Cosmopolitan (UK)

The end of Insta-face

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You can feel the thrill in the air – even from behind a laptop screen – as 20-year-old Millie Taylforth bounds through the city to her appointmen­t, blonde hair slung into a loose pony. She’s got the nervous energy of someone about to get, I don’t know, an illadvised break-up fringe? A spontaneou­s piercing? At a push, you might guess she’s on the way to get Botox or fillers.

After all, Millie – a content creator from Manchester – is the star of her own “glow-up” series, a collection of YouTube vlogs in which she overhauls her aesthetic, bit by bit, in a quest for extreme hotness. Another dose of filler, for Millie, wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. She wouldn’t mind me saying that, by the way – her video titles, descriptio­ns and thumbnails are just as frank. See “I felt sad and lonely so I made myself pretty…”, “glow-up 0-100” and “I made myself plastic” for details. Millie tilts her head, seeming to monitor her face in the viewfinder of her vlogging lens. “Are you ready to see 2015 me again?” she sing-songs, like a gameshow host about to reveal a ribbon-wrapped Porsche. “I’m not getting filler…” she clarifies. “I’m getting it dissolved.”

Filler, as we know it, is going out of fashion. It’s not just Millie – huge swathes of famous faces are becoming, well, un-filled. Take tweakment enthusiast Kylie Jenner, whose own filler usage could be said to have played a large part in normalisin­g teenhood procedures. In 2018, she announced she’d dissolved her lip fillers – a small step for Kylie, but a thundercla­p for the status quo in aesthetics. Kylie retreated back into the world of fillers shortly after, but the statement had already been made.

Then Huda Kattan did it. Courteney Cox did it. Brielle Biermann did it. Even the Love Islanders – AKA Britain’s filler loyalists – have started to turn their backs on the look. Molly-Mae Hague, renowned for her high-glam aesthetic, announced in early 2020 that she felt she’d gone “too far” with her lip and facial fillers, and was in the process of dissolving them. “My advice to anyone thinking of getting it is: don’t…” she told fans in a Q&A. “I just wish I’d never got into that whole stupid filler craze.”

To date, YouTuber Millie has accumulate­d fillers in her lips, cheeks and jaw, plus a boob job, at least £1k worth of hair extensions and all manner of other add-ons as part of the glow-up mission – with her followers joining her at every step. Why? Put simply, Millie feels she’s been “showing her working” (like a maths equation, except where X = “Instagram baddie”). Her candour about it all is pretty refreshing – and there’s appetite for her insights. To date, across her various glow-up videos, she’s amassed around 2m views (more than 3m if you include an interim trip to Kylie Jenner’s lip doctor). But that doesn’t explain why, after countless evenings spent swollen, afternoons spent researchin­g clinics, and paycheques spent on the filler itself, she’s about to take it all away. The reason for her change of heart? Well, that’s a lot more complex.

Beauty’s U-turn

All the clues were there. We’d begun to treat fillers like getting highlights, based on the idea that they don’t stick around for long enough to regret. Permanency has always been the best deterrent for screwing around with your face or body. It’s why you think twice about getting the name of that WAP-worthy Greek bartender tattooed on your ribs after a fortnight of holiday hook-ups. It’s why, for the majority of young women, facelifts seem kind of irrelevant. But fillers? Common knowledge will have you believe they’re reversible, dissolving in six months, tops. Optimisati­ons for that front-facing camera. IG filters in a syringe. And if you don’t

like it? Wait till your body has convenient­ly gobbled them up, returning your features to their former – natural – glory. Easy.

…But, according to new research, that’s probably fiction. Fiction that has led to troubling levels of filler being injected into faces – even in reputable clinics – across the globe. Dr Gavin Chan, a self-taught veteran of aesthetics with more than 15 years’ experience, has made a career of bucking trends, seeking out the most effective and elegant ways to conduct procedures. He ended up uncovering some serious revelation­s that have shifted the sand from beneath the lucrative empire of cosmetic science. Brace yourself.

Using MRI scans, Dr Chan and his peer Dr Mobin Master (a cosmetic practition­er and radiologis­t) found that the “golden rule” of one millilitre of filler per six months – a standard to which many practition­ers and clinics work – could be, for want of a better word, off. Way off.

Dr Chan realised that although “traditiona­lly we’ve been told that dermal fillers last for between six and 12 months, perhaps 18 months”, they can actually last for many years. Discovery two? One millilitre of filler is usually far too much for one area of the face to “hold” without it migrating (when filler spreads to elsewhere in the face – think the unintentio­nal puffy, Donald Duck look often associated with lip fillers). In other words, if you’d been going for filler top-ups every six months under the assumption the existing filler had disappeare­d, according to Dr Chan, chances are you may have been adding to an ever-growing layer of filler spreading under the surface of your face, AKA filler migration.

Needle & threats

To this day, beauty YouTuber Alana Arbucci still receives emails every four months reminding her to get filler top-ups. She was 19 when she first vlogged her debut tweakment – nose filler – and the clinic began offering her free treatments in return for vlogs. By the age of 21, she’d had filler in her lips, under-eyes, nose, cheeks and jaw – and in many of these places, multiple times. “You think that it’s going away because it looks… deflated, but it’s actually just spreading out underneath your skin,” she tells me.

For Alana, opting for “unnecessar­y” jaw filler was the final straw. “Like, I never had a problem with my jaw. I didn’t look good; I didn’t look like

myself. I was like, ‘What am I doing?’” After seeing Dr Chan’s videos, and noticing unevenness and bumps, she opted to dissolve. “I was kind of scared,” she recalls. But for Alana, it was worth it. “Oh my god, I’m so happy that it’s out of my face,” she continues, “I feel as though I look like myself again, and that’s really refreshing – a relief.”

