When we record something on social media, and "slap on a filter", are we merely utilising the latest tweaks of an ever-increasing tech-tsunami, or are we feeding a more insidious troll of body dysmorphia that's living under our beds? (And more worryingly, the beds of the younger and more impressionable members of our society.) Asks Niamh Martin.
“You know when you get a really good haircut, and you feel like the best version of yourself? This is that feeling, but exponential.” - Jason Diamond, plastic surgeon.
59% of our entire population is using social media, and the number is growing constantly. On average, each of these people spends almost 2 hours and 30 minutes across multiple social media platforms every single day. On Tik Tok alone there are around 1.6 billion users, who are spending roughly 90 minutes active on the app daily. With the amount of time we spend online each day, it’s no surprise people have had to adapt, and create their own lives online in many senses, be it sharing intimate details of their day-to-day, or engaging with others as they do so. This has, in many ways, been for the good. However, a new way of living has brought new difficulties. Specifically, with reference to our very human ego adapting to a very digital world. Trends are moving faster than ever with constant exposure, be it clothing, make-up, or body types. Fox Eyes become trendy and hundreds of thousands of videos appear online showing the perfect eyeliner to create a fox-eye illusion.
The pressure to keep up with these trends is consistently affecting our perception of beauty standards, and we just can’t seem to pull our eyes away from it long enough to perceive the threat that may have to our own unique sense of self. Humans are not meant to share one unified “Instagram Face”, however, apps like FaceTune may have us convinced otherwise.
As of the 18th of July 2023, #WhatIEatInADay has over 17.8b views on Tiktok. When we take Instagram, websites and Youtube into account, this trend has astronomical viewer numbers. Many of these videos are celebrating bodies of all shapes and sizes, and many are pushing diet culture onto the masses as part of a daily routine. Supermodels sharing what they eat in a day is all well and good, but what it doesn’t show is the hours of gym work and personal trainers selecting each dish (and milligram) behind the scenes. This issue has been around for years, with influencers like Eugenia Cooney being slammed for glamorizing anorexia since the early 2010s, but with the rise of new AI Filters on apps like Instagram and Tiktok, it’s so much harder to identify what’s real. How can you recognise you’re feeding into insecurities if you aren’t even aware it was something to be insecure of?
The Zoom Boom
So, we’ve got a dangerous pattern of image-based trends appearing online, what could possibly accelerate this issue further?
Staying indoors for 6 months of your life with little else to do but stare at a screen, or video call your friends and family.
The so-called “Zoom Boom” has forced us to be more aware of our appearance than ever. When you’re forced to view your friends' lives online rather than in person, you might be at risk of developing some unhealthy habits.
Over the pandemic, the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons reported that its doctors saw up to 70% increases in requests for cosmetic surgeries, or so-called “tweakments”.
Side note: A Tweakment means a primarily non-surgical, minimally invasive treatment, that can enhance your “look” in a very subtle and natural way.
It's also essential to look at Tiktok's growing influence at this time. In Q1 2020, it was downloaded more times than any other app in one given quarter ever. Beauty influencers and vloggers stuck at home flocked to the app in a bid to create or keep up with the next viral trend. On TikTok, anybody can go viral, regardless of follower count, so everybody has skin in the game, and everybody is struggling to keep up. It's one of the most intelligent algorithms social media users have ever experienced, and once you've engaged with one trend, filter or user, they've got you figured out.
The Clean Girl
As a result of all this, 2022 has seen the rise of "trendy" faces. On Google, tweakment-centric searches outranked more traditional, more invasive cosmetic procedures (such as hair transplant or liposuction). Procedures like ‘’micro blading’’, ‘’hair extensions’’, ‘’lip fillers’’ and ‘’blepharoplasty’’ - a process to remove excess skin or fat from the eyelids are claiming the most interest. (Did somebody say Fox Eyes?)
Is it surprising that these minimal "enhancing" procedures are perhaps the most trendy? Is this a move toward body positivity? Or could it be that the "clean girl" look that came to TikTok fame in 2022 is bleeding into the cosmetic procedure world? With 4.7B views since last year on the video-sharing platform, it's hard not to draw conclusions.
The most likely answer is that it's an amalgamation of both. Especially considering the overwhelming amounts of "yourself but better" filters on TikTok. We can log into the app, directly after waking up, and slap a filter on our face and immediately look like our best self. Unlike famous filters from Snapchat (where the most popular are gimmicky dog ears or flower crowns), these provide subtle eyelashes or freckles. They're so discreet that if you didn't notice the label placed in the bottom left hand of your screen, you may not notice there was a filter at all.
And they're probably messing with our brains a bit too.
Since 2021, Google searches for ‘Instagram filters that change your face’ have increased by over 100%. Coupled with the knowledge that back in 2019, a VICE study found that 59% of people aged 13-24 see ‘tweakments’ such as lip fillers as comparable to getting a haircut or manicure, we get an uneasy truth. Exposing social media users to constantly improving filters that give them their “ideal” face is just drawing attention to aspects of themselves that maybe don’t fit into traditional beauty standards. Alice Liveing, best-selling author, was quoted in Look Fantastic breaking down the key issue with this: “If I start to only like my face when it has a filter on it, how am I going to accept it when it’s how it is naturally?”.
Although these filters aren’t real, the impact of them undeniably is, and they have to be having a detrimental impact on our universal ego and self-esteem. Phrases like “Snapchat dysmorphia” were coined after cosmetic surgeons noticed that people were increasingly bringing filtered selfies to consultations in efforts to physically recreate the so-called better self.
When we crack it down to just the numbers, the 'Glow Look' filter has been used in more than 3 million videos, and similar facial beauty filters have blown up on Instagram with 143,000 Reels.
One thing is becoming apparent, we’re in an era obsessed with aesthetics. Dove found that 50 percent of girls believe they don’t look good enough without photo editing and 60 percent feel upset when their real appearance doesn’t match the digital version. Whether it’s your Instagram feed or face, the lines between what we can curate and what we cannot are being blurred. And when so much cosmetic procedure content is readily available online, why should we? The risks and benefits of all of these can be researched heavily from the comfort of your own bedroom.
Far be it from anyone to judge somebody else for wanting to feel like the best version of themselves. At the end of the day, this isn't a personal image problem. It's a tech design and societal standards issue and a side effect of being the 'obsessively-online generation'. Really, what we need is more tightly monitored creation and vetting of these effects and limits to how they are used. There are clear risks to performing cosmetic procedures on those most at risk to being skewed by these filters and trends, namely teenagers and young people. Professor Ash Mosahebi, a plastic surgeon with BAAPS, told VICE that teenagers' facial structures are "still changing and growing and fillers might damage that growth", and that it is "definitely unethical" to allow teens to access facial fillers.
While adults are free to make a decision to express themselves having the benefit of a life lived with a realistic reflection of their face, teenagers exposed to filters from childhood may be making the decision in pursuit of an image that never existed in the first place. We’re here for "tweakments" that are borne of a healthy and well-informed decision, opting for a little “ml” to keep things looking plump (or downright pillowy if you want!). But, to paraphrase what Alice Liveing said, if you can’t love yourself without the filter, you probably shouldn’t be getting the filler.