Earlier this year, Whitney Buha, a Chicago-based fashion and beauty influencer, woke up to a strangely sagging eyebrow. The condition, called ptosis, made one eyelid droop and the other eye bulge dramatically as it tried to compensate for the lack of vision — a rare side effect of Botox injections that happens when the toxin is injected into an unwanted area, leading to muscle weakness. Instead of hiding what happened from her followers, Buha made headlines for sharing her botched Botox experience on Instagram, documenting her attempts to fix the issue in a series of posts. She tried warm steam, prescription eye drops, vibrations from an electric toothbrush held above her eyelid. Strategic bang placement did some heavy lifting, as did some self-aware humor, with Buha running through her list of treatments to Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do it.”
Many of Buha’s followers praised her honesty and set-aside ego, some expressed shock that the toxin could have this type of side effect, while others who’d also had similar experiences expressed gratitude for her sharing her story. And then, of course, there were the critics. “The surprising thing was how many hateful people came out of the woodwork,” she told me in early July, four and a half months after first posting about her wonky eyebrow. Her DMs were flooded with various takes of “You’re putting poison in your body, so you deserve this.”
Before her ptosis, Buha had already been open about her other injectable work, showing what good work can look like. Buha is low-key influencer gorgeous, with golden highlights, beachy waves, white teeth, tasteful fine jewelry, and ripped jeans and leggings that look fashionable, not sloppy (many of these accessories and style choices were, of course, sponsored). One bad trip to the injector later and it looked as though she had perhaps had a stroke.
When Botox, dermal fillers, and plastic surgery are done subtly, they can be kept secret by those who prefer to keep their work under wraps. But when it’s noticeable, people feel free to comment on the work, with reactions from sadness to schadenfreude to freak-show-like gawking, making it seem like that is the main result of going under the needle. “With aesthetic work, there’s this weird unfortunate consequence that you only see the bad work. When there’s good work, you never know,” says Michelle Henry, MD, founder of Skin and Aesthetic Surgery of Manhattan. She makes a point to tell friends and patients about the cosmetic work she has personally had. “I tell people I’m not so young, and I do a lot of things,” Henry says, referring to Botox and filler. “I look better than I did five years ago.”
People of course are under no obligation to share how they maintain their looks, particularly when they open themselves up to the type of criticism Buha received. But when influencers and celebrities in particular don’t admit to their otherwise-undetectable touch-ups, they’re selling us a lie. See: “Why doesn’t this collagen powder make me look as good as Jennifer Aniston?” Why indeed. It’s why, in part at least, legislators in Norway have introduced legislation that legally requires influencers and advertisers to disclose any use of retouching or filters. It may be an oxymoron to say those who own up to their coolsculpting and tummy tucks are keeping it real, but at least they’re not inspiring a whole generation to waste its money on “miracle” products.
“I think people are talking about it more and more,” Sara Dickie, a Chicago-based plastic and reconstructive surgeon, says. A year ago, the mother of two posted an Instagram video demonstrating her preferred method for cleansing her face, ending with a punchline of her injecting Botox between her eyebrows. When Buha documented her Botox mishap, Dickie says, she provided a valuable service to doctors like her. “I was so happy for her openness because it educated me a ton. From the extent of the ptosis to the treatment options that were available, I could see in real-time how they were working or not. It was very helpful to see this woman with this problem trying each solution and seeing what happened.”
In addition to providing a helpful case study from time to time, when those in the public eye speak openly about their work, they help break down the idea that sub-dermal procedures are reserved for the ostentatious rich, the aging delusional, the proudly plastic. Not every person who goes to the medspa for cosmetic procedures is an aspiring Real Housewife — some of us are just regular people who want to feel a bit happier when we look in the mirror. Is that much different from getting eyebrows threaded or bulging veins zapped?
Well, the answer is still “yes,” for now. For every Buha, there are many more influencers who set arbitrary standards of acceptable means for maintaining beauty and youth. Gwyneth Paltrow broke up with Botox but shills for Xeomin, “a uniquely purified” anti-wrinkle injectable that “that does not contain any unnecessary proteins,” whatever that means. “You can point any kind of laser at my face, but I don’t think Botox is for me,” Tina Fey once said. Kate Winslet said that plastic surgery goes against her morals but is not against shilling out for Lancome, whose serum will cost you over $400 (more than enough to cover a treatment of Botox). Jennifer Lopez, lover of olive oil for the face, has put in work denying she has had Botox or plastic surgery but, for some reason, not the same level of effort to deny that she owns a totally relatable $25,000 Thermage machine, which applies electric currents to your face. Even beauty standards have beauty standards.
“Frankly, Botox is less invasive than an ablative resurfacing laser. But people will more readily call Botox ‘plastic surgery,’ which has its own negative connotations,” Henry says, referring to the the awful ski-slope nose augmentations of the ’80s and ’90s and way-overboard breast surgery. “People will say ‘plastic surgery.’ What does that even mean? Maybe we need to name it something different”
This “problem of language” may be why many influencers are happy to discuss their vitamins or face wash or mineral SPF but not their vials and needles. “It’s the balancing act of, ‘I need to be authentic enough, but it won’t be a turnoff — maintaining a likable, somewhat aspirational image while being ‘honest’ and ‘raw,’” says writer Sara Petersen, who is working on a book about momfluencer culture. We all enjoyed Chrissy Teigen’s “realness” (talking, for instance, about her Botox for headaches — not wrinkles!) until the mask slipped and we realized her relationship with social media was in fact toxic and codependent.
