When augmented-reality filters first made their appearance on social media, they were actually fun. With just one click, you could puke a rainbow, have bunny ears, wear a pizza crown, or find out which Disney villain you are.
But today, more and more people - especially teenage girls - are using filters or apps that 'beautify' their appearance, in some cases to create an almost unrecognisable version of themselves.
I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and I tried one of the beauty apps on myself. You can see two side-by-side photos in the cover image: my natural self on the left and the 'beautified' version on the right.
The altered one is just…weird.
I look like I'm about to shoot another episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians or sell you some detox tea which is 100% guaranteed not to work.
Despite an often unrealistic result, face filters have become commonplace across social media and are perhaps the most widespread use of augmented reality. But what does it mean for the perception we have of ourselves and our mental wellbeing?
The rise of the Eurocentric 'Instagram face'
Beauty filters used on social media platforms and in various apps are, by definition, supposed to make us 'beautiful'.
But what does 'beautiful' mean in this context?
Beauty standards come and go all the time, but to be considered attractive by today's mainstream society, you apparently need to have what is dubbed the 'Instagram Face': smooth skin, high cheekbones, big catlike eyes, small nose, full lips, and impossibly long lashes.
If you take another look at the cover image, this is more or less what the beauty filters 'did' to enhance my face. And this is how the majority of Instagram influencers, reality TV celebrities, and other detox tea lovers look like. At least in the 'enhanced' world of social media.
What's problematic about the 'Instagram Face' is that it's rooted in the Eurocentric standard of beauty. The beauty filter's distortions are clearly designed to perpetuate that very same standard and, by extension, remove traditionally ethnic features.
And it's not only that. Many augmented reality filters found on social media whiten skin, eyes, and other parts of the face. Not surprisingly, some people are even calling these editing options the 'new bleach'.
Beauty filters are a modern-day Pandora box
In addition to perpetuating Eurocentric beauty standards and racial biases, sustained use of filters may also have a real impact on our wellbeing. And we're slowly starting to realise it.
In 2019, Instagram banned all of its filters that depict or promote cosmetic surgeries due to concerns about their potential negative impact on people's mental health. But then, in 2020, they changed their mind. Most of the effects, including face-distorting beauty filters, were re-released with a new policy only banning those that explicitly promote surgery.
So much for being a driver for positive change, Instagram! I'm sure the 2020 decision had nothing to do with the fact that the platform is gradually dying.
Despite the social media giants' refusal to do anything of substance lately, at least the rules around beauty filters' usage are changing. Last year, the UK's advertising regulator announced a ruling that prohibits Instagram influencers from using image-altering filters while promoting beauty standards.
I'm glad we've finally realised that social media has been the Wild West of the advertising world for too long. It's about time we put all the beauty influencers under overdue scrutiny.
And as the controversy around beauty filters continues, so does the speculation about their impact on our mental health. Sadly, there is still very little hard research about their impact - and even fewer guardrails around their use.
But psychologists start to warn us about how the beauty filter mania is not as fun as it might seem:
It seems harmless at first, but a slight edit here and a slight edit there can spiral into obsessive-compulsive tendencies around body image. These alterations divorce you from reality–nobody glows, sparkles, and has perfect abs 24/7 in real life. - Peace Amadi, PsyD, an associate psychology professor
The blurred boundary between the virtual and the real
Accelerated by social distancing restrictions imposed over a year ago, the digital lens slowly becomes our permanent reality. And as a result, the way we form our identities, represent ourselves, and relate to others is massively shifting.
If you spend enough time scrolling through filtered-to-perfections selfies of influencers, celebrities, and even people you know in real life, it's quite tempting to start a mental wish list of all the thing you wish you could change.
But the problem is, very often, we don't realise that what we see in the virtual world is far from reality. For example, one study found that people recognise edited photos only 60–65 per cent of the time, while 12 per cent of pictures tagged #nofilter is actually filtered.
And as we struggle to distinguish between what's fake and what's real, it's easy to fall prey to various filters and apps to present our 'best' selves online and receive immediate validation in the form of likes and comments.
But according to Dr Amadi, using filters can seriously affect our sense of self:
A widening gap between one's digitally enhanced ideal self and one's actual self creates a dysphoria. The chances of developing mental concerns and disorders like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and OCD-related problems, including body dysmorphic disorder, also increase.
To put it briefly, beauty filters make us look better but feel way worse. They can alienate us from our 'real' self, the one we see every day in a mirror. And they can trigger all sorts of issues that stem from a sense of unattainable perfection.
'Beautifying' our faces can be a fun way to boost our egos, but it's not entirely harmless. These filters move us away from the beauty of authenticity and celebrating our unique selves.
And given the amount of filtered and photoshopped content we consume daily, our internal body image narrative might not remain intact forever if we aren't mindful enough. It's easy to start feeling insecure, wishing for fuller lips, smoother skin and more prominent eyes in the pursuit of the unattainable 'Instagram Face' beauty standard.
But we can't forget that what we see isn't exactly real 100% of the time. Even the celebrities that appear 'perfect' on screen might not look exactly like that digital version of themselves in real life.
So instead of wishing for a face 'worn' by many, let's give some love to the one we have today and right now.
A little self-love goes a long way.
This story was originally published on Medium.