Winnipeg plastic surgeon concerned photo filters driving influx of calls from young people

Dr. Ali Esmail, a Winnipeg facial plastic surgeon, says he's turning away some patients asking to look like their filtered Instagram photos.

Dr. Ali Esmail says he's turning away some patients who ask to look like filtered social media photos

A young woman takes a selfie. A Winnipeg facial plastic surgeon says he's hearing from young patients who may be striving for looks he describes as 'unattainable.' (Bignai/Shutterstock)

A Winnipeg facial plastic surgeon says he's turned away some patients asking him to make them look more like their filtered Instagram photos.

Dr. Ali Esmail says he's seeing more and more young people considering plastic surgery — and he thinks the blame may lie with social media filters that create unrealistic expectations of what people should look like.

"We get patients who refuse to look at their own picture, or keep on coming back to the example of a filtered picture. So in their mind, they're actually seeing themselves as that filtered portrayal," says Dr. Esmail, a surgeon at Visage, a cosmetic clinic in Winnipeg.

Jasmine Ramsay, a 20-year-old university student, says the pressure to look a certain way began to take a toll on her last year.

She told her parents she wanted to get plastic surgery and thought about different kinds of procedures, but ultimately decided not to pursue it.

"At the end of the day, I think about it a lot, but I don't know if I'll ever actually end up getting plastic surgery just because if I were to get it, it would probably be really obvious to me and then I probably wouldn't like it," Ramsay said. 

She's since deleted some social media apps off her phone. She wants to make sure the content she sees in her social networks aligns with her own goals, she said.

Some looks 'unattainable'

The rise in filtered photos on social media is hard to ignore. Photo editing has become so accessible that with a tap of their screens, users can completely transform into an idealized image of themselves. 

The most popular filters erase lines, change facial shapes and enlarge the lips. They fall in line with the procedures Esmail says are the most requested by young people. 

Dr. Ali Esmail says he's concerned about an influx in young women looking for cosmetic facial surgery. (Submitted by Ali Esmail)

Esmail says he's careful during consultations, noting when a patient may be striving for a look he describes as "unattainable." 

"I try to tell them, 'Look — you'll always find a surgeon, but if you have a surgeon that's telling you that it's not a good idea, it's probably because it's not a good idea.' And that's what I can impart on them," he said.

Pre-pandemic, he says he would have seen such situations once or twice a month.

But now, he estimates out of 15 consultations he might do a day, he turns away two or three patients with requests like these. A high proportion of them still go on to find another doctor for the surgery, he says.

Embracing age 

Christopher Schneider, a Brandon University sociology professor who researches social media and pop culture, says our culture doesn't embrace the aging process.

Filters are used to make people look like younger, more idealized versions of themselves, but that's not real, he says. 

Christopher Schneider is a professor of sociology at Brandon University. (Submitted by Christopher Schneider)

Schneider warns social media users to be more aware when browsing their feeds, because people might not be forthcoming about how they achieved their looks. 

"Consume this content with a critical eye toward understanding that much of what we see might not actually be real," he said. 

Ramsay says she feels like she has a good handle on her social media consumption, but worries about people younger than her who may not have the same awareness.

"It's so hard when you see a 13-year-old on Instagram and on TikTok. I'm really scared for them and I really hope they can see themselves outside of social media," she said. 

"I think it's important to stay grounded."


Joanne Roberts is an award-winning Winnipeg filmmaker. She is currently a reporter with CBC Manitoba. Find her on social media @reporterjoanne.