Let’s be real — most beauty regimens that maintain a “natural” look are anything but. Most people spend a lot of time, energy, and money (think: hair color treatments, youth-boosting facials, injectable cosmetics, even body contouring and plastic surgery) with the goal of looking like we haven’t done anything at all. And the more popular the idea of looking “naturally beautiful” becomes, the harder and more secretly we all work to attain it.
Research has shown that the ambition to look natural “can be associated with increased artificial beauty practices.” The study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, also found that consumers are increasingly concerned that others will discount their attractiveness if it looks like “overt effort” was spent. The result is that instead of doing less, we do the most. As the authors of the study report, folks will now “construct an appearance of naturalness” to try to seem like they made little to no effort in appearing this way. The irony!
So how does one navigate these waters? Well, if treatments like balayage and baby Botox will boost your confidence in a meaningful way, then book those appointments. “If the only way to truly appreciate your face and body was to refrain from all beauty practices, we’d be in big trouble,” says Renee Engeln, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, and author of Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession With Appearance Hurts Girls and Women. “It’s not fair to ask women to live in a culture where they are constantly evaluated according to rigid beauty ideals but then suggest that they simply opt out if they don’t like it.”
She adds that many women are aware of and angry about “the games” they need to play when it comes to beauty ideals but have learned to hold that anger while still playing. That said, as we’ve learned from the TikTok trend of peeling back unrealistic filters, being transparent about the sorcery responsible for our appearances — whether virtual or IRL — can help us all have more realistic beauty expectations that allow us to see our “natural beauty” in real time.
“What I hope more women can do is get to a place where they are making choices around beauty practices with honesty and awareness,” Engeln adds. Below you’ll find a breakdown of the work and money that goes into achieving 2021’s brand of “natural beauty,” together with some thoughts on how to navigate its challenges most effectively.
What’s Considered “Natural Beauty” In 2021?
Experts say clients are requesting lips that appear full, but not too full. “Clients are seeking plump, hydrated pouts — but they discuss their dislike of the typical over-injected ‘duck’ lip,” says Roberta Moradfar, an advanced aesthetics nurse practitioner and owner of Effacé Aesthetics. Other requests include: contoured cheeks and jawlines, smooth, line-free skin that doesn’t appear frozen, and a well-rested, radiant complexion that appears packed with hydration.
“The most common complaint is that the client believes they have a tired appearance,” says Moradfar. “That usually entails addressing under-eye bags and dark circles, sunken cheeks, dehydrated lips, deep wrinkles, and harsh lines.” Many are hoping for more curves in some places and fewer curves in other spots (see: the rise of the popular Brazilian butt lift procedure).
“We see patients who want a more contoured body, like bigger butts or hips and flatter stomachs,” says Chicago-based dermatologist Dr. Jessie Cheung. Above all: “People want to look natural and maintain their ethnicity and authenticity,” says Dallas-based board-certified plastic surgeon Dr. Raja Mohan. “Patients usually do not want a surgical or overdone result.”
What Procedures Are People Buying To Get This Look?
These are just a few of the most popular services — doctors often use a combination of these, depending on their client’s needs and goals:
1. Injectables like Botox and fillers
Botox temporarily softens moderate to severe frown lines, crow’s feet, and forehead lines. Dermal fillers (like Juvederm and Restylane) restore volume, smooth lines, soften creases, and enhance facial contours. Filler is also commonly used to create fuller lips.
“A popular trend is getting subtle lip enhancements, using less than a full syringe [of filler],” explains Moradfar. She adds that a treatment plan using Botox and fillers “can help reverse the effects of aging or damage and can deliver rejuvenating, fresh-faced results.”
In addition to providing contouring on the face, “fillers can be used to create curves on the body too,” says Cheung. The more you know.
Cost: “Botox treatments can average from $300 to $500 and up per area, varying from city to city,” says Moradfar. Upkeep is then every four months or so. Filler, which can last nine months or longer depending on the placement and how much is used, usually costs $550 to $1,200 per treatment, but can be more depending on what you are trying to achieve (i.e. a small amount of filler on the cheekbone vs. using filler to sculpt your jawline).
Downtime: For injectables, downtime is light. Moradfar explains that there can be a day to a week of downtime (occasionally more) because some areas are more prone to bruising or swelling than others.
“Laser treatments like Clear + Brilliant enhance the tone and texture of the skin,” says Dr. Stafford Broumand, a board-certified plastic surgeon at 740 Park Plastic Surgery. This fractional laser treatment creates hundreds of thousands of microscopic treatment zones in the skin’s upper layers, which replaces damaged skin with healthy-looking tissue.
“We also suggest Aquagold to our patients to help plump and hydrate the skin,” says Broumand Aquagold is a microinjection device that delivers low doses of Botox and filler into the surface level of the skin to brighten, improve texture, reduce fine lines, and more. “Makeup will apply better and the skin will glow,” he adds.
Cost: Lasers and chemical peels cost anywhere from $500 to $6,000 based on how many treatments you need and where you live.
Downtime: Depending on the strength of the laser, expect to take one day to three weeks to recover from skin sensitivity.
3. Devices like Coolsculpting and EMSculpt NEO
To contour the body, Cheung recommends procedures with fat-melting and muscle-building abilities. Coolsculpting freezes and kills fat cells in the selected area using a process called cryolipolysis. EMSculpt NEO combines high-intensity focused electromagnetic energy with radiofrequency energy to build muscle and reduce fat simultaneously. One session causes thousands of muscle contractions in the targeted area — no squats, crunches, or HIIT classes needed.
