"Everyone has bad days": Elle Fanning discusses social media and the comparison trap

elle fanning
Elle Fanning on social media's comparison trapVera Anderson - Getty Images

"Instagram is the first thing I look at in the morning – which maybe isn’t the greatest for my state of mind..." Elle Fanning tells me, laughing. It's reassuring to find something we have in common so early on in our conversation: the actress and I are speaking over Zoom about the latest project in her longstanding role as a L’Oréal Paris ambassador.

In the brand’s new 'Lesson of Worth' campaign video, Fanning starts to distort her face, little by little, using fillers to make her lips bigger, cheeks fuller and eyes brighter, to conform to society's beauty standards. Eventually, she stops, her image returning to normal: "Behind every filtered, retouched image... is somebody just like you and me". It's a powerful warning against falling into the comparison trap on social media. “I’m still navigating it, of course,’ she says, carefully. “Social media has its advantages, but there are so many images coming at you that you can’t control, and they’re so curated.”

Fanning is no stranger to public scrutiny – particularly the online variety. The 24-year-old has been in the acting business for two decades, and has grown up used to the spotlight. Although she’s aware of Instagram's pitfalls, she still catches herself slipping into bad habits. "Most of the time, pictures are filtered, or just show the best parts of someone’s life," she says. "I fall into [doing] that too – we want to show the fun things, don’t we? Not the nitty-gritty! But as a public person, it’s important to also share the unfiltered aspects of your life that might be more mundane."

It's easy to imagine that someone like Fanning – who already has a clutch of award nominations to her name and numerous stylists, make-up artists and hairdressers at her disposal for red-carpet events – never suffers from online insecurity. But when I ask her, she seems genuinely surprised. "Of course comparison culture affects people in the public eye! You can’t help but wonder if your lips were bigger, if your thighs were that bit smaller… As I’ve got older I’ve become more aware of it, and try not to fall victim to it, but everyone has bad days. In my industry, people love to pit women against each other and using their looks is a way to do that."

Fanning didn’t enter acting totally unaware of its pressures, however. She counts herself "lucky" to have had her older sister, Dakota Fanning, to show her the ropes. "She was in this business before I was, so I have a built-in role model. My whole family is full of strong, opinionated women." But it didn’t stop her going through the typical rites of passage of any teenager: "I distinctly remember high school, when I started changing myself – for boys, mostly – by wearing tight jeans and little t-shirts. It was so not me, or my style, but I was wearing what I thought would make me fit in. When you’re young, you try to look older – you’re trying to be sexy, but you’re 12!"

elle fanning at the 74th primetime emmy awards held at microsoft theater on september 12, 2022 in los angeles, california photo by michael bucknervariety via getty images
Michael Buckner - Getty Images

These days, she’s more comfortable being led by her own tastes. "I definitely like a natural approach," she says. "My mom is very natural, that’s just her vibe. She definitely made sure that I love myself for what I am stripped down, and I’ve always honoured that. I want to look like myself in everyday life, and just enhance my natural features." When she does wear make-up, she's a fan of freckles ("I put fake ones on – I love the way they look") and isn’t one to hide an imperfection ("I get bad eczema and once, it was on my eyelids – it looked like eyeshadow, so I guess there’s always a way to make things work!").

Like everyone, Fanning suffers from the odd beauty mishap, admitting she has, in the past, gone "overboard" with blusher. "I admire tanned people, and sometimes I wish I could do that, but fake tan gets all over your clothes and mostly, it's the wrong shade. I wore fake tan for the Met Gala in 2019, but it was washed off that night! I’ve accepted my fate, that I have to be pale."

castel del monte, italy may 16 elle fanning is seen at gucci cosmogonie castel del monte front row on may 16, 2022 in andria, italy photo by daniele venturelligetty images for gucci
Daniele Venturelli - Getty Images

Fanning has a refreshingly shrewd attitude to beauty fads, but she does worry about the effect that picture-perfect Instagram posts – and changing standards of beauty – have on the younger generation. "My friends and I talk about trends and how they ebb and flow, especially body shapes," she says. "Why are body shapes a trend? Everyone has a different shape and it's been that way since time began. That's where the danger comes in: when you think you can change yourself for a fleeting trend. Young girls think that's possible, and that's when it can get dangerous – buying things online that aren't credible, and so on."

As much as she likes a natural look, Fanning is also drawn to trying new things when she’s in character. “I think beauty and creativity play hand in hand, and I like to experiment," she says. "A lot of the time, I’m dressing up in character and using beauty to become someone else. I get to see myself in a different way – Elle is gone, and I feel like I have an armour."

Beyond the superficial, Fanning sees beauty as "such an interesting word – it spans so many different things". She pauses, and adds: "I think the more you lean in to what makes you authentically yourself, the happier you are. It sounds so cliché, but it really does work. I feel like when I’m happier, it rubs off on other people." We could all bear her words of wisdom in mind – especially the next time a late-night Instagram scroll session looms…

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