We’ve been looking in the mirror a lot more lately—that is, the mirror of our devices. “One of the strangest things about Zoom is you’re looking at yourself, usually we don’t look at ourselves when we meet with other people,” says Dr. Helen Egger, child psychiatrist and co-founder of forthcoming mental health company Little Otter. As our lives have transitioned to our screens over the past year, we’ve become particularly self-conscious of our faces. Dr. Melissa Doft, a double board-certified plastic surgeon in Manhattan, tells Forbes many of her patients have been complaining about their appearance on Zoom, “where we used to complain about how we looked in a mirror, more people are criticizing their photos instead of their reflection,” she says.
Our technology might be making us more insecure, but it also offers an alluring solution—with facial filters and editing apps, you can now tap and swipe away your blemishes in mere seconds. Both Instagram and Snapchat—platforms that hit record high levels of engagement during the pandemic—have beauty and augmented-reality facial filters. Settings like the ‘enhance’ feature on TikTok and ‘touch up my appearance’ on Zoom deliver flawless skin for videos. Editing apps such as FaceTune—which saw usage increase by 20% at the beginning of the pandemic and has over 1 million edited images exported daily—allow users to smooth, shrink and sharpen their way to perfection. It’s never been easier to picture your ideal face.
Edited imagery, and its influence on self-esteem and conceptions of beauty, is nothing new. “We’ve always had the challenge of images being filtered and doctored to make unrealistic measures for what beauty looks like,” Dr. Egger tells Forbes. But before social media, the source of our insecurity was failing to meet the beauty ideals modelled on magazine covers. Now, we compare ourselves, not only to an airbrushed elite, but to our airbrushed peers, and our airbrushed selves. “What is taking it to the next level with these filters is it’s not just seeing an image of a celebrity who is unrealistic and measuring yourself against that person, it’s measuring your real self against a pretend image of yourself.”
While making up for a makeup-less face with the occasional Instagram story filter may seem harmless, repeated use creates a new normal for how we think our faces should look. The edited image receives positive reinforcement in the form of likes and comments, “it’s a dopamine hit, it’s like ‘woah I’m popular, I like this feeling, I want to do it again,’ it can feed on itself,” says Dr. Egger. Validating each other’s perfected images sparks, what Dr. Jasmine Fardouly from the Department of Psychology at Macquarie University calls, an “envy spiral”; creating an “airbrushed online environment that’s increasingly divorced from reality.”
In this airbrushed online environment, everyone now has access to their own virtual plastic surgeon. “Using a face filter will show a patient what they look like with a smaller nose, no bags under their eyes or more defined jaw line,” Dr. Doft tells Forbes. “They place an image in the patient’s head of their best self, so of course they want to try to obtain it.” And with Botox and less-invasive fillers becoming increasingly less expensive, it’s no longer just celebrities and youth-seeking retirees obtaining that “best self”; it’s wealthy millennials and Gen Z’ers too.
It’s no surprise, then, that the rise of face filters and editing apps has been correlated with a surge in cosmetic surgeries. Research on the link between social media and self-esteem finds users of image-heavy social media platforms, like Instagram, are more likely to consider going under the knife, while 55% of plastic surgeons in 2018 reported their patients’ surgeries were motivated by a desire to look better in selfies. Face filters not only drive users to make changes in real life, they shape the kinds of alterations they desire too. Dr. Doft tells Forbes her younger female clients make specific requests based on the filters they use, “The most common are rhinoplasty, blepharoplasty, chin augmentation, submental liposuction or facelift surgery.”
Selfies and face filters illuminate the small details that would normally go unnoticed, like asymmetry. “Facial symmetry is a huge request,” says Dr. Doft. With over 51 million views on TikTok, the #SideProfileCheck hashtag, highlights the cultural obsession with a symmetrical face. While over on Instagram, Jameela Jamil describes seeing “the same kind of doll face, the tiny, tiny, contoured nose, massive lips, big slanted eyes: general Eurocentric beauty but with aspects of different ethnicities that we deem acceptable,” in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar last month. Difference is reduced into the filter’s mould, elevating a certain set of features over time to become the ideal face.
“These face filters are using algorithms to reinforce a certain standard of beauty that is very narrow,” says Dr. Egger. That standard? ‘Instagram Face’: characterized by high cheekbones, poreless skin, cat-like eyes and plump lips. The conflation of diversity into a single look worries Dr. Egger, “it doesn’t support individuality, it supports conformity with what’s the standard of beauty,” the psychiatrist says. Even worse, people assume this unique combination of features is attainable. “These filters make a plastic surgeon’s job much more difficult,” says Dr. Doft. “It’s important to not only look at morphed photos but also at before and after photos of real patients to fully understand what surgery is capable of accomplishing.”
But even for those not pursuing cosmetic adjustments, using face filters and editing apps can have serious health consequences. “Selfie-taking and photo-editing leads users to compare their actual appearance to an idealized and unrealistic retouched appearance which is impossible to achieve in real life,” says professor Phillippa Diedrichs, a psychologist at the Centre of Appearance Research at the University of West England. According to Diedrichs’ recent research with the Dove Self-Esteem Project, 60% of girls feel upset when their real appearance doesn’t match the online version of themselves. “Young women who spent just 10 minutes taking, editing and posting selfies to social media reported feeling more anxious, less confident and less physically attractive afterwards compared to those who didn’t engage in these behaviours,” Diedrichs tells Forbes.
