Michael Apa remembers the first time a patient told him she wanted her teeth fixed because she didn’t like the way they looked in selfies. It was 2015, and Apa’s patient was Huda Kattan, who had good reason to care about her smile: Kattan has leveraged her popular beauty blog and millions of Instagram followers to build a global cosmetics brand, Huda Beauty. In the process, her path to success has been dotted with thousands of close-up images and videos of her own face.
To perfect her teeth, Kattan opted for porcelain veneers, which have exploded in popularity in the past 10 years. Apa, an aesthetic dentist with a quarter-million Instagram followers of his own, documented her procedure on his YouTube channel. Although veneers have been used less glamorously for decades to help non-famous people with serious size or shape problems in some of their teeth, they can also be used to perfect someone’s already-nice smile beyond the capabilities of traditional orthodontia. Veneers start at about $1,000 a tooth, and for top-tier aesthetic dentists such as Apa, they can easily hit $3,000 to $4,000 apiece.
For years, using veneers to perfect already-good teeth was mostly confined to the professionally attractive and fabulously wealthy. They started to gain wide favor among traditional celebrities in the late 1990s and might have stayed confined to those rarefied circles were it not for Instagram. The platform’s cabal of mostly young, mostly female, mostly preternaturally attractive power users, often referred to as “influencers,” are under immense pressure to meet the same beauty standards as their traditionally famous—and often far wealthier—Hollywood counterparts. Now Apa hears the desire to look better in selfies all the time, from people with all kinds of jobs. “Every cosmetic procedure has just gone crazy in popularity since Instagram became a thing,” he says.
These influencers have a different, more intimate relationship with their fans than the celebrities of the past, which has helped Instagram collapse any remaining gap between the things actors and models do to their bodies and what young consumers will aspire to (and spend money on) for their own bodies. As a result, influencers have begun to normalize a whole host of cosmetic enhancements, including veneers, for a generation of young consumers.
Dental veneers date back as far as 1928, when the pioneering aesthetic dentist Charles Pincus was asked by Hollywood studio execs to perfect the look of an actor’s teeth. That version of the procedure was temporary, and actors could pop off their perfect smiles at the end of the day. Now veneers are more permanent. Thin porcelain covers are glued to the fronts of teeth that have been sanded down to accommodate the addition, and they last at least 10 years on average. They’re in a tier of cosmetic procedures common among influencers, alongside things such as lip injections and Fraxel laser treatments: more invasive and longer-lasting than a good makeup application, but not as extreme or expensive as plastic surgery.
“[Influencers] have to perform traditional beauty,” says Brooke Erin Duffy, a communications professor at Cornell University. “If they don’t do enough and aren’t looking great, they’re going to get called out.” At the same time, there’s a risk of doing too much and looking too fake, which can turn fans against them, Duffy says. That puts Instagram stars in a bind that the veneers tier of procedure can ease: Audiences want to feel like they’re following someone authentic, but also someone who’s authentically prettier, richer, and happier than anyone they know in real life.
“Part of this is a push to stick with aesthetics that are safe and which do well, metrics-wise,” says Emily Hund, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania who studies Instagram influencers. For many women whose accounts focus on fashion, beauty, or lifestyle, that includes adhering to basic norms of feminine grooming: flowing hair, even skin, a small waist, manicured nails, plump lips, and a straight, white smile. According to Hund, achieving those features drives positive engagement and helps accounts gain followers, which in turn better situates an influencer to make sponsorship deals and earn an income.
Often the easiest way for these influencers to generate money is to sell the tools of their own aesthetic achievement back to their followers, giving fans a way to replicate the look they admire. Kattan, for instance, started a beauty company that’s now worth a billion dollars by selling her own line of false eyelashes to her followers. But usually this strategy means partnering with a third party to endorse a product or service, which the influencer then receives for free, often in addition to payment for posts. That dynamic has helped a lot of influencers end up with a new set of pearly whites, free of charge.
“It’s almost hard to find an influencer without veneers now,” Apa says. When he expanded his New York City practice to include an office in Dubai in 2014, inviting the region’s Instagram stars in to get their teeth done was the primary way he built a new client base, he says: “It just completely changed the landscape of how I thought of attracting business and patients.” Apa notes that now up to 90 percent of his business in both offices comes from people who know about him from Instagram, and influencers and traditional celebrities alike seek him out. (The actress Chloë Sevigny and the reality-TV star Kyle Richards both recently appeared on his account.)
On Instagram, anything beloved by celebrities quickly finds a huge audience of normal users, hungry to experience the lifestyles of the rich and famous. “It’s mind-blowing how much influence social media has on people,” says Anabella Oquendo Parilli, a dentist and the director of New York University’s aesthetic-dentistry program for international students. While most people can afford a new lipstick or an occasional new pair of shoes, selling $10,000 worth of new teeth is something else. But social media is an environment where users expect to get a more intimate view of a person’s life, which sets the stage for influencers to recommend more than just clothing or makeup to their followers.
To meet that expectation, beauty and lifestyle influencers have created a class of Instagram-famous medical professionals such as the plastic surgeon Dr. Miami or the dermatologist Simon Ourian, who now have millions of followers in their own right. Being their patient has become a widely understood luxury good, like a designer handbag for your corporeal form, and it’s increasingly common to see cosmetic procedures advertised in the same ways as more traditional high-end status accessories on social media. A pair of Christian Louboutin shoes and a set of plumped-up lips cost about the same, and for a lot of young social-media users, they feel like similar consumer decisions.
Taking a medical procedure and recasting it as a marketable consumer good isn’t a simple process, but it’s one for which Instagram’s structure and culture work almost perfectly. It’s where you see what your friends had for brunch, one tap away from an internet celebrity showing off her new teeth. People’s ability to process those things separately just hasn’t caught up to the technology we now have at our disposal. “We use the framework we’d use for our friends and neighbors” when evaluating posts from influencers, says Duffy. “We have this expectation that social media gives us a glimpse into the ‘real’ person behind the scenes.”
Social-media users now also live in an environment where they have far more opportunities to judge their own appearance than previous generations did. “You really get to see yourself age over however long you’ve had one of these phones,” says Apa. That creates pressure on regular users to perform to the same standards as the famous and wealthy. Those standards are aesthetic, but they’re also socioeconomic: It costs a lot of money to be that pretty. Instagram rewards people who perform beyond their economic lot in life, which spurs a whole host of purchases and can push people to less experienced, less expensive practitioners. Oquendo Parilli and Apa believe comparison photos on social media paint a vivid picture of what’s possible, but they warn that most depict work performed on someone who had good teeth to begin with. “A lot of people can take okay teeth and make them look white,” Apa says. “When there’s real complications, it becomes much more evolved and complicated, and requires much more experience.”
On the vast, unmediated plane of the internet, influencers do serve an important function that a lot of users find valuable. They’re a moderating force, filtering all the available products, services, and experiences that regular people don’t have the time to investigate fully. If you can find a couple of Instagram stars who share your personal style, they can help you redecorate your bedroom or pick a new winter coat.
But as consumers become more comfortable with Instagram as a place to shop, its ability to sell things spreads into more and more areas of life. The faux intimacy of influencer relationships and Instagram’s quick, seamless shopping infrastructure make the platform an effective advertising backdrop for all kinds of things, says Hund. “If you’re following an influencer and they tag their makeup artist or dermatologist, you can instantly click over to that person’s profile and maybe get an appointment,” she says. The combination of forces can be irresistible, even if you’re fully aware of how they all work. I may like my teeth just how they are, but I did look at them a little more closely in my bathroom mirror last night.