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14th Apr 2021

Instagram v reality: Why are we so fascinated by “normal” photos of celebrities?

They might have a billion dollars, a private jet, and two mansions in the LA hills, but we’re one of the same. We’re both on Instagram.

Last week, Khloe Kardashian’s team began working to remove an untouched photo from the internet. The image in question (which was not published on this site but can be found easily on the web) showed the star standing by a pool, clad in a bikini, smiling to the camera.

In the image Khloe looks gorgeous. Of course she does, she’s Khloe Kardashian. Naturally, her decision to have the photo removed only ensured that more eyes were on it, half saddened that Khloe was not aware of her natural beauty, half furious that a multi-million dollar celebrity would edit her images.

But just what is it about celebrities’ untouched photos that intrigues us so much? And why do we get so frustrated when they choose to edit them in the first place?

The Better Life Project’s confidence coach and motivational speaker Sarah Doyle says that while confidence must come from within, seeing a “bad” or oftentimes “normal” photo of a celebrity can make us feel better about ourselves – for a short while.

“We make comparisons in two directions,” she tells Her. “We compare upward to someone who has more and we compare downward to someone who has less.

“It can be very reassuring for us when we see a body that we identify with. When Khloe’s beautiful body is presented to us in such a way that we’re not used to, it can be reassuring. But it also fuels those social comparisons, the ones often triggered by social media.”

Where once we compared ourselves to celebrities on the pages of glossy magazines, now we compare ourselves to celebrities online. The core idea remains the same – they’re elite, rich, and insanely beautiful – and yet, the platform we’re engaging with lures us into a false sense of accessibility. They might have a billion dollars, a private jet, and two mansions in the LA hills, but we’re one of the same. We’re both on Instagram.

Sarah says that despite this trickery, celebrity culture remains, for the most part, as filtered as it was 20 years ago. The only difference now is that the follower has got to work harder to decipher what’s real.

“As consumers, we need to understand that most of the images we see on these accounts are highly edited,” she says. “We can’t take anything at face value. We let ourselves down when we can’t see that.

“Obviously Khloe’s images are edited. As an adult, I have a responsibly to assume that someone who has her income might get help to look a certain way if she wants to. We need to start seeing influencers’ pages in this light, we need to appreciate that this is their livelihood and this is how they choose to conduct themselves.”

A recent poll conduced on Her’s Instagram Stories showed that while half (51%) of users have shared a photo of themselves online in a bid to gain confidence, the vast majority (82%) report never using apps like Facetune to edit their images.

Similarly most people (61%) admit to judging a person who does alter their images online. The reasons for this varied from the image being unrealistic, the image setting a dangerous beauty standard, or the image negatively affecting how young people see themselves.

Others simply said that the image was fake, that the image made them feel bad for the person who had edited it, or that the image was not going to make anyone feel confident about themselves as it was not real.

Sarah says that while it may be frustrating seeing a celebrity edit their photos, she also realises that the chances of that happening on social media are high – especially when a person has a whole team working on their image. She does, however, agree that the game changes when young girls are subjected to feeds full of edited content every single day.

“We’re only seeing what influencers or celebrities choose to share with us,” she says. “And if that means we’re seeing a retouched photo, then we need to accept that. That being said, I’m a 35 year old woman. There are younger girls who don’t fully understand the process of an image being retouched. It’s different for them.”

While many users take issue with image retouching for personal reasons, others reject it for the lack of transparency it can sometimes afford commercial content. As many beauty brands are increasingly moving away from photoshopped images, some influencers are still using edited photos to sell products.

Apps like Facetune have largely become normalised among many influencers, with others using less blatant, yet still technically falsifying software like VSCO, Snapseed and Photoshop to achieve their desired look. And while this might be mildly irritating to see on a standard selfie, when it comes to sponsored content, it can be downright misleading.

While Love Island stars are repeatedly called out for tampering with the proportions of their bodies in posts selling whatever Boohoo or PrettyLittle Thing line they’re flogging that week, smaller influencers have in the past been caught using teeth whitening filters… while selling teeth whitening products. 

Closer to (the Kardashian) home, Kim K regularly smooths the skin on her face when promoting her own brand of beauty products, while sister Kylie has been accused of editing her hips and waist in past Calvin Klein sponsored posts.

These edits may be clear to some, but to others, such images and adverts are simply taken at face value. To combat this, so-called “Insta v Reality” accounts like ‘Beauty.False’ and ‘celebface’ have taken it upon themselves to expose the discrepancies often found between Instagram and (you guessed it), reality.

And yet, despite the considerable followings that such call-out accounts have, photo editing apps remain, within certain circles, as popular as ever.

Sarah says that rather than wishfully hoping that celebrities stops using editing apps tomorrow, it might be more proactive to surround ourselves only with the content we actually want to see. “We need to build long lasting, meaningful confidence. Chatter from Instagram distracts us from being kind to ourselves,” she says.

“If an account doesn’t educate, empower, or entertain, you’ve no need to be following it. And if you do need to be following it, that’s what the mute button is for.”