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How the brow lift went mainstream

Once you notice it, you won’t be able to stop.

Bella Hadid, a model whom plastic surgeons suspect has had her brows lifted with Botox.
Andreas Rentz/Getty Image
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

I had never heard of brow lifts until I followed an Instagram account that convinced me every celebrity in the world has had one. According to @exposingcelebsurgery, models Bella Hadid and Lily Aldridge have gotten brow lifts. So have pop stars Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello, and Madison Beer. Everyone in the Kardashian-Jenner clan has had a brow lift, obviously.

Brow lifts are everywhere, at least according to this Instagram account. I followed it many months ago for reasons I’d rather not interrogate, and it is exactly what you think it is: zoomed-in before-and-after portraits of female celebrities where it is clear that something scientific has happened in between. Hilariously, every single caption is couched with relentless flattery — “She’s so beautiful!” or “Her nose looks so great!” — to avoid provoking the celebrities’ terrifying army of stans.

From my many months of staring at famous people with supposed brow lifts, I’ve learned to spot them by asking a single question: Does this person have Disney princess eyes? If the answer is yes — if her eyelids extend far beyond the normal human ability to appear surprised — she’s likely had a brow lift. Indeed, brow lifts make the top half of a face look long and elegant, as if designed in a 1940s animation studio by a bunch of nerds. Naturally, they look amazing.

Celebrities have been undergoing plastic surgery since the modern concept of celebrity has existed, but the supposed total omnipresence of brow lifts is new. “Maybe half of my patients will come in and say, ‘I want a Botox brow lift,’ which is something that never happened even literally six months ago. People didn’t know that was a thing,” says Dr. Dara Liotta, a double board-certified facial plastic surgeon in New York who performs about five to 10 Botox brow lifts per day.

The operative term here is “Botox,” because when we talk about Ariana Grande possibly getting a brow lift, we are not suggesting that the singer, who is 26, had her forehead cut open and surgically pulled up in order to avoid wrinkles. There are multiple kinds of brow lifts with varying levels of invasiveness, but the newest and most popular kind requires no anesthesia, nor does it leave a scar.

The dream of the Botox brow lift — that it will turn you into a Kardashian or the thousands of Instagram models who look just like them — can be yours for barely a pinprick and a few hundred bucks. Whether Kylie Jenner or Bella Hadid has had them (although the plastic surgeons I spoke to said they suspect they have) is somewhat beside the point: Many, many more regular young people are getting them now, too.

Until about 20 years ago, a brow lift was synonymous with surgery. The standard historical brow lift, called a coronal brow lift, involves an incision that goes over the head from ear to ear and pulls up the forehead, similar to a facelift, but only focusing on the brow. The problem, though, is that it often leaves permanent nerve damage and hair loss in front of the scar. “It’s a very effective way to lift the brow but not very popular,” explains Dr. David Rapaport, a board-certified plastic surgeon in New York.

In the ’90s, more plastic surgeons began performing endoscopic brow lifts, which require two to four small incisions behind the hairline to elevate the brow. They still leave scarring, however, and are performed under anesthesia. By the 2000s, Rapaport says, the fad had waned due to the variability of surgery length and complications afterward.

That was also around the same time that injectables like lip and facial fillers entered mainstream consciousness. In 2002, the Food and Drug Administration approved Botox for cosmetic use, which allowed its owner Allergan to market it as such to doctors and patients. Plastic surgery in general had begun to normalize, too: Dramatic physical transformations dominated American TV screens in shows like Nip/Tuck, Extreme Makeover, Dr. 90210, and The Swan. By 2006, Botox had become a $1 billion business.

We know what happened after: Instagram came along and convinced everyone that it was a moral obligation to look perfect at all times regardless of the cost and effort. Fillers became just another part of the beauty routine for people in the public eye: In 2015, Kylie Jenner rocked the tabloids when she admitted to using lip injections after years of speculation, while B- and C-listers like the Vanderpump Rules cast were open about their use of “preventative” Botox and fillers.

The Botox brow lift became the easy choice for people who didn’t want to undergo surgery and had already been desensitized to the idea of injecting chemicals in their faces. The process, according to Dr. Liotta, lasts only about 45 seconds and typically doesn’t even require numbing cream, which explains its popularity over the past few years. More patients were willing to trade impermanence (Botox tends to last around six months) for convenience, all for between $500 and $1,200. From 2012 to 2017, the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery saw a 40 percent increase in the number of injectables administered.

