Cosmetic Procedures Are Dominating Social Media, What Does This Mean For Mental Health?

drawing of woman with cosmetic surgery lines on her face looking into a mirror at a woman with a "more perfect" face

Verywell / Nez Riaz

Key Takeaways

  • Celebrities and influencers regularly promote various cosmetic surgeries and procedures through the media.
  • Social media can have a negative effect on body image, as people compare themselves to those they follow.
  • With cosmetic surgeries becoming more popular, we risk losing our individuality in striving for the same "ideal".

While scrolling social media, through the accounts of all your favorite celebrities and influencers, you may have noticed that everyone looks...kind of the same. Whether it's their slim nose, chiseled jawlines, or plump lips, many of them have probably undergone some form of cosmetic procedure. Likewise, if you’re looking at your favorite lifestyle or beauty website, you’ll probably see articles about the latest cosmetic trend. 

Just as items of clothing or styles of tattoos drift in and out of fashion, so do different cosmetic surgeries and skin-rejuvenation procedures. And what was once taboo to discuss, has quickly become normalized for celebrities, influencers, and regular folks to talk openly about the procedures they’ve undergone.

In many ways, it’s a good thing that people are becoming more comfortable with cosmetic surgery—people should be empowered to feel comfortable in their own skin, even if that means making physical changes. That being said, the overwhelming prevalence of cosmetic surgery on the internet and the bombardment of 'perfect' people are warping perspectives of beauty and self-love as a result.

The Rise of Plastic Surgery

Plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures have seen a rapid increase in popularity in recent years. In 2020, far more cosmetic procedures were carried out in the US than in any other country, while according to The Aesthetic Society plastic surgery increased sharply in popularity in 2021. In fact, facial procedures increased 55% that year.

It's worth noting that almost four in 10 (38.6%) of cosmetic procedures in the US in 2019 were carried out on those aged between 38 and 50. As a society, we are almost obsessed with youth—ageism in Hollywood proves—so it's perhaps not surprising that more people are considering plastic surgery as they approach middle age.

People age. It's a natural part of life and not something that we can prevent in itself. No one should be made to feel ashamed of the natural way their body changes, but as fewer and fewer people are allowing their bodies to age naturally it becomes a lot harder to accept this progression. And when young people are seeking out "preventative" procedures like botox more than ever before, it's clear we need to take a serious collective look at our relationship to aging.

The obsession with getting work done in order to look young is closely tied to the desire to look perfect (forever). But looking perfect isn't merely a factor of youth, you have to have all the right facial components as well. In 2019 The New Yorker published a piece titled The Age of Instagram Face, which highlighted the eerie sameness of people's faces online. Judging by their ubiquity; small noses, big lips, sharp jawlines, big eyes, and strong cheekbones are the pinnacle of beauty in this day and age. Even the photo filters make you look like this.

Why is this such a big problem? When the visual narrative we're told is that only one type of face is beautiful, it can trigger untold amounts of insecurity. For as much as we tout the virtues of racial and sexual diversity, we haven't quite accepted the vast variety of facial features that exist. And so we go under the knife or needle, making adjustments big and small the get a little closer to looking snatched.

Social Media and Body Image

It's not only our faces that we wish would look the same. It's our bodies too. There's a clear contrast between what’s generally portrayed as the ideal body type and the body types of the people who are actually scrolling through social media—but when this body type is all anyone sees, we're conditioned into thinking it's normal, and "right". In short, social media has a lot to answer for.

Unsurprisingly, there's lots of research to confirm the negative impact of this discrepancy. One study found that there was a correlation between negative body image and disordered eating and time spent on social media. The correlation was stronger when people were scrolling through content related to physical appearance or body image, perhaps from models or fitness instructors. 

Elena Touroni, PhD

Poor body image increases the risk for depression, anxiety and eating disorders, as well as causing feelings of shame.

— Elena Touroni, PhD

Another study looked at the relationship between social media use and body image disorders. Participants completed an online questionnaire assessing their social media use, including the accounts they followed, and researchers found a link between the frequency at which people compared their appearance to others and the people they followed on social media. 

As a result, it's easy to see the links between emergence of social media and the rise in people of all ages getting cosmetic surgeries. Take selfies, for instance. They focus on the face, and if we're bombarded with pictures of 'perfect' faces from celebrities and influencers, it may make us more self-conscious, or make us want to change our own faces to meet a certain ideal.

“As we know, body types mostly come down to genetics,” says Elena Touroni, PhD, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic. “We need to chip away at this concept of the ‘perfect body’ and focus on other more meaningful, important qualities instead. We want to be encouraging a relationship with our bodies that is loving and accepting, and focused on health and balance rather than perfection.”

Promoting Disordered Eating

And on the more serious end of the scale, social media can almost promote disordered eating outright. When someone can't afford plastic surgery it's easy to fall prey to thoughts that extreme dieting could help them achieve the right look. Staff of Sen. Richard Blumenthal set up an Instagram account purporting to be a 13-year-old girl interested in weight loss and dieting, and the platform’s algorithm began recommending the account more and more extreme dieting accounts.

