(Skin)

What Is The Real Price Of Looking “Effortlessly” Beautiful?

“Woke up like this” isn’t free, or easy.

By Deanna Pai
TZR/Getty Images/Shutterstock

During a year when even putting on real pants often felt like too much effort, beauty rituals, such as shaving your legs or applying fake lashes, fell by the wayside for many. But what if forfeiting those results — from stubble-free skin to come-hither eyes — for more free time didn’t feel like an equitable trade? Can you have all of the benefits of a robust skin care or makeup routine without daily upkeep? Enter: the rise of in-office treatments and procedures that provide long-term results with little daily effort on your part. Suddenly, “effortless beauty” seems more plausible than ever, as long as you can spare an hour or two to trek to your dermatologist, esthetician, or plastic surgeon’s office — and afford the higher price tag.

Of course, the scope of what some people consider essential to looking “naturally” flawless varies widely. For some, that may mean never picking up a razor again (see: laser hair removal), while for others, a 30-minute microblading appointment can replace daily eyebrow pencil application, or a vial of cheek filler could eliminate the need for any contouring makeup.

Regardless of how you feel about the spectrum of in-office treatments, the fact of the matter is that you’re not the only one potentially booking them. Back in January 2021, experts shared that they expected injectables designed to deliver a natural look, such as filler and neuromodulators like Botox, to be among the top in-office skin treatments this year. The numbers for 2020 in the United States, when you look at them altogether, prove just how common these minimally invasive treatments have become:

  • Botox: 4.4 million procedures performed
  • Soft tissue filler: 3.4 million procedures performed
  • Laser hair resurfacing: 997,245 procedures performed
  • Chemical peel: 931,473 procedures performed
  • Intense pulsed light treatment: 827,409 procedures performed

And according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, of the 13.2 million minimally invasive procedures performed in 2020, 77% of those were repeat patients, and 66% of patients received multiple procedures at one appointment.

There is clearly no lack of interest in in-office procedures, with many plastic surgeons, dermatologists, and beauty professionals reporting that they are busier than ever in 2021. Still, even with transparency surrounding injectables and in-office procedures on the rise, social media’s pressure to appear “effortlessly beautiful” isn’t without its caveats. “Women are under intense pressure to look good, and the ‘social comparison’ factor is stronger than ever, given the vast availability of apps that contribute to heavily airbrushed, doctored images proliferating on social media,” says Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York.

At the same time, the idea of pandering to the male gaze feels regressive. “This leaves women stuck in the middle: Everyone around them seems to look good, but appearing as if you're actually making an effort can attract criticism,” she says. In this case, aesthetic treatments could seem like a sign of “making an effort,” or rather too much of an effort, and are therefore open to social critiques.

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So, why the surge of interest? For starters, influencers routinely share their Botox and filler injections with followers, effectively normalizing them. “Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and TikTok have all become platforms where transparency in regards to cosmetic treatments is the new norm,” says Dr. Michele Green, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “As we’ve moved towards being more open with what work we’ve had done, more and more people have also moved towards embracing a more ‘natural’ and ‘effortless’ appearance, too.” Of course, the reality of being “all-natural” stops the minute that laser or needle hits your skin — rather, it’s all about the subtle “you, but better” effect these procedures can achieve.

That was part of the draw for Erica Stolman, a fashion influencer who shared her brow microblading treatment on TikTok this past March. “I was seeing it all over social media, and it looked so good,” she says of the semi-permanent procedure. “Plus, I was thrilled of the idea of not having to struggle with trying to perfect my brows on the daily.” Ashley Gross, a social media strategist in Chicago, feels similarly about her new lash extension habit. “When I was going into an office, I would do a full face of makeup every morning — foundation, blush, bronzer, shadow, mascara, brows, et cetera,” she says. “Now I just wake up and go, confidently, because I know I look fine, and it's honestly been really liberating.”

That’s another piece of the puzzle: Not only do these procedures often provide you with your desired look, but they can make your everyday routine actually effortless. For the 457,000 people who sought laser hair removal in 2019, the appeal is quite literally not having to shave every day. Also nice? Virtually zero ingrowns. “Although many of these treatments do require maintenance, the daily routine is [now] simpler,” says Dr. Heather Woolery-Lloyd, M.D., a dermatologist in Miami, Florida.