“I have more and more younger millennial patients coming in for things like Botox and filler,” Liotta says. While older patients have typically used Botox to reduce the appearance of wrinkles, young adults see it as an accessory. “It’s the difference between saying, ‘I look so tired or I have these wrinkles because I’m aging,’ and, ‘I want to do something different with my hair. I’m going to put a pink streak in it,’” she explains.

Dr. Rapaport says that Instagram is largely responsible for the rise in interest in fillers, in terms of both how we relate to our own bodies and the ability to share information. “Everybody keeps looking at themselves on Instagram. Younger people are definitely indulging in what [plastic surgeons] have to offer much more than they used to because the information’s there, they’re getting educated and doing research.”

Why is everyone lifting their brows in the first place? There’s a (sort of) simple answer for why it can make someone appear more attractive. Liotta posits that “part of it is that when you talk to people, you’re looking at their eyes. Opening the eyes gives people the impression that you’re more interested, your eyes are open, you’re focused. As opposed to somebody who has a brow that’s lower and it looks like they’re sleepy or not so interested. Interpersonal interaction is enhanced when somebody seems interested in you.”

The other reason is because of Bella Hadid, or rather, the genre of facial features that she happens to possess, either genetically or otherwise. Popularly referred to as Instagram Face, it’s the uncanny hybrid of cat eyes, steel cheekbones, and bee-stung lips. As Jia Tolentino describes in the New Yorker, the look is “as if the algorithmic tendency to flatten everything into a composite of greatest hits had resulted in a beauty ideal that favored white women capable of manufacturing a look of rootless exoticism.” The ideal mix, one celebrity makeup artist told her, combines South Asian brows and eyes, African American lips, a Caucasian nose, and Native American cheek structure, all with an ethnically ambiguous tan.

Instagram Face is so ubiquitous that there are now special filters that give you the look digitally if you can’t afford the real thing. On TikTok, users regularly share hacks on how to achieve it using creative hand placement or facial expressions. Almost no one is born with Instagram Face — by virtue of it being associated with a digital platform, the look is always mediated and performed — and even those who have it naturally still use tools like FaceTune to enhance their already algorithmically perfect features.

A brow lift, the kind in which the brow looks as though it’s extending all the way up into the hairline, Liotta says, is both a crucial part of Instagram Face and particularly popular right now. “I actually really think that Bella Hadid had a lot to do with. I kid you not,” she says. “It’s a nice, long line that our subconscious looks at as framing our eyes.” The result makes the person almost look illustrated, where giant eyeballs are framed with equally spacious lids.

The combination of all these factors — the relative accessibility and affordability of fillers, an increasingly image-conscious society, and the coalescence of a single dominant facial aesthetic — has led to at least a dozen successful Instagram accounts devoted to examining the faces of famous people. @Exposingcelebsurgery is but one of many accounts like @celebface, @fixedyourface, and @celebbeforeafter that rack up tens of thousands (and sometimes millions) of followers by breathlessly tracking the suspect evolution of celebrities’ bodies and speculating about what might have been done to them.

Dr. Michael Keyes, the owner of the account @celebrityplastics and a plastic surgery fellow himself, says he started the page to show people that beautiful people aren’t always born that way, and that it’s possible for regular people to achieve the same look. “A lot of the younger celebrities haven’t had too much work,” he says, and if they have, “it’s through non-invasive techniques, such as brow lifts with Botox and fillers.” (As for who he believes has had some non-surgical work done: Bella Hadid, Ariana Grande, all of the Kardashians, and Taylor Swift. Kourtney and Khloe Kardashian, for their parts, blocked him on Instagram.)

As of early January, @Exposingcelebsurgery no longer posts new content for its 151,000 fans; it seems as though the backlash from constantly dissecting famous people’s bodies had reached a breaking point. The bio description currently reads, “this isn’t a hate page, I’m just trying to show you that even celebrities aren’t perfect naturally,” followed by, “I don’t use this account anymore.”

While posting about possible celebrity brow lifts has seen some pushback, the rise of the brow lift itself is just as questionable. Brow lifts are indicative of not only another standard of beauty that the vast majority of women cannot achieve, but also a sinister sameness that seems to occupy the rest of our lives too. Over the past decade, businesses have figured out a way for everything — open-plan homes and offices, eyeglasses and toothbrushes, entertainment in general — to appeal to the greatest number of people, so that places and products are spiritually indistinguishable.

We now have the same capability to craft algorithmically generated faces en masse, with all the sexiest features from around the world, creating a digital army of smoldering swimsuit models. As great as that sounds, of course, it’s also a little bit sad — in part because it’s impossible to say whether a decade from now, Instagram Face will look like an embarrassing trend or the beginning of the new normal.

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