The Real Cost of 'Quick-Fix' Culture
Facial tweakments, body-sculpting procedures, and injectable weight loss drugs are seemingly everywhere, and our mental well-being may be paying the price.
Not so long ago, if you wanted to change your appearance without undergoing plastic surgery, you were limited by a relatively narrow scope of possibility. You could use makeup to cover your blemishes, diet and exercise to change your figure, or dye your hair to any shade of the rainbow. But you could only stray so far from how you naturally look. But with the rise of “quick fix” culture—which has normalized the use of facial “tweakments” like Botox and filler; body-sculpting treatments like EmSculpt; and, most recently, semaglutide injections (Ozempic is a brand name), which are diabetes treatments that are also effective for quick weight loss—the limit does not exist.
“In the '90s, we really didn't have the option to make small changes that were nearly as aesthetically altering,” says Jessi Kneeland, body neutrality coach and author of Body Neutral: A Revolutionary Guide to Overcoming Body Image Issues. Now, “instead of it being, ‘I can’t look like that—it’s impossible,’ it’s, ‘I can literally look as different as I want.’” If you're willing to pay for it.
According to a 2022 member survey of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS), 82 percent of the total number of procedures performed in 2022 were minimally invasive, with neurotoxins (like Botox), filler, and topicals (like chemical peels) as the three most popular procedures. Non-invasive fat-reduction treatments—like EmSculpt (which uses electromagnetic energy to contract and subsequently build muscle) and CoolScupting (which freezes away fat cells)—are expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 14.3 percent between 2022 and 2030, and were second only to Botox and filler in terms of the number of outpatient cosmetic treatments that were performed last year. And according to data shared with CNN, prescriptions for Ozempic (which, it's worth noting, has yet to be studied for its long-term effects on weight loss) were up 111 percent in February compared to one year prior. Though it's unclear how many of these prescriptions were related to diabetes treatments versus weight loss, it's certainly worth questioning if the drug's recent pervasiveness in popular culture has made it more common in the latter category.
Injecting an appetite suppressant or a wrinkle-smoothing toxin may offer faster and more effective results than diet and exercise or topical creams. But at what cost?
The world is full of pressures to look a certain way. The body-positivity and more recent body-neutrality movements have made significant strides in working against the contemporary American standard of beauty in favor of respecting and appreciating the body as it is. But thinness and youth remain widely prized as the ideal, which is the simplest explanation behind why these quick fixes have become so prevalent.
“When you’re thinking about the skin or anything aesthetic, these are outward-acing things—they’re there for the world to see…and that definitely impacts our self-confidence and our mental well-being and the way that other people interact with us,” says Evan Rieder, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and psychiatrist who performs cosmetic tweakments in his practice. But though studies have shown that Botox can positively impact people’s self-esteem—drawing a direct line between looking good and feeling good—it isn’t quite that simple.
As quick-fix cosmetic treatments have become more normalized across our culture, it’s created a complicated binary: On the one hand, they’ve improved access to treatments that allow us to shift our appearance in ways that make us feel good with minimal risk (at least, for those who can afford them). But on the other hand, the feeling that “everybody’s doing it!” has paved the way for a new pressure—even if subliminally—around partaking that can have far-reaching implications.
To be clear: There’s nothing wrong with wanting to try a tweakment in the hopes that it will make you feel like the best version of yourself. There is, however, a way to approach it that won’t necessarily serve you. “It’s all about where it comes from. There’s such a huge difference between affirming yourself in some way and changing yourself from a place of fear, shame, and obligation,” says Kneeland. “We can recognize the difference between someone who just freaking loves changing themselves and someone who is saying, ‘I have wrinkles and I have to get rid of them or people are going to find out I’m imperfect and abandon me.’”
So if you do participate in quick-fix culture (or are curious to try), it’s crucial to ask yourself why before moving forward. According to experts, certain guiding reasons have the potential to impact both your own mental health and the well-being of those around you.
The normalization of quick-fix culture
Back in 2019, Well+Good ran a story calling to destigmatize injectable cosmetic treatments. It was the same year that “Botox bars” like Peachy and Ever/Body first popped up in New York City with glossy interiors and millennial-friendly marketing that made injectables feel just as routine as a manicure or blowout. But what once felt like a movement that put the power of choice into people’s hands and broadened the definition of wellness to include “whatever makes you feel good” has since shifted.
“It’s all about teaching us that our bodies are problems to solve—that whatever your body’s inert, natural state is, it must need some kind of upgrade, whether that’s a tweakment or a [slimming treatment] or whatever you want to call it,” says Virginia Sole-Smith, a fat-positive activist, journalist, and author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America. “And this messaging is what makes us uncomfortable with our breakouts and our body hair and our rolls and all of that—and it’s selling you these new innovations as solutions.”
