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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Slaves to Vanity

It’s a fine line between Instagram and pornography.

The Online Safety Bill Continues Its Passage Through Parliament
(Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

In December 2019, essayist Jia Tolentino published a piece in The New Yorker that went nearly as viral as its subject matter: “The Age of Instagram Face.” In it, Tolentino explores “the gradual emergence, among professionally beautiful women, of a single, cyborgian face.” Popularized by Kim Kardashian and the Instagram influencers who multiplied in her likeness, the look is that of a Bratz doll on ketamine. 

Tolentino describes how that particular brand of face—poreless skin, pillowy cheekbones, baby-like nose, and cat-like eyes—was memed into reality over the previous decade. Beginning in 2010, Instagram algorithmically optimized for high contrast, low-noise imagery, resulting in a familiar, generic sameness in popular posts and posters. Facetune, which arrived in 2013, allowed users to modify pictures of themselves using blurring, blending, and reshaping functions, in order to eliminate such distractions as blemishes and asymmetry.