Illustrated By Lindsay Hattrick.


How The Pursuit Of “Instagram Filter Face” Is Destroying Our Sense Of Reality

Would Fraxel laser treatments let me lead a no-filter life?

by Sandra Song

Over the past few years, a lot has been written about Fraxel. A patented laser treatment that is supposed to help resurface your skin, it's a procedure that beauty bloggers and celebrities swear by. Depending on what you’re trying to treat—everything from fine lines to hyperpigmentation and scarring—there are different lasers that can help, by causing controlled micro-damage to your existing skin, revealing a new, unblemished layer beneath, one that's been aided by the laser's ability to stimulate collagen production and cell growth.

Fraxel is an outpatient procedure, but it does hurt, and the healing process involves a week of peeling, flaking, and tenderness. However, all that initial strife is said to be worth it for a result that's been dubbed “Instagram filter face." What's a more appealing promise, after all, than that you’ll soon be in possession of the kind of crystal clear skin that looks as if you’re wearing a photo filter in real life? "No makeup required" are the three words we most long to hear. After all, who wouldn’t want to forgo foundation and just glow—sans concealers, highlighters, and color correctors?

With all this in mind, I paid dermatologist and RealSelf contributor Dr. Michele Green a visit to experience Fraxel for myself. One of the RealSelf's most popular NYC dermatologists, Dr. Green was nothing short of an angel—she held my hand through the entire process, even as I experienced a flood of second thoughts and an acute anxiety attack. 

I made it through, of course, and it's now three weeks later, the perfect time to reap the benefits of the treatment, the perfect time to realize that maybe my expectations were set unrealistically high. Maybe the term “Instagram filter face” was always too lofty of a promise, or maybe (definitely) the entire premise of perfection, whether related to skin or anything else, is inherently a myth. Whatever the reason, in the weeks following my Fraxel treatment, I’ve found myself in more of an existential crisis than anything else. Why had I even felt the need to have my skin lasered off in the first place? What is it about Fraxel that overrode my natural inclination toward skepticism about accepted beauty standards? Why did I see a series of before and after photos following Fraxel and immediately say, “I want this"?

First off, this isn’t an indictment of Fraxel, which has practical uses, as well as cosmetic ones. According to dermatologist Dr. Howard D. Sobel, Fraxel can be used to treat pre-cancerous cells and deep scarring over the course of several treatments. And there's nothing wrong with using it purely cosmetically; I'd never pass judgment on women who choose to try and turn back the clock, give their skin another chance, and take better care of it the second time around. Plus, it's not like it wasn't effective for me at all: Post-Fraxel, some of my hyperpigmentation is gone and my skin is slightly more even in terms of texture and tone. However, can I say in good faith that Fraxel is worth the thousand-plus dollar price tag and a week of itchy redness? For young people like me, who already have good skin, it's questionable. 

Aside from some hormonal acne in my teens and a smattering of sunspots from years of lax sunscreen application, my skin is actually pretty great. What I realized post-Fraxel is that my skin only feels imperfect to me in comparison to social media filters. And, no, the irony is not lost on me that, in order to realize that my body’s natural collagen production is up to snuff, I had to have my skin seared off by lasers. 

It's this kind of skewed personal perception that made me reach out to a psychologist to talk about "Snapchat dysmorphia" and why there’s been an uptick in young people asking for Fraxel in the pursuit of that "photo filter" face. As Dr. Jordana Jacobs, a New York-based clinical psychologist explained to me, many people are like me, and are constantly searching for the kind of high derived from getting a ton of likes on our selfies, but the need for "no filter" perfection also goes a lot deeper than that.

"We’ve come to a place in which we receive so much external affirmation from looking 'flawless'—like we would in a Snapchat filter, with our skin smoother, sans wrinkles or blemishes," Dr. Jacobs said. “[As a result], we’ve come to believe we will only be liked, albeit loved, if we are perfect."

Jacobs also theorizes that this desire to strip ourselves of all visible flaws and vulnerabilities is, in part, a result of our unconscious denial of death—an offshoot of the human instinct that will try and “halt change, end aging, [and] defy death,” by any means possible. 

“I fear that the millennial generation, of which I am a part, views themselves as even more invincible than previous generations due to the rise of the internet, which essentially allows us to feel that a version of ourselves can be perfected,” Dr. Jacobs explained in her breakdown of the phenomenon. “In a sense, social media has become an unconscious immortality project. Our desire for perfection using this vehicle is just a microcosm of our overall desire to ‘perfect’ the human condition.” 

And maybe that's the biggest takeaway I got from Fraxel. Instead of the minimal improvements to my skin (which, admittedly, I am enjoying), what made the most profound impact was the recognition that maybe I was alright, to begin with, and didn't need to achieve perfection.

As Jacobs pointed out, “This is a true tragedy... The epitome of mental health lies in accepting yourself for who you are, being aware of your very human vulnerability, and learning to love yourself all the more for it.”