a filter so much that I hated how I looked in the mirror, and then I realised what was happening. A lot of youngsters don’t realise this. That’s why, as influencers, we have to be more responsible to show the real side and not just a make-believe world.”
But, she adds, “For some people, it (cosmetic surgery) works and there’s nothing wrong with it. I also know of people who were bullied and had cosmetic surgery and they are happy now.”
That’s why K. Ramachandran, an experienced cosmetic surgeon at Chennai’s Apollo Hospitals, describes the work as that of a “healer”. “Any aesthetic surgery is something one can do without but if it brings back happiness, what’s the harm?”
Where do you draw the line? “We have to evaluate whether a problem genuinely exists,” says Dr Ramachandran. “Then we evaluate whether we can deliver. Sometimes when we feel we can’t, we refer them to someone else who is better in that surgery or procedure. But there are some patients who come with unrealistic expectations after looking at social media. Occasionally, we get patients who perceive imperfections, which cannot be identified. They complain of a problem which may be imaginary or very trivial and they attach too much importance to that. Our clinical judgement should help us in identifying these people who may be harbouring body dysmorphic disorder. These patients will not benefit from surgery and we suggest to them that they need counseling."
Sana M., meanwhile, has set up a lip-filler appointment in January. “I am keeping my fingers crossed. I will have the perfect lips and nose. It looks good on social media, yes, but it also makes me genuinely happy. And there’s nothing wrong in wanting to look good. You just have to ensure it’s not too much. Otherwise it looks fake.”