Earlier this year, hordes of trolls descended on Russian model Anastasiya Kvitko’s Instagram profile, flooding it with comments calling her “f**king hideous,” “fake” and a “pathetic bitch.”
The night before, in a series of posts that have since been removed, the popular account @FakeGirlsFvckYa called attention to Kvitko’s apparent use of Photoshop to enhance her appearance in pictures. The account then invited its tens of thousands of followers to “play a game” by guessing which body parts the 24-year-old had digitally altered in a recent photo. The abuse was so intense that Kvitko made her profile private.
Kvitko, known as the “Russian Kim Kardashian,” is one of thousands of female influencers who post photos flaunting super slim waists, hourglass curves, chiseled cheekbones and permanently pouted lips. These women have a specific type of celebrity, promoting brands to their massive followings and bringing in big money.
For many, the “Instagram face-lift” — a term coined by writer Eve Peyser to describe the use of digital retouching and cosmetic surgery to augment one’s looks — has become a common practice. Young women who compare themselves to these beauty icons on their screens can suffer from impaired self-esteem and body image, according to multiple studies. In an attempt to counter such harm, a growing number of Instagram accounts have emerged to “expose” influencers’ “true” appearances.
@CelebFace, a private page with 1 million followers, creates GIFs of influencers’ doctored pictures that fade away to reveal the unretouched images, which are typically retrieved from photographers’ professional websites. @S0cialMediaVsReality, @TruthAboutFaves and @Beauty.False contrast edited and unaltered paparazzi pictures or stills from videos in side-by-side graphics. @ExposingCelebSurgery, @IGFamousBodies and @CelebBeforeAfter feature influencers’ old and recent images to suggest they’ve had surgeries in between. @FixedYourFace_, another before-and-after account, occasionally takes it further by distorting influencers’ Instagram photos to show how they might look sans Photoshop or surgery. There are dozens of similar pages, many with hundreds of thousands of followers.
The individuals behind some of the major exposure accounts — young women in high school or their early 20s who are identified here by their first names only — described the same, well-intentioned goal to HuffPost: showing impressionable girls that beauty ideals presented on social media are illusions, especially as photo-editing apps such as FaceTune and YouCam Makeup have become explosively popular.
“I have received many DMs or comments from people who have told me my account made them a lot more confident after they realized most of what they see on Instagram is not realistic,” said Mana, a Canadian teen who runs a 40,000-follower exposure page. Those kinds of comments are common on her page and others like it.
But many of the people who are drawn to exposure accounts seem to thrive on tearing women down rather than raising them up. The pages can be breeding grounds for misogyny and mob harassment: Many commenters delight in attacking influencers with sexist tropes, scrutinizing their looks and ridiculing their apparent insecurities. The subjects of these attacks are often young models trying to build their online followings.
Kvitko is a common target of these accounts, and smaller pages have popped up that are dedicated to “exposing” her specifically. (HuffPost attempted to speak with Kvitko, who agreed at one point to an interview but didn’t respond to subsequent emails.) Other targeted influencers have reportedly blocked and reported exposure accounts amid harassment campaigns, accused the account owners of posting photos that have been edited to actually worsen their appearances, and asked for their pictures to be removed, typically to no avail.
Looking picture-perfect can be part of the job in the influencer industry, one of the few fields in which women earn more than men. And although it’s becoming increasingly common for men to edit photos and surgically alter their appearances, too, exposure accounts almost exclusively focus on women (as well as teenage girls).
Former servicewoman Jessica Celeste, who recently ended a seven-year career in the U.S. Army to pursue modeling full-time, has been harassed for months by an anonymous troll running an Instagram account that’s focused solely on “exposing” her. Beyond sending hurtful messages to Celeste, this person searches for candid pictures of her, edits them to make her look heavier, then posts them alongside her professional pictures to make it seem as if she uses Photoshop, Celeste said. On the page, which has a few hundred followers, captions are unabashedly cruel.
Last month, @FakeGirlsFvckYa shared one of the account’s posts about Celeste with its substantially larger audience. It unleashed a new wave of malicious comments.
“She needs to go to the gym,” one person wrote. Others called Celeste a “slut,” “degenerate fattie” and “flabby,” among other insults. Some people came to her defense by suggesting that her attackers weren’t pretty enough themselves. From there, @S0cialMediaVsReality shared the post on its page. Then a male YouTuber with a verified account and hundreds of thousands of subscribers featured it in a video mocking female influencers. The harassment worsened.
“Online hate can really mess with you,” said Celeste, 24, who is based in California. “Sometimes I wonder, is it even worth it? Is doing what I love even worth it?”
Exposure accounts “are troll accounts,” she added. “They’re not uplifting accounts.”
In response to backlash and accusations of cyberbullying, several exposure pages have added versions of the phrase “this is not a hate account” to their bios.
“Some people accuse me of being a hater for exposing their idols,” said Regina, a 22-year-old woman from Mexico who spends hours tending to her 70,000-follower exposure page every day.
