Body Positivity Is a Bona Fide Movement. Why Not Face Positivity Too?
If I had a dollar for every time someone suggested, unsolicited, that I “fix” my face, I might have amassed enough to fund one of those costly procedures by now. My childhood dentist told me that if I didn’t do something drastic to address my strong jawline, I’d look like Jay Leno by the time adulthood neared. Years later, as an assistant with no health insurance, I was told by another dentist that I “needed” cosmetic jaw surgery. Then there was the makeup artist who, when I arrived on the set of a shoot, promised “we can make your nose disappear!” and proceeded to contour me to the nines. Shamefully, I was so happy with the results that I ended up using the photo as my professional headshot, trying not to let any candid shots slip through the cracks.
Those memories curdled as I watched a TikTok video by a woman identifying herself as a “certified aesthetic nurse practitioner injector” explaining the adjustments she would make to Stranger Things actress and fellow prominent-jawline-haver Natalia Dyer’s face. The backlash was immediate, suggesting that something is brewing. We may finally be moving away from the cookie-cutter “Instagram face,” the phenomenon chronicled by Jia Tolentino wherein cosmetic surgery and the filtered social media aesthetic converge somewhere within the bounds of the uncanny valley. Or at the very least, Gen Z seems to be swerving away from it. According to Dazed Digital, young people are even pursuing reverse rhinoplasties in an attempt to revert to a more natural look.
Body positivity, however imperfectly arrived at, has been a clarion call on the runways for years now, but most models still have very uniform features. Why can’t face positivity be a thing, too? Bella Hadid, recalling the rhinoplasty she had at age 14, said in an interview this year that “I wish I had kept the nose of my ancestors.” And more recently, Jane Fonda, who’s been open about getting a facelift, said she regretted the procedure. Teens and twenty-somethings are embracing unfiltered platforms like BeReal. Accounts like Celebface are putting a spotlight on celebrity surgical procedures, perhaps clueing in a larger audience to the scaffolding behind the “natural beauty” we see onscreen. And then there’s TikTok, where the hashtag #nosetrend is full of users jokingly celebrating their natural noses as a “trend.”
“Gen Z hates anything that looks contrived or inauthentic. They think the ‘likes’ thing on Instagram is, quite frankly, bullshit,” says Kirbie Johnson, a beauty reporter and co-host of the beauty podcast Gloss Angeles. “[Given] that that’s how they operate in this social media landscape, it makes sense that people are saying, ‘I actually don’t want to look “perfect” anymore. I don’t want to try to attain this standard of beauty that is being served to me.’” But teens and twenty-somethings aren’t the only ones pushing back against these standards—amid a growing emphasis on authenticity, people of all ages are reconsidering the urge to alter their appearance.
And, as Hadid’s eloquent phrasing suggests, many people are embracing their unique and original features because of the connection they provide to their ethnic heritage. When House of Gucci came out, Christina Grasso, a content creator and the cofounder of eating disorder recovery support network The Chain, posted an appreciation of the cast members’ Roman noses on TikTok. “As someone who was born with a stronger nose, I really appreciated that, because growing up I always wished for a straighter, daintier nose,” she says. “That, I feel like, has always been the standard of beauty. It wasn’t until the past couple of years that I’ve grown to appreciate the nose that I have. I’m thankful that I never got a nose job, because I inherited my nose from my Italian grandfather, with whom I was very close. He passed away a couple of years ago, and now I feel like it’s a piece of him I’ll always have with me.”
Grasso finds the fixation on “straight, ski-slope, button noses” to be a very American phenomenon, and points to international celebrities like Caroline de Maigret, who own their striking features. That mindset has helped her reframe her thinking. “The way that I now look at physical beauty is the same way that I look at art,” she says. “Art isn’t meant to always be beautiful or perfect or comforting. I’m drawn to work that I find interesting or provocative, or that tells a story.”
Facial procedures aren’t the only treatments experiencing a reversal. Major celebrities are rumored, as observed by their fan bases, to have reversed their Brazilian butt lifts or removed their breast implants. To some, this could be a refreshing example of embracing the body type you were born with (or your original “factory settings”); for others, it’s a troubling return to the hyper-skinny aesthetic. Some Black creators have also found it telling that white celebrities and influencers who once appropriated Black culture are changing their bodies once again to chase a trend. “It sends a message of disposability,” TikTok creator MJ, who runs the account @kardashian_kolloquium, told i-D. “There’s a long history in America of that kind of treatment of Black culture and aesthetics as capital.”
Johnson also points out the centrality of plastic surgery even within this growing anti-plastic-surgery narrative. “It’s an interesting dynamic: You still have to go through the surgery in order to achieve that final look. I think it speaks to how comfortable people are getting with cosmetic surgery, [that] they’re still willing to go back under the knife.” Which might explain why, though rhinoplasty reversals have become more common, millennial and Gen Z-age women are still driving an overall increase in procedures, according to a report this year from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
Still, Grasso is emphatic about the fact that “bodies are not a trend, they’re merely a vessel. Changing one’s body or face in the name of aesthetics doesn’t change one’s life. And more importantly, it rarely brings a state of lasting contentment. If it did, I think the quest for perfection wouldn’t be this constant chase.”
And as I found out, leading with a heavily altered avatar can be a trap of its own. When I embarked on my book tour, I often had to reintroduce myself to organizers who had only seen my photo. When my friend Maryam sent me a series of snapshots from an event I did in San Francisco, I wasn’t thrilled with the way my nose looked in profile. But I was happy, surrounded by friends and readers. I was signing the flyleaf of a book that I’d written. So I posted it anyway.
This article appears in the November 2022 issue of ELLE.