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The ugly truth about beauty filters

Case study by Joanna Kenny

About the author

It's never been easier to change the way we look using our phones. But what effects can doing so have on our mental health?

Beauty filter, beauty mode, enhance, touch-up.

These are all common functions you can expect to see if you use social media, video conferencing or smartphones. In 2017, we saw FaceTune become the most popular paid app on Apple App Store. In seconds, the user can airbrush skin, whiten teeth and contour with just a few clicks. In fact, editing pictures with this app is so easy, it’s rated suitable for children as young as four.

Retouching technology – once only available to professionals, is now widely accessible when using apps like FaceTune, Snap Chat, TikTok and Instagram. A study by City of University London in 2021 found that 94% of its participants felt pressured to look a certain way on social media, with more than half of those describing the pressure as ‘intense’.

Merely presenting these filters as ’beautifying’ sends a clear message to the user. Research conducted by Dove’s self-esteem project revealed that 80% of girls have edited photos of themselves by age thirteen. Face and body-altering apps encourage users to “erase flaws and imperfections” enabling them to show their ‘best selves’ to the world. The app descriptions outline in detail how they can create a smaller waist, enlarge breasts and give fuller lips and lashes, perpetuating a very narrow standard of beauty.

Surely anything this harmful to health should be illegal?

As the technology develops, regulations surrounding their use are slowly being implemented. In 2021, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority ruled social media influencers could no longer use misleading beauty filters in advertisements for cosmetics. However, the ASA failed to implement the same restriction on cosmetic brands – who have digitally manipulated skin and body images in mainstream advertising for decades.

Later, in 2022, the U.K. joined Norway introducing a new law to enforce greater transparency online. The Ministry of Norway declared that the Digitally Altered Body Image Bill “will hopefully make a useful and significant contribution to curbing the negative impact that such advertising has, especially on children and young people.”

While the new law created awareness and much-needed dialogue around the devastating impact body-altering technology can have on mental health, how such a vast volume of media can be adequately policed is yet to be determined. Furthermore, with AI-powered filters on the rise, will such edits even be detectable?

The most unobtainable beauty standard yet

Earlier this year TikTok’s Bold Glamour filter sparked global debate with its alarming machine learning capabilities. As an influencer who regularly campaigns against face augmenting filters, even I was disturbed by how sophisticated it was. Luke Hurd, Snapchat and Instagram filter creator explained, “It's because it uses Generative Adversarial Networks. GAN regenerates every pixel on the user's face to output a new image” – unlike traditional filters that overlay an image able to track a user's face. The most noticeable difference is that the filter does not glitch, remaining undisturbed when you touch or move objects in front of your face. Although this technology is not new, it’s the first time it has been so widely accessible.

While many social platforms deem labelling filtered content for transparency a sufficient way to protect a user's self-esteem, this visibility is largely responsible for a filter gaining popularity in the first place – as we saw with Bold Glamour. In addition, any labels built-in by the app to disclose a filter in use disappear if later uploaded to another platform.

After posting a video of myself using the filter and describing how my brain struggled to process seeing two different realities, I was inundated with comments like, “With makeup, you would look just like the filtered version” and “This filter saves us from putting makeup on just to take a pic or video”.

Since this filter was launched in February 2023 it has been used over 48 million times to date. We’ve seen cosmetic brands like L’oréal, choosing to capitalise the trend by sponsoring influencers to give tutorials ‘recreating’ the look.

Despite filters and makeup having the ability to dramatically and instantly change one’s appearance, they’re far from being equal or a standard of beauty achievable for everyone, simply by adding a few new products to their cosmetics bag.

In 2018, Dr Esho – a cosmetic doctor at The Esho Clinic, described this new era of negative self-image as “Snapchat dysmorphia”, something other cosmetic surgeons are witnessing first-hand. Dr Vashi, director of Boston University's Ethnic Skin Center, confirms in an interview for Inverse, that teens are willing to undergo plastic surgery “because they’re trying to look like a fantasised version of themselves.” Given that ideals change and the pursuit of perfection is futile, self-image dissatisfaction is inevitable.

How can we individually stop digital distortion?

The obvious action here is to stop using filters and editing apps – no matter how subtle the change. Yet for many, simply stopping no longer feels like an available option – especially if they experience life more positively by changing their appearance online.

A question I’m regularly asked is “Why do people use filters?” Though sadly, not from a place of ‘I want to understand so I can help’ but in a judgmental, accusatory tone. A, ‘you brought it on yourself’ attitude to a much larger issue. It’s important to highlight, it’s not the fault of the user to succumb to what I call ‘pretty pressure’.

As I see it, in order to make filters redundant, we must first challenge the misogynistic beauty standards they uphold – the rest will follow.

​Try these non-appearance-based compliments

  • I’m so proud to call you a friend

  • I always feel like the best version of myself when I’m around you

  • I love the way your mind works

  • I’m so happy you’re here

  • I admire this about you

  • I’m so grateful to have you by my side

  • All my favourite memories feature you

  • I’m so happy you exist

  • You mean the world to me

Change you can make today

  • Consider your own language talking about your body

  • Download resources from Dove’s Self-Esteem Project

  • Reduce your screen time

  • Detox your social media and curate your feed with real, feel-good accounts

  • Hold brands accountable on social and mainstream media for lack of diversity and representation

  • Challenge misogynistic language and derogatory terms

  • Stop apologising for your appearance

  • Stop digitally altering your appearance

  • Take note of your own prejudice towards what society deems as ugly and challenge your reactions

  • Make space for conversation about body image and mental health with friends and family

  • Campaign to ban face and body augmenting apps and filters

  • Share this article


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