“It’s all about teaching us that our bodies are problems to solve—that whatever your body’s inert, natural state is, it must need some kind of upgrade."—Virginia Sole-Smith
That sales pitch, it seems, is working. The 2022 AAFPRS survey found that 40 percent of respondents, all of whom are facial plastic surgeons, agreed that their patients would “pay anything to feel good and more confident following the pandemic.” What’s more, 79 percent of respondents pointed to the “Zoom Effect” (aka the dysmorphia that can come with staring at your face on video calls all day) as a “major contributing factor in patients’ desire to seek treatment,” and the same percentage of experts agree that treatments that “help people look better in selfies” are continuing to trend upward.
Anecdotally, cosmetic surgeons I’ve spoken with say that while people used to come into their offices with photos of celebrities and ask for treatments that would make them look like Jennifer Aniston or Kim Kardashian, now it’s not uncommon for them to show up with filtered photos of themselves that they want to emulate.
“We have way more exposure now than ever to images of ourselves, whether on our smartphones or on Zoom, and I think that can really take a toll emotionally,” says Samantha DeCaro, PsyD, clinical director of outreach and education at The Renfrew Center, the nation’s oldest and leading eating disorder treatment facility. “I think there’s pressure now for people not only to want to feel worthy and acceptable in person, but to also match this online persona, and there’s a drive to fill that gap…I can see how that would drive someone to engage in harmful behaviors to close that gap [by] compulsively pursuing different cosmetic procedures.”
These trending treatments may be different, but they all promise quick-fix solutions—for problems that aren’t really problems to begin with.
How quick-fix culture perpetuates problematic beauty standards
The real problem, then, is with the transient, trend-based nature of quick-fix culture. This comes in opposition to the notion of treatments functioning as a tool to cultivate a sense of self-love and -acceptance.
The concept of a “trending” appearance dates back far further than tweakments and social media (in the 16th century, for example, larger bodies were considered the gold standard; in the ‘90s, the ‘heroin chic’ look was glorified on magazine covers), but what’s made it more troublesome in today’s world is the perception of how much easier it is to change ourselves to fit into a certain ideal.
“The problem with bodies being marketed as trends is that most of the time, our genetics will not allow us to have the body that's in style without turning to cosmetic procedures or some sort of unsustainable, unrealistic diet behavior that will ultimately harm us physically and mentally,” says Dr. DeCaro. “But when you’re told over and over again that you should look a certain way—that you should stop yourself from aging or shouldn’t gain weight—and when you see that these things are actually accessible [without changing your behaviors], it can be tempting to turn to [these] solutions.”
Another issue here is that quick-fix culture allows us to borrow features from demographics outside of our own. Some of today’s trending looks, for example, emphasize full lips, fox eyes, and a slim waist with hourglass curves. Face and body tweakments give people outside the culture where such traits may naturally occur the opportunity to co-opt them, allowing other demographics (notably privileged white women) the ability to achieve a more “ethnically ambiguous” look.
“It’s becoming infinitely more problematic because it’s starting to feel like people are trying on the bodies of different races and different lived experiences,” says Kneeland, pointing to cosmetic trends around fuller lips and bigger butts that white women have co-opted from the Black community. “The fact that there’s a money barrier means that people get to pick and choose and borrow from whatever cultures they want and will be rewarded with social privilege.”
All of this is a problem. “Because of all these [new and trending cosmetic technologies], bodies have become trends that move just as quickly as fashion—season to season, we’re seeing different things,” says Kneeland. “The fact that we have this ‘tweakment’ culture making all of these things available means that [the trends] move so much more quickly and goes to more extreme places, because you can. Or at least, if you have enough money, you can.”
Social media ads can make it seem like tweaking your appearance to fit into certain beauty ideals is as easy as booking an appointment with a specialist. But in reality, it’s not so simple, primarily because these treatments are prohibitively expensive to many. A single Botox treatment (which lasts for three to four months) costs, on average, $466; CoolSculpting can cost anywhere from $600 to $1,000 per area; and Ozempic, which is often not covered by insurance, will run you around $800 a month.
“What we see across beauty and diet culture is that often the solutions come with such high price tags that they’re only digging us deeper into the bias, because it’s like, ‘Okay, now this elite few can have this and everyone else can’t,’” says Sole-Smith. “And then that makes it all the more out of reach, because the standard is continuously moving.”
Part of what makes these quick fixes so appealing is the fact that those who fit into the standard definition of beauty have historically had an easier time existing in the world. Quick-fix culture has the power to help pretty privilege and anti-fat bias endure.
