Celebrities are morphing their bodies on Instagram to meet the norms that are created by social media and their users. They are manipulating their behavior and appearance in order to be perceived as “normal”. The Instagram accounts @celebface and @beauty.false show us the reality behind these edited photos of celebrities and we will try, using Michel Foucault’s ideas of abnormality and bodies, to examine why this is happening with the display of the body online.
Display of the body online
Nowadays, it is impossible to imagine a society without social media. Almost every person has an account on a social media platform and uses it to communicate with others. With its one billion active users per month, Instagram may be one of the most popular apps at the moment. Instagram makes use of a so-called ‘Explore page’, where the app comprises posts with high engagement. On this page, users can run into any kind of profile. People you might know in real life, but also people you might know because they are celebrities. When looking at the profiles of these celebrities and the pictures that they post, not one flaw can be spotted. But how realistic are these images presented to Instagram users and society? Are we confronted with real life, or just the magic created by photoshop and editing tools?
The popularity of image-based social media is the reason why photo editing apps are so popular. Filters and edits have become the norm, altering people’s perception of beauty worldwide. Not only models in magazines and advertisements are being photoshopped to display the standard of beauty; also your colleague, a family member or a friend. Photo editing apps have become a popular and easy way for people to alter their looks before posting on social media.
To understand this display of the body online, two important concepts are 'morphing bodies' and the electronic photo-editing apps that affect your online self-presentation. In this article, we will mostly focus on celebrities and the influence their display of their bodies has on their followers.
A selfie is what Foucault would describe as a veridictional genre: it is a revelation of who you are. When we see someone, we analyze whether they look healthy according to the standard set up by society.
The traditional beauty ideal that is presented in Western media is a woman who is thin and lean, with a small waist, long legs, flat stomach, large breasts and narrow hips (Groesz, Levine, & Murnen, 2002; Harrison, 2003). The beauty ideal presented on Instagram does not deviate much from this. Celebrities, like Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner, have popularized a trend now called ‘slim-thick’. Instead of narrow hips, wider hips have become the trend. Kylie Jenner also popularized big lips, which she attained by getting lip fillers.
This ideal body type is unattainable for most people. This is exactly why celebrities and social influencers are changing the presentation of their appearance. They choose to morph their bodies with photo editing apps, in order to be perceived as normal and to get accepted in society.
In Figure 1 above, we see an example of morphing a body. Instead of posting real pictures of their bodies, celebrities choose to first change their self-representation according to the norms of the ideal beauty standard. We will examine why they do this under the heading of Abnormality.
The result of everyone following this particular beauty ideal is that everyone starts to look the same. In Figure 2, we see a post from @beauty.false, calling people out on having no individuality, because they look so much like certain celebrities. Huffpost even claims that "the emergence of this homogenized expression of beauty can be problematic".
An important aspect of the morphing of bodies on social media is sexuality. A great number of celebrities show themselves in an appealing, sexual way. However, they have to be careful when displaying their bodies like this. They do not want to overstep the regulations of social media organizations, and more importantly they also do not want to overstep what will be acceptable for their non-specialized audiences.
By morphing their bodies this way, celebrities give their audiences pleasure, but do so in a controlled way.
A survey of 1,000 British adults, carried out by Photoion Photography School in 2015, found that 68% of adults will no longer share their images without editing them (Ottke, 2015). This study was done in 2015, so we can only imagine what the numbers will be like today, with social media more popular than ever. Apps that promise to make your picture look better dominate the App Store charts. Facetune’s first version has sold more than 10 million copies and was Apple’s most popular paid app in 2017 (Solon, 2018).
With photo-editing apps, you can change the picture itself by altering the light, shadows, and contrast, but Facetune goes a step further. Facetune is like photoshop but is easier to use. You can change the subject of your picture, reshape the image (make something slimmer or bigger), patch one part of an image somewhere else (often used to remove unwanted spots on one's face), defocus and blur, whiten teeth, remove blemishes, and smoothen skin. This means that you can easily recreate the beauty ideal by morphing your body.
Figure 3 shows an example of the use of Facetune. Not only has the lighting been adjusted, the whole face has been reconstructed: smoother skin, a slimmer nose, bigger lips, no bags under the eyes, smooth hair, etcetera. These edited photos make it look like celebrities always look like this in everyday life, and make it look like these 'perfect' pictures are the norm.
When everyone starts posting these ‘perfect’, but edited pictures, it can feel like it is unacceptable to post anything that is not perfect. A controversy has arisen as some people are concerned about the new artificial standards that have arisen on social media (Kim, 2019). The bodies that are portrayed online are characteristic of the beauty standard today and most people do not realize that these bodies are actually photoshopped. Instagram accounts like @celebface and @beauty.false show us how these bodies are morphed and what they actually look in reality.
Under the first heading, we addressed the phenomenon of displaying the body online. People show themselves off on social media and commonly work hard to adhere to a certain standard of what is considered “normal”. By morphing their bodies and using electronic apps that can affect someone’s self-representation, celebrities create perfect images of themselves. But what exactly is the reason for this?