TikTok has also been criticized for promoting extreme weight loss and disordered eating content to young users—a sort of successor to the ‘thinspiration’ content so prevalent on Tumblr. 

“Poor body image increases the risk for depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, as well as causing feelings of shame,” explains Dr. Touroni. “Some people with poor body image may also suffer from body dysmorphic disorder, which is a mental health condition that causes someone to obsess over how they look or even become addicted to cosmetic surgery to change their appearance.”

As well as anxiety, it can lead to “very insecure attachment styles in relationships, a fear of going out, and a whole host of physical ailments that have loaded into the body—dysregulating the nervous system,” says Juliette Karaman, certified mind and body coach, teacher, and mentor on relationships, sex, trauma, and healing.

"Obsession with looking a certain way, not being able to attain that perfect look—then spending lots of money trying to “fix” the problem, only to realize that even when they have “fixed” whatever they were unhappy with, their lives still have not changed. Instead of trying to fix what is on the outside, go inside and figure out how to start loving yourself exactly the way you are!" says Karaman.

How Responsible is Social Media?

Studies have shown that the use of algorithms can make the relationship between social media and body dissatisfaction stronger—the social media platforms themselves are aware of this, and more needs to be done to protect users, particularly those who are younger or more vulnerable. 

With algorithms pushing the same content to many of us, and a number of influencers dominating the online sphere, do we risk all looking the same? Particularly as people follow each new trend: buccal fat removal appears to be the latest. Searching “buccal fat removal” with Google Trends shows that there was a huge spike in searches around Dec. 11, coinciding with speculation that a number of celebrities had undergone the procedure. 

Chase Cassine, LCSW

With the rise of social media in creating a global community of many different people of all walks of life, it became important to challenge idealized societal body types and ideals in media and empower others in both loving and accepting the skin you're in.

— Chase Cassine, LCSW

“When you are constantly engaging in comparisons on social media it causes a negative thought loop in the mind fueled by insecurities, jealousy, and inferiority type thinking like “I’m not good enough” to fat shaming yourself because you're not measuring up to toxic beauty standards on social media that are ironically impossible to ever measure up to because of the digital manipulation and enhancements to removed perceived flaws. All of these contributing factors can chip away at a person’s self-perception and body image,” explains Chase Cassine, LCSW, psychotherapist, and author.

“The American Psychological Association reported that exposure to body ideal images in media was a large contributing factor to body dysmorphia and eating disorders in their 2013 APA task force on the sexualization of girls,” says Kendall Roach, MA LPC, therapist at Babylon.

However, she highlights the social media movement highlighting and promoting what she describes as “natural and realistic views of beauty”. 

“Part of this movement focuses on the individuality and uniqueness of every person and how each person is beautiful in their own way for the things that set them apart and make them ‘different’,” she continues. “If we all strive to look like supermodels and hold that as the beauty standard, don't we risk becoming "basic" and lacking individuality... and thus lose true beauty?”

This goes back to the idea that we're all different. If we all follow the same trends—whatever's popular on social media at a given time—in a quest to prevent aging or reach an 'ideal' body type, we risk never being happy with our appearance. Instead, we should be embracing what we look like.

Press Play for Advice On Navigating Mental Health Advice on Social Media

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast points out the bad mental health advice you may find on social media. Click below to listen now.

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What About The Body Positivity Movement?

Do we risk going backwards?

“I wouldn’t say so,” says Dr. Touroni. “Even though it is still in the minority, we are starting to see more and more influencers coming forward and speaking out about their own insecurities. I would encourage anyone to be mindful about who they choose to follow on social media. Make a commitment to follow people who are real, open and honest and who leave you feeling good about yourself.”

And, “on a positive note,” says Roach, “many influencers and companies have started to promote positive body image campaigns, portraying more realistic images of bodies and life in general”. 

Social media isn’t all bad. A study of middle school-aged girls a few years ago found that while social media use was high—particularly visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat—the girls displayed high levels of media literacy, and minimized the influence of social media on their body image. This was largely down to their parents and guardians and their school. Meanwhile, another study published in 2020 showed that taking selfies and posting them on social media can be empowering.

"With the rise of social media in creating a global community of many different people of all walks of life, it became important to challenge idealized societal body types and ideals in media and empower others in both loving and accepting the skin you're in,” says Cassine. “The body-positive movement pushes to normalize the acceptance of images of diverse bodies on social media. And, in return to foster a safe space for others with similar struggles to view their bodies from a healthier perspective to increase body acceptance.”

What This Means For You

It’s true that social media and the internet can affect our body image, but with careful usage and support from parents and educators where younger people are concerned, it can be a force for good. Even if it seems as though there’s always a new cosmetic procedure that's trending.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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