Petersen says that many momfluencers in particular think there’s something discordant about being open about their aesthetic work. “It’s evidence you care about vanity, which doesn’t go well with vision of the perfect angel mom.”
Influencers who are women of color may also feel added societal pressure to keep aesthetic work under wraps. “Some big publication said ‘You’re one of the only Black women [who talk about their work],” MomCrushMonday’s Destiney Green said in an interview in 2019. “I’m okay with aging gracefully … and I’m also okay giving biology a run for her money with a little Botox.” In that same interview, Green pointed out that other women of color may sometimes perpetuate the stigma with feedback like, “You don’t need that. You’re too young for that. What is that going to do? Black doesn’t crack.”
“[Cosmetic work] has always been something that felt like it was preserved for wealthy people, a luxury. Whenever you carve anything out like that, you carve out women of color who have been left out of conversations of luxury since the beginning of time,” says Henry. She estimates that half of her clientele are people of color, folks are often prey to adages about ethnicity and the aging process. “If ‘Black don’t crack,’ you feel bad when your Black is cracking. Everyone ages,” she says. “We’re aging in different ways.”
It all comes down to this: People don’t like acknowledging how the beauty sausage gets made. We hate a hairy groin, yet the pube-covered wax strip becomes our crotch’s Portrait of Dorian Gray. Be a mom, but skip the stretch marks or a beaten-up vulva if you can. Straight white teeth are ideal, but the shaved-down tooth nubs required of veneers are the stuff of nightmares! Add to that the vulnerability that comes along with the risks associated with injectables or plastic surgery. Never mind getting a piercing at Claire’s or letting a severely underpaid person at a day spa take a razor blade to your calloused soles — there must be something wrong with you if you’re willing to get a needle in your face from a medical doctor.
Of course, yes, there is, indeed, a risk that comes with plastic surgery. “You could die,” points out influencer Jordan Reid, the founder of lifestyle blog Ramshackle Glam. “There’s a sense that you deserve what’s coming to you if you dabble in vanity and it turns out poorly.” Reid has been forthright on her blog about her breast implants and use of injectables. Still, she admits that she takes a different tone when talking about her work on social media versus with her friends. She and her friends may joke about needing to make time to go in to get their wrinkles treated, but online, “It’s not like, ‘Whee!’ she says. I don’t treat it lightly.”
In some ways, influencers have more sway over destigmatizing cosmetic work than A-list celebrities who make coin from trying to convince you that some over-the-counter product is why they’re 55 years old but look 38(-ish). “There’s something real about it,” Henry says when a medium internet celebrity documents their work, like Danielle Gray, AKA stylenbeautydoc. “If I’m not the real deal, she’s going to tell them. It’s not a giant campaign. I often get more out of micro influencers than these mega influencers, because people trust them. And what’s more important than trust?”
I personally would not go so far as to say aesthetic work is “empowering” any more than I’d say Brazilian waxes or industrial-strength Spanx are “empowering.” They are tools people use to make themselves feel younger or cuter, or happier — tools that are not accessible to all. Yes, it would be better if we didn’t feel the pressure to submit the time, pain, or money to adhere to beauty standards. But in the meantime, because of the risk, the financial cost, and the alien nature of injectables, women, in particular, are in the judgment crosshairs because misogyny dictates the terms of vanity. “Nobody judges you for relaxing your hair or getting extensions,” says Henry. “Medical aesthetics should be in that same realm.”
I recall the first time a friend of mine, an editor, told me she got Botox, and it was scandalizing, like the first time someone I knew told me they had tried cocaine. Wait — people I know are doing this? And they are still themselves? They are alive, talking to me, a normie? Eventually, enough “normal”-seeming friends confessed to their work that it seemed less bizarre and terrifying (Botox, that is, not cocaine). These were busy, hardworking women. These were people waiting in the school parking lot or complaining about their kids in my Facebook parenting group, not Beverly Hills Barbie dolls who lived in stilettos and carried their dogs in Louis Vuitton purses, or people who made a living off their faces or bodies. These were my influencers.
I got dermal fillers earlier this year (from Dr. Dickie, a friend), not because I had anywhere to go or anyone to impress. The post-vaccine world had yet to open up. I was just depressed by the frowny-looking face I saw in the mirror and on my Zoom calls. After years of thinking I wasn’t the “type” of person to get injectables, that I was fine with my cellulite and pock marks and armpit flap, I suddenly realized I would get no special obituary if I died without getting aesthetic work.
After some injections of RHA3, I was delighted with the results, and I told everyone I knew about the experience via my newsletter. I knew that my friends would want to know: Did it hurt? Were there side effects? How long does it last? Would you do it again? And I was happy to pass on the information, like a good sale or a clever domestic tip or an effective new product.
Even still, after reading about my happy, no-regrets experiences in the newsletter (which is about parenting, not beauty), a loved one texted me to tell me that she didn’t think I needed the work and I was beautiful without it. Everyone has an opinion.