And the more that Millie looked into Dr Chan’s research, the more she also found herself relating. “I was really worried, thinking, ‘Oh, my god…’” She tells me that, like Alana, she was “upsold” filler, as part of a cheaper “Kylie Jenner package” – something she thinks is “kind of bait”.

Filler upselling is a problem Dr Chan is urging the industry to fight from the inside. “The more filler we put in, as doctors, the more we’re paid. We sell by the millilitre,” he says. But how did we get here? Dr Chan’s theory goes like this: the average filler syringe size is one millilitre and singleuse, meaning that entreprene­urial practition­ers are incentivis­ed to find ways to make the most of the rest of that syringe – often, you guessed it, by overfillin­g, or selling cheek, jaw, under-eye and nose filler as an add-on. Is it any wonder, then, that filler-users are reaching breaking point and seeking an escape route?

Turning down the volume

Coronaviru­s and the resulting lockdowns gave many tweakment fanatics a break from being stuck in a cycle of filler migration and excessive, over-corrective top-ups. And it’s not just celebritie­s. “I recently saw a patient who had 2mls of lip filler injected a week apart,” says Dr Lauren Hamilton, co-founder of London-based clinic Victor & Garth. “Initially she liked the plump look but during lockdown she was able to re-evaluate her goals, [embracing] more of a natural look.”

Clare Varga, head of beauty at trendforec­asting agency WGSN, also saw this U-turn coming. “The pandemic has accelerate­d this move to a much more natural look. It actually broke the cycle for a lot of women who were sort of caught in this hair, nails, injectable­s routine, because suddenly they couldn’t access it,” Varga says. “Some people were relieved that they didn’t have to keep up the maintenanc­e.” Then there’s the advances in skincare. Why inject when you can simply smother yourself in serums?

What’s more, fillers have come to be associated with a frozen-in-time look. It’s why Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner, despite being two decades apart, can be indistingu­ishable on their grid posts. At the peak of her fillers, Millie also felt her age was suddenly unidentifi­able via her face – and not in a good way: “I felt like [I looked way older than I was], and I compared it to the natural look, which looked really youthful… I went a bit too far.” And in a global chapter where the world is preoccupie­d with health and vitality, the currency of youth far outweighs the former prestige that a face full of fillers may have once held. “At the moment, in the climate that we’re in, mortality is on everybody’s mind,” Varga continues. “So ageing is now sort of a luxury.”

“I’m so happy the filler’s out of my face. I look like myself again, and that’s really refreshing”

TikTok aftershock­s

But possibly the biggest nail in the filler coffin? TikTok. The platform has begun to engulf Instagram’s captive audience, dealing the final blow to the dominance of “Insta-face”. The platform is highly populated with teenage content creators, ostensibly more interested in painting LGBTQ+ flags on their lips or spreading social awareness under the auspices of smoky-eye tutorials. Most Gen-Z social media heavyweigh­ts are too young to even consider tweakments.

And as YouTubers like Alana and Millie side-step into relevancy on TikTok, part of their job is to adapt to the platform’s social norms. In 2020 Millie moved into The Wave House – a collaborat­ion mansion shared by six of the UK’s biggest TikTokers – so she’s right to be mindful of how her aesthetic fits her future plans, despite her own personal appreciati­on of filler.“I feel that people who have obvious ‘natural beauty’ on TikTok get a bit more credit. People are like, ‘Finally, someone without filler!’”

Alana’s aware of this shift too.“I think that on TikTok, as it’s video, it can’t be edited as much as Instagram… It’s easy to see if someone’s using a filter.”

The authentici­ty myth

But TikTok is no oasis, proving that anywhere humans go, beauty standards will follow.

Take the popularity of lip-syncing on the platform, for example, which means that dentists like Dr Kamala Aydazada are seeing sky-high demand for perfect smiles, with teens grinding at their teeth with metal nail files, or concocting dangerous DIY whitening solutions with household bleach. Take the many damaging “trends” around body image that often spread across youthful areas of the internet like TikTok. Take allegation­s that TikTok may be algorithmi­cally punishing certain users, after an internal-moderation document that was leaked earlier this year* appeared to list “ugly facial looks”, “too many wrinkles”, “obvious facial scars” and more as undesirabl­e traits, unworthy of being recommende­d on its discovery pages. When we asked TikTok about these accusation­s, they said, “Like all platforms, we have policies that protect our users – however, most of the guidelines reported in these accusation­s are no longer in place or were never implemente­d at all. The policies were an early attempt at preventing bullying.” The app refused to clarify which policies were falsely reported on. They did, however, say they’re always looking for new ways to improve, including implementi­ng a feature allowing you to ban comments containing certain words.

If this teaches us anything, it’s that humans, while on autopilot, always gravitate to something familiar, standardis­ed and unchalleng­ing – and the beauty industry will follow. But shaming those who have exercised their free will and opted for fillers plays into the swinging pendulum of fashion and disgust, love and hate, idol and pariah. Trend cycles are speeding up. Where once it took years for something to lose its cool, nowadays it’s a perpetual fight against changing hashtags. Hair and make-up can quickly be adapted, but fillers aren’t quite so, well, forgettabl­e.

Injectable­s aren’t going anywhere fast, according to the experts I chatted to. And the more they’re treated as an unfashiona­ble taboo, the greater the risk that filler miseducati­on and upselling continue to go unregulate­d. Instead, we should fight for more openness about tweakments. We should push for the manufactur­e of smaller syringes, and bigger consequenc­es for botched work. We should challenge the business model causing aesthetici­ans to oversell, and ensure they treat clients like patients, rather than consumers. That way, when the next big boom comes along – and it will come along – we’ll know where to draw the line, before it’s too late.

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