“The fact that money is behind the ability to do all of these things means that having disposable income is going to create bigger chasms between the classes essentially, and bigger gaps between the top and the bottom of the social hierarchies,” says Kneeland.
Despite the barriers to entry that come along with quick-fix culture—namely money—there’s still an immense amount of pressure to get on board. “There’s this feeling of, ‘If I can improve this thing, maybe I should,’” says Kneeland. “The pressure is the same that it’s always been: If there’s anything you can do [to fix a perceived flaw], then you should do it.” What feels crucially different now are the mental health implications.
The psychological impact of quick-fix culture
While there isn’t any hard data around the mental health impact of seeing filler-frozen faces IRL, we do know that the social media filters that mimic this look can have markedly harmful effects. A 2021 study by City, University of London polled 175 women and non-binary people between ages 18 and 30 about their social media use and found that 94 percent felt “pressure” to look a certain way—a way associated with the notion of perfection, which the report outlined as having perfect skin with no scars or blemishes and a toned body, among other things.
Much of the perfection we see on social media is exacerbated by filters that don’t reflect how someone actually looks in real life. But cosmetic treatments help close the gap between what people look like when they roll out of bed in the morning and what they look like with heavy FaceTuning. So experts agree that it’s not a huge leap to say seeing this sort of perfection in line at Starbucks impacts us in the same way as seeing it on our phone screens.
“Before the normalization of the actual treatments and tweakments was the normalization of Photoshop, but they’re basically the same," says Kneeland. "If we’re looking at faces that have been fixed and perfected to be more flawless and symmetrical on Photoshop, it’s going to affect us psychologically in the exact same way as seeing people who have filler and whatever else.”
Being inundated with images of "perfect" looking faces and bodies—whether they've been achieved with filters or procedures—can make it challenging not to compare ourselves to what we're seeing online. "Social media can change the way we see our own bodies, and change our expectations of what dermatologists and plastic surgeons can achieve in a way that's very unhealthy," says Dr. Rieder.
This, experts say, is the crux of where the pressure comes in. Wanting to do something for yourself is not the same as feeling like you have to do it because everyone else is doing it. And navigating all of this can feel complicated because the line between doing what feels good and playing into problematic beauty standards feels murky, at best.
Maintaining a body-neutral relationship in the face of quick-fix culture
For some, the goal might be to exist in a world where tweakment culture doesn’t pose a threat to their current or ideal relationship with their body. And while smashing the unfollow button on any over-filtered faces that make you feel not great can certainly be helpful, it’s a single step that should come along with a bit more internal work.
“We have to be mindful of when we're having a judgmental thought about our body and give ourselves lots of compassion. Sort of like, ‘Of course, I'm having a bad thought about my body, because I am bombarded with messages that my body is not okay, so it makes sense [that] I'm feeling this way,’” says Dr. DeCaro.
For others, the goal may be to engage with tweakments in a mindful way, which also requires some introspection. “When you’re thinking about these procedures, the biggest things to ask are why you’re doing them and what your expectation is,” says Dr. Rieder. “Most people will say something like, ‘I recognize that maybe this isn’t essential…but it’s going to make me feel better when I look in the mirror.’ ... But if I hear people wanting to do these things for different reasons, like they just went through a bad breakup and want to look more attractive so someone will get back together with them, or they’re feeling pressure from other people, that’s a different story.”
But even then, it's nuanced. Our desire to change our appearance is so heavily influenced by external factors that "doing what makes you feel good" can, in some ways, play into problematic beauty standards because we've been conditioned to believe that looking one way is better than another. Until society moves away from that binary, there's no fault in being swayed by these ideals, but it is important to continue to challenge them.
Regardless of your personal relationship with tweakments, one truth reigns supreme: In the face of the pressures that quick-fix culture has created and supported, it’s become even more important to nurture how we feel about our bodies, perhaps through body neutrality, which prioritizes a judgment-free (whether positive or negative) appreciation of the body.
“Body image is so much more than just looking in the mirror and saying, ‘Wow, I really like what I see.’ It’s more about improving your relationship with your body—it doesn't mean you have to love it, but treating it with respect, nourishing it, listening to its cues, and ultimately having gratitude for what it can do. It's a practice, and I don't think it's something that happens overnight,” says Dr. DeCaro. “Shifting our focus to what our bodies do for us—their function, the experiences they provide for us—can be helpful in finding ways to connect with our bodies and taking a more neutral stance.”
Ultimately, the power is in your hands—but with that power comes responsibility. "What it comes down to is that people's personal choices are their choices," says Sole-Smith. "But let's be honest about why we're making those choices, and let's interrogate the messages that make them feel necessary."