Procedures like these often come at a price, however, both in terms of time and money. Not only do Gross’ lash appointments last anywhere from an hour for a fill to three hours for a full set, but she’s also had to reassess her budget. “The cost is a bit of a bummer, but by spending less money on makeup, I've really been able to adjust,” she says of her beauty expenses.

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Of course, price can be an even bigger hurdle depending on the procedure. Your standard dermal filler, which includes hyaluronic acid fillers like Juvéderm, runs $684 per syringe on average (though it can vary widely based on your location and injector). If you’re looking to quit your razor forever, laser hair removal can cost close to $400 per session — and that’s not even factoring in the multiple sessions needed to completely eliminate the hair (with more sessions required for skin of color, which typically needs to be treated at a lower intensity to minimize risks). Is that worth it just to save five minutes every few days in the shower?

For many, the answer is, yes, obviously. Says Stolman, “I love that I don't have to color in my brows as much — I still do a little, but most days brow gel is sufficient. And getting ready is easier, quicker, and needs less science trying to figure out the perfect brow shape.”

With so many options to choose from when it comes to aesthetics procedures, the numbers can add up fast. Here’s a hypothetical set of treatments that could give you natural-looking results with very little daily maintenance.

Sure, technically your brows would be flawless, your lips plump, your lashes endless, your teeth brilliant, your skin even and supple, and your bikini area smooth, without any type of daily maintenance (after trucking to each and every appointment, of course), but for most, those desired effects could only last a few months.

On the flip side, if you’re bound and determined to achieve those effects and can budget accordingly, why wouldn’t you allow the professionals to cater to your beauty goals and expend your energy on something else?

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The argument comes back to the idea that caring about how you look, or investing in treatments that can potentially make your life easier, is vain. It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. “Women are supposed to be ashamed about recognizing or investing in beauty, like ‘How frivolous to spend time on it,’” says Charlotte Palermino, cofounder of Dieux Skin. “In our society, you’re rewarded for beauty — you just can’t try too hard, because that’s vapid.” She notes that some of the most traditionally “beautiful” people put a lot of effort into looking like that, either through daily (if somewhat covert) maintenance, or professional procedures — think nurture, not nature. Ultimately, she says, “praising effortlessness is a fallacy.”

And yet, to minimize any obvious effort, some procedures have shrunken in scope. Think “baby Botox,” “baby Fraxel” (aka Clear + Brilliant), and the entire concept of “tweakments,” which entails tiny amounts of filler or neuromodulators used to slightly enhance lips, jawlines, and cheeks. Also, “Many people are now seeking preventative cosmetic procedures that will help to maintain and enhance their natural beauty in a way that is easy and effortless — as opposed to transformative,” says Green.

You may then ask: Then what’s the point? Why bother spending (in many cases) thousands of dollars and hours upon hours of time for subtle, barely noticeable results? But that’s not the right question to pose because even if the results aren’t transformative in the eyes of others, as Green puts it, they’re still apparent to the recipient. These small changes do have value on an individual level. So maybe it’s more: Whose opinion really matters here?

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That could have deeper implications. “Some women may become obsessively focused on whatever they perceive as ‘flaws,’ and they may become dependent on treatments as a cover for low self-esteem,” says Carmichael. “Other dangers include developing an addiction to the sense of immediacy and control that a treatment can create, or becoming dependent on the attention of others — since making almost any change will often attract the notice of others in your life.”

It’s the not-so-surprising result of the (many) beauty standards propped up by society. Though they’re largely unattainable for many, those who do have access to these services keep the myth going that they are indeed possible and, of course, don’t require much effort. While getting your leg hair lasered off, brows inked on, and cheeks plumped up doesn’t make you responsible for those unfair societal standards, it can highlight how your personal choices for your appearance can either double-down on societal standards or — with enough transparency and an open-minded approach — work to undercut them.

The bigger question, then, is where do the impossible standards of beauty end and an honest view of ourselves begin? It’s hard to say. But thoughtful decision-making and transparency with those around you are two good ways to shift the impact that these treatments have on both yourself and others. “There's nothing wrong with a woman making an informed decision about how she wants to look, and then feeling empowered to see a professional if she wants support to create whatever appearance she feels suits her best,” says Carmichael.

After all, as the people who actually get these treatments themselves would tell you, they’re largely a good thing. “The positives far exceed the negatives at this point for me,” Gross says. And it’s hard to argue with that.