“Sometimes I feel that people misinterpret the message I want to give,” she added, “[but] what I do is for a good reason … to make everyone realize that the perfection of famous people is usually a lie and we all have defects and we must accept them.”
Rebecca, a high school student from Canada, also runs an exposure account. She started comparing herself to other girls and struggling with low self-esteem as a fifth-grader. When she joined social media a few years later, she was frustrated by the unrealistic beauty standards being amplified online. She said she got carried away when she initially started her account and wrote some “very rude and hateful” posts, but that she has matured as her page has grown to nearly 20,000 followers.
“I would hope that none of my posts cause my followers to go hate on the people that I post about, because that’s not my intention at all,” Rebecca said. “I want them to realize that the way they look is beautiful and they don’t have to strive to look like girls on Instagram.”
Sometimes, though, exposure posts have the opposite effect, with women leaving comments such as, “Ok but what editing app did she use? I need that!” and “Tbh this just makes me want lip fillers.” And while Rebecca and others post in an effort to encourage young women to appreciate their natural beauty, aesthetic practitioners including cosmetic dentists and surgeons are glomming onto the growing “exposure” trend as a way to promote their services to the same demographic.
Although Instagram accounts have started to popularize the “exposure” of stars’ real-life appearances, they weren’t the first to do it. In 2014, feminist blog Jezebel offered $10,000 for unretouched photos from a cover shoot Lena Dunham did for Vogue. The post went viral. Within hours, Jezebel had obtained and published the before-and-after pictures, complete with arrows marking every tiny tweak that had been made to Dunham’s face and body.
This wasn’t about objectifying Dunham or publicly scrutinizing her appearance for clicks, the outlet assured readers. It was a matter of female empowerment — a necessary reminder that society holds “insane and unattainable” expectations for how women should look.
“There’s nothing to shame here,” Jezebel wrote. Dunham didn’t see it that way.
Other people seeking to inspire self-acceptance have focused on celebrating women who embrace their authentic appearances instead of making examples out of those who don’t. Plus-size model Tess Holliday created @EffYourBeautyStandards, an Instagram account that reposts unretouched images of women with their permission and elicits empowering conversations about body positivity.
Sia Cooper, the personal trainer and mother of two behind the massively popular Instagram account @DiaryOfAFitMommyOfficial, candidly discusses the harm of comparing oneself to social media stars, and uses her own photos to reveal the smoke-and-mirrors effects of good lighting, flattering poses and clothing, and editing. She has opened up to her more than 1 million followers about her own social media-fueled struggles with body dysmorphia, as well as her decisions to remove her breast implants and ditch photo-editing apps.
“Everyone is obsessed with the idea of perfection because that is all that they see in such a curated, edited space,” said Cooper, who is based in Florida. “When I see other trainers who appear perfectly flawless [on social media], I feel the tug and pull to appear the same way.”
Much like the influencers featured on exposure accounts, Cooper understands how hurtful mob online harassment can be — trolls have inundated her page with nasty, unsolicited remarks about her appearance and weight, too. She’s on a mission to “normalize what is actually normal” by reminding people it’s OK to have cellulite, stretch marks and other perceived flaws, but she does so without shaming other women who are likely dealing with their own insecurities.
“We can put the truth in perspective on our own to help people realize what really goes on behind that perfect photo,” she said. “You don’t need to go on the attack. That’s not helpful either and it feeds into more of the negativity you can find on social media.”
Although many commenters on exposure accounts gleefully discuss everything they dislike about influencers’ faces and bodies, some point out that those kinds of remarks are part of the problem, and demonstrate why so many women — including female influencers — feel the need to change their appearances in the first place.
“Society has always put great pressure on women to look a certain way,” said Dr. Neelam Vashi, a dermatologist and associate professor at Boston University who has researched the effects edited selfies have on social media users. This pressure can feed into many women’s desire to be perceived as beautiful and to alter themselves in pursuit of that standard, she added. Influencers aren’t immune.
Swiss model Celine Centino was viciously bullied over her looks as a teen. People said her breasts were too small, that she looked like a man and that she was fat, which she said left her feeling absolutely insufficient. So she saved up her money for years, then spent tens of thousands of dollars on cosmetic surgeries to transform her appearance.
“So many people judged me because I was ‘ugly,’” Centino told the Daily Mail in November. “I wanted to be happy again, so I changed my look and everything I didn’t like about myself.”
This month, @ExposingCelebSurgery featured Centino, 24, in two back-to-back posts that “exposed” the surgeries and photo-editing she never tried to hide. As trolls swarmed in, the account disabled comments and posted an Instagram Story urging people to stop “sending hate.” But the damage was done.
“It can destroy lives,” Centino told HuffPost of the cruelty and hatred that spreads online. She’s tired of being attacked — first by her peers for not looking good enough, and now by online strangers for trying to look better.
“[Exposure pages] definitely incite bullying,” she said. “I hurt nobody.”