Cost: The body sculpting devices Cheung recommends cost around $2,000, and using filler for body contouring would run around $4,000.
4. Thread lifts
Cheung recommends thread lifts, a nonsurgical alternative to a facelift, for their ability to “create highlights over the cheekbones, jawline, and brows.” The procedure uses temporary sutures to literally lift up the skin, tightening up the face and signaling the body to produce more collagen.
Cost: The average cost of a thread lift ranges from $1,500 to $4,500, depending on provider and location.
Downtime: Two weeks.
“Some common procedures are rhinoplasty, facelift, and breast augmentation,” says Mohan. Broumand says each patient’s treatment must be customized in order to create a look they feel is natural. Some of this is proportional mathematics, adds Broumand, noting that “a woman who is 5-foot-10 will [most likely] need a larger breast implant than someone who is 5-foot-1,” if they’re after a plausibly natural look
Cost: “On average, cosmetic surgery can range from $5,000 to $15,000 or more depending on the type and nature of the procedure,” Mohan says.
Downtime: “It often takes two to four weeks for the recovery and for patients to get back to their normal routine,” Mohan says. “It takes time for swelling, changes in skin sensation, and bruising of the skin to resolve after a procedure. It takes three to six months to see the final result.”
What Are The Downsides?
1. It’s Expensive
Financially, it’s clear that all of these procedures and surgeries will put a noticeable dent in your wallet. For example, if the average person spends $400 getting Botox every four months, that’s $1,600 a year. Add on some filler ($700) and a laser treatment ($500), plus a round of CoolSculpting or Emsculpt NEO ($2000), and you’re looking at almost $5,000 a year spent on “minor” in-office treatments alone, not counting touch-ups — and that’s not even taking into account the money you would spend on skincare products or at-home tools. All to look “natural.” Again: the irony.
2. Mental Health Impact
Many mental health experts are concerned that we are also training ourselves to reject our actual natural beauty in lieu of the societally conditioned versions we seek.
“We are sending the message that how you show up — sans treatments — is inherently unacceptable. Our individual view shifts to see dark spots, creases, sagginess and hairs as imperfections rather than part of being human,” says Sarah Temech, a licensed mental health counselor. “The psychological downside of labeling beauty enhancements as ‘natural’ is that it moves the needle on what is considered typical or expected.” For example, if everyone is wearing false eyelashes, even someone who has naturally full lashes will appear underwhelming, according to Temech: “It is setting an impossible standard that sends the message that what you come with is simply not good enough.”
“When the beauty industry promotes natural beauty, it’s often just a toxic twist on an already harmful set of standards,” says Renee Engeln, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, and author of Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession With Appearance Hurts Girls and Women. Instead of having to look perfect through using products and procedures, she notes that now people feel the additional pressure to look perfect while also conveying that you woke up that way.
“We might be putting a Band-Aid on an issue that needs a real solution,” she notes. “When we find ourselves hiding parts of us, we need to examine why we are doing so.” Sure, you can use concealer to appear more alert. But also check the way you are taking care of yourself. Our life experiences show up physically. Lack of sleep, nutrition, dehydration, and stress often cause the very phenomenons we are trying to hide by tweaking and enhancing.” In other words: Are we getting treatments to cover up looking tired when all we really need is some rest?
3. The Aesthetic Isn’t Inclusive
Another downside is that, for many, today’s “natural beauty” isn’t a “look like you on your best day” appearance; it’s a specific look — large lips, prominent cheekbones, a slim-but-strong nose flanked by smooth, wavy hair — that isn’t inclusive of the natural beauty of non-Eurocentric identities. “If we really cared about giving women the freedom to seek more natural beauty ideals, we wouldn’t continue to see controversy over natural hair styles for people of color in work and school settings,” says Engeln.
Moradfar agrees. “While we’re referencing these aesthetic choices as looking natural, corporate America is frowning upon certain hairstyles that don’t conform to Eurocentric standards such as dreadlocks, braids, or natural hair — and placing pressure on their Black counterparts to abide by grooming/dress policy,” she says. “While there has been some progress in eliminating such discrimination within schools and the workplace, it is extremely important that the aesthetic industry begin to reject these same Eurocentric beauty standards for the face. That’s the only way of maintaining positive outcomes when it comes to using aesthetic procedures for the purpose of self-care and supporting a positive self-image.”
How Do I Use Treatments As An Act Of Self-Care & Self-Love?
With mindfulness, realistic goals, and a commitment to letting the real you shine through. “If we continue to encourage individuals to embrace their natural-born beauty, society can become more accepting of different cultures and ethnicities and will no longer place unfair expectations for one to conform to whatever beauty ideals preexist,” says Moradfar.
So, the next time you head to your esthetician, derm, or surgeon, take time to consider the real goal of your appointment. Think about what you love about yourself — both beauty wise and beyond — and whether your decision to undergo your treatment is coming from a place of self-love, or if it’s just triggering self-doubt. Remember that no one looks like an Instagram filter (it would be creepy if anyone did), and our “imperfections” are what make us unique and beautiful. And if you still want fuller lips, smoother skin, or more ample curves? Go for it — just don’t forget that the original model is worthy of the same love and self-respect.