I started using Instagram in 2011, my very first year of college. I was 18, hadn't started writing about beauty, and didn't know or care who Kylie Jenner was in the grand scheme of things yet. My biggest beauty triumph those days was when my curling iron didn't accidentally sear my face while I was getting ready for a house party. For me, there were the very few things I knew about beauty, and there was Instagram. As impossible as it seems to believe now, Instagram beauty trends simply didn't exist then.
Like many an amateur photographer with an iPhone 5, I first used Instagram to post the standard, low-quality photos that most of us remember — blurry sunsets, selfies from my dorm room, posed photos with friends. I wasn't scrolling through my feed expecting to see strangers and everyone I knew alike donning cut-crease eye shadow, pore-less skin courtesy of a 12-step regimen that is "honestly so easy," or eyelashes so long that "they have to be fake, right?" In fact, I wasn't scrolling through my feed expecting to see anyone I didn't know at all. But by 2014, like any ever-present social media platform, things had started to evolve.
I was a junior in college then, had just started learning and writing about beauty, and Instagram wasn't about friends or really even photography at all anymore. It was about branding yourself as someone who had it all together — and this included your perfect coffee mugs and your cozy blankets just as much as it included your flawless hair and face and skin and nails. This phenomenon of personal branding combined with the skyrocketing popularity of makeup tutorials and beauty vloggers on YouTube led to beauty suddenly seeming accessible to everyone. Images on Instagram of carefully branded beauty perfection were suddenly everywhere. No matter who you followed, it became more and more difficult to scroll through your feed without feeling like your hair, skin, and makeup needed to be better. And if all your friends were mastering it all so effortlessly, then why couldn't you, right?
Before I knew it, every photo I saw posted of groups of girlfriends, and every selfie I double-tapped — whether of a stranger or not — featured beauty blogger-level makeup. It wasn't just the Kardashians who had unwaveringly perfect makeup and hair: It was my friends, and their friends, and that girl on Instagram who has 50.3K followers for no discernible reason at all.
But it wasn't just people's makeup skills that seemed to be improving. For every full-face of airbrushed makeup was a "no makeup" selfie that seemed impossible — but it had to be real, right? What had started as uploading photos with simple filters (RIP, Kelvin) had quickly turned into sharpening colors and upping saturation, and eventually led to other photo-manipulating apps, where you could do everything from make your waist smaller to erase acne in no time at all. And it didn't matter if you couldn't master the ins and outs of Photoshop, either, because foolproof tools like FaceTune had arrived. When you combine this swift evolution of Instagram with the fact that many beauty trends today are designed to look as real (and ultimately, achievable) as humanly possible, what you're left with is a very particular brand of beauty on Instagram that is virtually impossible to define as real or fake.
This brand includes fake eyelashes that look real because every single microscopic fake lash is applied individually to your real lashes. It includes extra-long acrylic nails that have been perfectly shaved down and shaped to look just natural enough. Super shiny, flowing hair extensions that blend flawlessly with your real hair. Like any of these trends, the common denominator of Instagram beauty these days is that it's impossible to tell where artificial stops and real begins. And what many of these beauty trends have in common is that they are just natural-looking enough to seem attainable. That "that can't be real, can it?" question now happens every other photo, and the answer has become harder and harder to figure out. And, even if rationality should win out, more often than not, if you can't clearly see that something isn't real, then suddenly it seems like you should be able to make your lashes that long. Your hair that thick. Your nails that even. And more than that, the absolute baseline for what is possible in beauty — for how you can, or should "wake up like that" becomes warped. When the bare minimum of what is attainable in beauty become morphed so drastically, it has the power to change how we view everything.
When it's impossible to know what's real and what's not, even the most ridiculous beauty trends — things that a normal person or beauty expert should be spotting as edited or fake — can seem natural, or at the very least possible. Take braided eyebrows, for example. Plenty of people would see a photo of a French-braided eyebrow and simply think, "Well, that's weird." followed by perhaps asking, "Why is this happening to the world?" Because, let's face it, if any of us had ever met someone who had enough eyebrow hair that was long enough to actually French braid it flawlessly, we would remember. But when it pops up on Instagram amid real-looking fake beauty trends, your brain sometimes fails to register that no one has eyebrows they can braid. Period. Ever. More often than not, the reaction of, "Oh, there's no way that's real," has turned to, "Oh, wow, that's impressive."
For Eros Gomez, a 17-year-old makeup artist from Los Angeles, posting the below photo of edited braided brows on Instagram was just for fun — and he made sure to be clear in the caption that it was altered. But even with the disclaimer, Gomez tells me that commenters still thought it was real. In fact, Eros estimates about 50 percent of people who commented thought the braided brows were authentic, despite his clear caption explaining otherwise.
"People like to believe everything is real," Gomez says.
Another weird and equally confusing beauty trend that 2017 has gifted us with? Squiggle brows and squiggle lips. Usually created with makeup, squiggle brows and lips are actually possible to achieve IRL (unlike brow braiding). But that's when things get confusing. Even though squiggle lips and brows look somewhat natural (in a very creepy, very unsettling way), they're created with makeup — but they're also sometimes altered via photo editing programs like Photoshop or FaceTune.
Brianna Wilkins, who posted the below, incredibly real-looking photo of her own version of Squiggle Brows, tells me she used FaceTune to achieve the brows after failed attempts of using makeup to complete the look.
"I figured that editing in the arches would make the look seem cleaner, along with always trying to have my photos be high quality," Wilikins says.
Even the most real-looking brows end up being makeup. And even the most impressive makeup ends up being... not really makeup. What begins as an over-the-top way for a makeup artist to entertain and have fun with their followers ends as hyper-edited, real-looking images that are impossible to tell whether they're authentic or not.
No matter how unbelievable something looks, it somehow ends up all seeming possible on Instagram — even if, like squiggle brows, it's not something that you're even seeing outside of Instagram to begin with.
Whether we're talking about an in-your-face trend like squiggle brows, or a subtle thing like hair extensions, though, the deception is the same. I was probably 22 when I finally realized that, yes, between extensions, wigs, and photo editing pretty much all of the Kardashians' hair is fake. I'm smart, I'm a beauty editor — I should have "known better," maybe — but how could I have? When the absolute most basic, everyday beauty trends are already designed to look like things that we should all achieve naturally, our perception of everything beyond that point is bound to be warped. In this sense, despite what many of us would like to believe, there is no real difference between Kardashian-enhanced perfection and over-the-top squiggle brows. Because even though we've all been told again and again that everything on Instagram is a false perception of beauty, that we should be wary, the truth is that we are all still being fooled. Whether you're a makeup artist, a beauty editor, or just a regular person scrolling through your feed, enhanced and edited beauty trends are present in every point of the beauty trend spectrum.
This isn't to say that "fake" beauty trends are inherently bad, or that looking at photos that are manipulated can't inspire creativity in some ways. It's simply a reminder that viewing beauty on Instagram critically is absolutely necessary, and more so now than ever. With every new editing feature, or FaceTune update, it's important to take a step back and realize that Instagram now, and beauty now, is not what it was five years ago or even last week. It isn't enough to rely on common sense, or even expertise, because for every "fake" beauty trend you spot on Instagram, odds are you missed another three.