For particularly insecure individuals, the gap between expectations and reality can lead to body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)—a mental illness that affects one in 50 people in the United States. Classified along the obsessive compulsive spectrum, people with BDD are convinced some aspect of their body isn’t good enough, “it becomes the fixation, an obsessive worry that often leads to anxiety, social isolation and seeking out cosmetic surgery,” says Dr. Egger. It is so common among social media users that the term ‘Snapchat Dysmorphia’ was created by plastic surgeon Dr. Tijon Esho in 2018 to describe the increasing phenomenon of people seeking out cosmetic surgery to achieve their filtered face in real life.
The inability to live up to the edited face can trigger anxiety, depression and eating disorders too, Dr. Egger tells Forbes. The risks are particularly harmful for young people, who, according to Dove’s latest research, spend an average of five hours per day on social media. “Adolescence is a key developmental period for the onset of depression, body image concerns and eating disorders, therefore they’re a high risk group,” says Diedrichs, citing Dove’s latest findings that 52% of girls use filters every day and 80% have used an app to change their appearance before the age of 13.
“When you’re a grown-up you have a pretty solid of your identity, but children are developing and discovering who they are,” says Dr. Egger. “It’s so heartbreaking to think of children measuring themselves against this ideal with the big eyes and big lips, and then seeing their real selves as defective.” According to Diedrichs, 77% of girls studied in Dove’s latest study reported trying to change or hide at least one part of their body before posting a photo of themselves and 50% believed they didn’t look good enough without photo editing. “This suggests that the cumulative effect of filters and digital distortion over time is creating low self-worth among girls and young women,” says Diedrichs.
Who is responsible for the use of face filters? Dr. Egger believes platforms have a responsibility to regulate filter use. Recognizing the influence of social media on body image, Instagram banned filters promoting cosmetic surgery in late 2019. Currently, Instagram stories indicate when a filter is being used. But images can still be edited externally and re-uploaded to the app—labelling filters or removing them all together doesn’t seem to be enough to curb the chase for perfection. “We wish that a warning would make a difference but you can’t un-see it,” Dr. Egger tells Forbes. “The adolescents I have spoken to in my research say they’re aware of digital distortion online,” says Diedrichs. “The awareness doesn’t always stop them from aspiring to look like the retouched images or feeling bad that they can’t match them.”
While we can’t change the technology, we can adjust how we, and hopefully future generations, engage with it. “Any talk about how we mitigate the risk of this in children has to start with making sure the grown-ups are aware of the difference between these ideals and reality,” says Dr. Egger. “We have to give parents the tools to model this for their kids and have an open conversation about it.” The child psychiatrist sees this moment as an opportunity for education, and she isn’t the only one. “Not only are we not educating children, we’re also not educating their parents,” Jameela Jamil told Harper’s Bazaar last month. “If you send the next generation into the world with the right vocabulary… they’re less likely to have health problems.”
The need for the “right vocabulary” is what’s driving Dove’s new Selfie Talk Campaign, which launched last week. It’s the latest research endeavor from the Dove Self-Esteem Project, a campaign that has provided body confidence education to over 69 million young people since its inception in 2004. With their ‘No Digital Distortion’ mark and viral ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ video, the beauty company has built a reputation on promoting real beauty and improving visual literacy among young people. Their latest ‘Reverse Selfie’ video furthers that effort by highlighting the harmful effects of editing apps on young girls.
While 82% of parents have the sex talk, Dove says only 30% of parents are engaging in ‘The Selfie Talk’: an open conversation between parents and their kids on the pressures of social media. “That’s why we’ve created the Confidence Kit: a free tool to help adults navigate discussions with their children about social media, critical thinking and body confidence,” Diedrichs tells Forbes. The research psychologist says the Centre for Appearance Research has also designed ‘Confident Me Workshops’ for teachers to help their students develop media literacy skills and strategies for becoming more resilient to the pressures they face online.
“People are struggling with their self-image and self-confidence more than ever,” says Lizzo, the campaign’s official celebrity partner. “This is amplified by the increasing pressure to show a digitally distorted version of ourselves, reinforcing the idea that our beauty in real life is not good enough or worthy of likes.” The body confidence advocate celebrated the campaign launch last week by posting an unedited nude selfie on Instagram with the caption, “Normally I would fix my belly and smooth my skin but baby I wanted show u how I do it au natural.”
Lizzo and Dove are countering the harmful effects of online facial manipulation by embracing realness and diversity, and they’re not alone. The Body Shop recently launched their research-backed ‘Global Self Love Movement’ and has committed to not overly editing their images. Aerie—the intimates brand known for their inclusive, non-airbrushed ad campaigns— has taken a similar approach with #AerieREAL, encouraging shoppers to upload unedited selfies. Beauty influencers online are countering ‘Instagram Face’ by posting unfiltered selfies, like makeup artist and model Sasha Louise Pallar whose #filterdrop campaign encourages users to share unedited photos of their skin. Relatability and realness are now favoured over the hyper-curated aesthetic. While the algorithms and filters remain, a culture of resistance is growing.
All the time at home over the past year may have increased our screen-time, but it’s also loosened our beauty routines, forcing many to take a hard look in the mirror. While some have found comfort in making up their face online, others are taking the reality-check as an opportunity to embrace the ‘au natural’ look instead. As we emerge from the pandemic to meet again face-to-face, without filters to hide behind, our eyes will be reminded of all the physical differences that make us unique. If there was ever a moment to redefine what is considered beautiful, this is it.