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Is that really me? The ugly truth about beauty filters

pUsing a beautifying filter on the TikTok video she was filming seemed harmless to Mia. It made it look like she’d done her makeup, taking away the hint of a double chin that always bothered her, and gently reshaping her bone structure to make her just that little bit more perfect.

After a while, using filters on videos became second nature – until one day she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and was shocked to realize that she no longer recognized her own face.

“I just felt so ugly… It’s a really scary moment,” she says.

“If you have that filter on all the time… you almost disassociate yourself from that image in the mirror because you’re expected to look like that. If you don’t, the self-destructive thoughts begin. It’s kind of disgusting how you see yourself then.”

Live, augmented reality filters on photo and video-based social media platforms including TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat aren’t new, but they’ve evolved from silly hats, puppy dog ​​ears, and comically magnified features to more subtle beautifying effects that may not be immediately apparent to the eye. other users.

In addition to adding makeup, many of the popular filters that have crept into app libraries also change face proportions, generally to fit the feminine, European beauty standards, with thinner faces, smaller noses, and thick ones. lips.

Mia, who asked not to use her real name, says she started using filters when one of her TikTok videos unexpectedly went viral and her audience suddenly skyrocketed.

Mia: ‘I spent a few nights in bed crying about how ugly and disgusting I felt.’ Photo: Jackson Gallagher/The Guardian

“I’m a bigger girl,” she says. “At that time I weighed around 100 kg, so it was really scary for me to see people looking at me.”

When her video was viewed more than 1 million times, offensive comments started pouring in. “I got a lot of hate,” she says, adding, “The filters on TikTok are so smooth and flawless — they don’t always look like a filter. So it felt so easier to use them, just to give me a feel a little better… but honestly, it doesn’t even look like me.

“I lay in bed for a few nights crying about how ugly and disgusting I felt. I’m almost 30! I shouldn’t feel this way… Imagine a 10-year-old using these filters. That scares me.”

The psychological effects of these filters have not yet been fully researched, but Dr Jasmine Fardouly, a body image expert from the University of New South Wales, says a study she conducted last year suggests that the beauty standard that young people are exposed to online, the more harmful it can be…

“It promotes an ideal of beauty that is not attainable for you,” she says. “It’s really not feasible for anyone, because no one looks like this. Everyone’s faces are made to look exactly the same.

“The fact that it’s harder to know it’s a filter could potentially be worse for promoting those ideals.”

When filters are used via TikTok, Instagram or Snapchat’s in-app software, a small label with the filter name will appear on the video. While the introduction of these disclaimers, in both traditional and social media, has been a major focus of policy makers, Fardouly says the research so far does not suggest they work.

“The research suggests that unless you show people the real version of that person’s appearance, it doesn’t seem to make a difference.”

There’s a strong relationship between negative body image and photo editing use, but Fardouly says it’s less clear in which direction this correlation flows; whether people’s self-esteem is lower due to the constant magnification of their images or whether people with low body image are more likely to use these features.

“Body dissatisfaction is an important predictor of eating disorders, and is a predictor of depression and low self-esteem… There is also an association with an increased interest in cosmetic surgery.”

This is something Amy Hall-Hanson experienced first hand. The 29-year-old has struggled with body dysmorphia for many years, but says she was never fixated on her lips until she started using beautifying filters on every Snapchat and Instagram photo she took.

“There are a few filters that make my lips look really pretty…and I really wanted to get them done,” she says.

“I even played with tracing my lips, and then I stopped myself and said, ‘Why am I doing this? Like, I’ve never had a problem with my lips in pictures…

“I’d look in the mirror and my lips would look so much thinner than they probably were in real life…I had to take a little break from taking pictures of myself to put that buffer in place.”

Fardouly says there are no easy fixes — but there are things social media platforms can do to mitigate potential harm.

“I think the algorithms could be updated to ensure more diversity is recommended and shown to people,” she says. “The ease [with] which people can use filters [is a problem]. Especially if they change the structure of the face and promote these unattainable beauty ideals, it would be helpful to remove those filters from the platforms.”

Instagram and its parent company Meta, formerly known as Facebook, have taken some steps to restrict the use of what they call “face-changing” effects. While their open-source filter creation tool, Spark AR, does allow the uploading of effects that change face shape, they do not appear in the “Effects Gallery”, which lists the main effects in the app at the time. Filters that add makeup or smooth skin can be found there and users can still use the search function to find face-changing effects.

“Effects that directly promote cosmetic surgery are not allowed on Instagram,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

“We want AR effects to be a positive and safe experience for our community, and we have guidelines for creating and publishing effects with Spark AR. We recognize that creators primarily use facial transformation and feature augmentation to share artistic, playful and fantasy effects, and these effects are a creative way for our community to express themselves.”

Mia looks at her phone
Mia: ‘We really need to embrace who we are and what we look like.’ Photo: Jackson Gallagher/The Guardian

Snapchat has no specific restrictions on face-changing or beautifying filters submitted by users through the platform’s “Lens Lab,” but a company spokesperson says the app’s focus on private rather than public communications sets it apart from other social ones. media.

“[Snapchat] was created at a time when everyone online was putting together a ‘perfect’ image of themselves. Snapchat… is private by default to create an environment where people feel free to be authentically themselves.”

The spokesperson says Snapchat has “invested in an in-house sociologist to consider the impact our product and features have on our community.”

“If someone sends a snap with a lens to someone else on Snapchat, the recipient always gets to see which lens it is.”

TikTok does not allow users to submit their own augmented reality effects; they are made by the company. The ethics of some of their beautifying filters, including “faux freckles” or “glow”, has been the subject of intense debate among users.

TikTok rejected Guardian Australia’s request for comment.

Fardouly says social media companies should not be held solely responsible for the damage caused by unattainable beauty standards.

“It’s kind of human nature… A lot of the issues with the platforms also stem from the desires and motivations of people offline. People have always wanted to present themselves positively to others, that is not new.

“It’s just that social media really gives us the tools to define what we look like, and to really spend a lot of time investing in our self-presentation — and that’s where the damage can come from.”

For Mia, it all came to a head when she drove in the car with a friend and said she was considering fat-dissolving injections to try to get rid of her now practically invisible double chin.

“He looked at me like I was crazy,” she says. “He was like, ‘What are you talking about? You don’t have a double chin.’”

After staring at her eerily unknown, imperfect face in the mirror, it occurred to Mia that she no longer lived up to the message she sent via TikTok in the first place.

“Some of my content was about how we really need to embrace who we are and what we look like,” she says. “But one day I kind of realized that all that content was a lie and would remain a lie as long as I used filters.

“I woke up one day and thought, ‘No, if I post any more content, I won’t post with filters.’ And I haven’t.”