In a number of important books, Michel Foucault writes about power in society and how it is used to include and exclude certain types of people. As a society, we have very strong ideas about what is appropriate and what is not. Human beings, thus, need to conform to all sorts of behavioral scripts, mini-rules invented to determine how people should behave in front of others. When you look like and do things that are not recognizable by the masses, you are perceived as abnormal and therefore you do not belong in society.
In almost every domain of behavior there are rules and norms, determining whether you are normal or abnormal. Instagram is one of those domains and can be analyzed as a panopticon. A panopticon is an institution in which inmates have no idea whether they are being watched or not by a guard, thus they have to behave well all the time. The same idea holds for Instagram; whenever you post, you produce information and knowledge about yourself that is visible for everyone else. Whatever you do, you can always be observed by others. Celebrities indeed adjust their behavior to the idea that they might be seen at any time.
Foucault argues that the way in which we organize our body is the most absolute form of power since our bodies speak the truth about who we really are. This readability of the body is the reason why celebrities on Instagram spend so much time and effort organizing it. Their audiences identify them as normal or abnormal based on their looks and it is exactly in the domain of Instagram where having flaws and small imperfections are seen as abnormal. This results in celebrities changing the smallest characteristics of their bodies.
Important to mention is that there is a counter-movement against this phenomenon of displaying perfect bodies. @beauty.false and @celebface not only expose the body morphing of celebrities, they also express the negative side-effects of this phenomenon, which we will delve into a little bit deeper in the next section. For example, @beauty.false mentions in one of her posts that she wants to show that not all the beautiful girls you see on Instagram are as perfect as they seem.
@beauty.false has also stated that she has been approached by various celebrities to take down their unedited photos, as can be seen in Figure 3. Celebrities may feel threatened by accounts like @celebface and @beauty.false, because they expose how they morph their bodies into perfect images. Audiences, then, might read the celebrities’ bodies as abnormal.
Celebrities, thus, feel like they are being watched most of the time and therefore feel the need to adjust their behavior and appearance. They morph their bodies and use apps because they want to be accepted as normal by their audiences.
Effects of morphed online self-representations
Since physical appearance is so important in the world in which we live in today, the morphing of bodies online and the curation of images have been normalized. But this idealized view of bodies, emphasized by celebrity appearances, has a huge impact on the audience. Society now looks at Instagram posts as if these are the standards that we have to strive towards to be regarded as normal. Since none of us want to be regarded as abnormal, we all try to conform to these standards.
We argue that the morphing and manipulation of bodies on social media has huge effects on society.
Firstly, as briefly mentioned before, it has triggered the body positivity movement as a countermovement. Body positivity is about the acceptance of all body sizes, shapes, and colors. "While selfies have been widely criticized as expressions of vanity and narcissism, the body positive movement utilizes them to challenge and subvert body norms in western societies" (Mohr & Sarfaraz, 2018). Body positivists strive towards changing the normalized view of people’s appearances. In doing this, they show their flaws and imperfections, things that might be considered abnormal, and they aim to make these abnormalities normal. Whereas most people crop, filter, photoshop and edit their online self-representation, body positivists often show how they really look without manipulating anything.
Second, mental problems can be a result of the idealized pictures we view on Instagram. Since Instagram is all about presenting your best self, everybody aims to conform to this. Pictures often get manipulated to hide any sign of abnormality. When scrolling through our Instagram timeline, we come across ‘perfect’ pictures from the people we follow, and when we start to compare ourselves to these pictures this can trigger damage to our self-image, and result in for example depression or eating disorders. It has been found that people "who view health and fitness-related content on social media are more likely to have an eating disorder’ and ‘following a greater number of strangers is associated with greater levels of negative social comparison" (Turner & Leferve, 2017).
Finally, plastic surgery can also be an effect of celebrities manipulating their online self-representation. A lot of celebrities and influencers undergo plastic surgery, and since this is such a trend amongst them, others may feel plastic surgery is needed for them, too, in order to be seen as normal. Nowadays, people from all over the world undergo plastic surgery in order to change their appearance and to be seen as 'normal' (Van Gorp, 2017).
In Figure 6, we see a post from the Instagram account @beauty.false, showing a before-and-after picture of influencer @fatherkels' changes through plastic surgery. In the comments, people speculate about what Kelsey had changed on her face. In the comment, someone also says “Why are all these Instagram chicks starting to look the same lol?”. This points at the fact that many people on Instagram strive towards being regarded as normal, and that they put a lot of effort into being seen as normal. Since every detail is important in being considered normal or abnormal, plastic surgery is often used to adjust these details.
Normalization, body morphing and Facetune
Celebrities morph their bodies with the help of apps like Facetune into perfect beings. Celebrities are always being watched, so they change their online self-representation because they do not want to be regarded as abnormal by society. Celebrities morphing their bodies has become normalized, and for this reason, their audiences also feel like they have to manipulate their bodies in order to belong to normal society.
Foucault, M. (2003). Abnormal. London, United Kingdom: Verso.
Groesz, L.M., Levine, M.P., Murnen, S.K. (2001, December 26) The Effect of Experimental Presentation of Thin Media Images on Body Satisfaction: A Meta-Analytic Review. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 31(1), 1-16.
Turner, P. G. & Lefevre, C. E. (2017). Instagram use is linked to increased symptoms of orthorexia nervosa. Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 22(2), 277-284. doi: 10.1007/s40519-017-0364-2