The tide has turned on beauty fillers, but don’t assume ‘natural’ is in

<span>Photograph: Kristin Callahan/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Kristin Callahan/Shutterstock

Late last year I read a pitch-black novel which hinged on the idea of a woman grieving for her pre-Instagram, pre-surgeried self. It is set in 2032, and Anna, a former influencer, is due to undergo an extreme surgery, Aesthetica (also the title of the book, by Allie Rowbottom), which promises to reverse every cosmetic procedure she’s had on her face and body over the past 15 years. “This is the best I can hope for,” Anna thinks. “A clean slate before the next storm, next tragedy, next decade.” As soon as I’d finished reading the book, I started to read about the book. At the author’s book launch, Botox was available alongside the drinks, a sly little nod to the slipperiness of the subject, and the strange dissonance between who we are and how we look.

That reversal surgery seemed both the grim stuff of a body-horror film and also, completely reasonable. When Kylie Jenner appeared to have dissolved her famous lip fillers, clinics reported an immediate rise in requests for similar procedures. And more celebrities started doing the same: the Evening Standard reported how Kate Moss’s half-sister Lottie had paid £450 to get lip fillers then the same price to get them dissolved. American model Blac Chyna posted a video of her facial fillers getting dissolved. “Back to the baseline…” she said. Courteney Cox talked on a podcast about her biggest beauty regrets: “Fillers,” but, “I was able to reverse most of that.” We are seeing a shift in beauty, a living make-under montage. Almost a decade since Jenner first admitted to lip fillers (increasing Google searches for them by 11,300% in 24 hours), injectables have spread through towns and faces with remarkable speed, sometimes “migrating” from eye to cheek, leaving people looking vaguely uncanny, or from famous pop stars to tired mums on a Black Friday deal. But now, patients are reporting “filler fatigue” and sharing their own journeys back to that mythical “clean slate”.

I was surprised, briefly, at my reaction to this trend. A good thing, no? No, Eva? A good thing, surely, if women are feeling more comfortable in their own skins, less quick to rush to a needle, less appalled by their ageing faces, in slower pursuit of perfection? I mean, yes. If that was what we were really seeing. The truth, as always, is so much less simple: truths about beauty and body image are always complicated by politics and a certain kind of scar tissue. Of course a time would come when fillers would go out of fashion; this is how fashions work. The same has happened with every other cosmetic surgery, from breast implants to, more recently, bum implants. Once a trend becomes accessible to everybody, those with more capital will reject it and move on to the next, less accessible thing. That’s what wealth brings – the power to change, at the flick of a needle. And while we continue to uphold the same bitter beauty standards – grounded in wealth, youth and whiteness – the most privileged people will continue to buy their way in and uphold that power.

Whenever the word ‘natural’ appears it plucks at our morals, it alludes to shame

There is an irony, with the celebrity shift away from injectable fillers towards some sense of “natural” beauty, in the fact that the former was a face that was achievable to anyone willing to take the risks and pay the cash. But the latter, a face with perfect skin, a small nose and high cheekbones, is a far more expensive illusion. Whenever the word “natural” appears it plucks at our morals, it alludes to shame, it looks back over its shoulder at those left behind, with sneering pity.

Cosmetic procedures are in constant conversation with social media, and the impossible beauty standards enabled by airbrushing and Instagram filters. Last week, when Martha Stewart became the oldest Sports Illustrated cover model ever, at 81, the reaction was shock and applause. And yes, fabulous, but: what were we applauding? Her lack of wrinkles? A body that looks half its age? And if that, then, why? The body of a sometime billionaire has very little in common with the body of a normal person, beyond its abilities to eat, shit and breathe. It occurred to me that only other 81-year-olds will have anything to compare those photos to; the rest of us are unlikely to have seen many, if any, 81-year-old swimsuited, unmodified bodies. As a portrait of Martha Stewart, the shoot is fine, but any attempt to expand its meaning beyond that stalls quite quickly. My point is, for all the reports of change, for all the noisy moves towards diversity and authenticity, I’m deeply suspicious about any progress having been made at all.

Beauty trends cycle and spin in ever-decreasing circles; the fashionable face was inflated, so inevitably, it must now be deflated. The tits go up, the tits go down, the arse goes out, the arse goes in, a darkly merry dance – keep on improving, keep on buying, keep on judging, shaming, changing, keep on perfecting. And while it might take an hour in a clinic to dissolve a woman’s fillers, it’s a far larger job to dissolve the beauty standards that took her there in the first place.

Email Eva at or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman