Before deepfakes and alternative facts, the online world was already telling us fibs. In our series Lies the Internet Told Me, we call ’em all out.
As Snapchat “pretty” filters and Facetune retouching rose in popularity over the last few years, it must’ve felt like your social media feeds turned into a modern reboot of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Instagram used to be populated by normal (if carefully curated) pictures of your friends and family on vacation, a hike, or at a party. Then seemingly overnight, one by one, they were replaced by weird, poreless alien baby-face versions of themselves.
And you were, too.
From this horror story, another phenomenon has emerged, seeking to rid us of these perfect, poreless clones. The face positivity, or skin acceptance movement, aims to counter the uncanny valley propagated by these filters in the same way the body positivity movement sought to take down narrow beauty ideals portrayed in photoshopped ads and magazine covers.
But the face positivity movement has its work cut out for it. Because we’re all personally invested in believing in the distorted lie that is the pretty filter.
“You get so used to seeing yourself with these filters that when you look in the mirror you feel mildly horrified,” said Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University who authored . “You think, ‘Oh, is that me? Is that really me?'”
“To compare yourself to a perfect version of yourself is giving us even more opportunities to feel like we fall short, and will always fall short.”
Who can ever forget the dizzying existential crisis of first seeing yourself through the Snapchat pretty filter? It’s not just the glimpse at what you’d look like if you fit the beauty standard it projects, making you more youthful, blemish-free, wrinkle-free, symmetrical, whiter (according to some), and with bigger eyes. The real dread settles in when the app fails to register your face, and the digital mask falls. Suddenly you’re left staring at the blackest mirror of technology and see your regular, normal, untouched IRL face.
It makes one wonder: Is anyone even really buying these pretty filters? Do we actually find their versions of us more beautiful? And if not, why do we keep using them anyway?
“When you take the real skin out of someone and make it look almost plastic, you start to look inhuman, slightly alienated,” said Sophie Harris-Taylor, the photographer behind “Epidermis,” a series of beauty shots using models who struggle with skin acceptance. “It’s quite boring. There’s a flatness to it because skin does have texture and different tones to it. It looks weird and ridiculous when it’s completely flawless, so it’s strange that people are setting that as the ideal.”
Applying the same conceits of body positivity to everything above the neck, “Epidermis” highlights the beauty of untouched faces with scars, pimples, blemishes, and burns. But as we’ve seen with body positivity, combatting beauty trends is at best a slow, incremental, imperfect process. Unlike criticizing an advertising company, we’re the ones manipulating ourselves based off inhuman ideals with just a few button presses on our phones.
“It’s hard enough to compare yourself to other perfect-looking people,” said Engeln, describing the way we’ve idealized models for centuries. “But to compare yourself to a perfect version of yourself is giving us even more opportunities to feel like we fall short, and will always fall short.”
Though Engeln rebuffs the appropriation of the term, some have even started calling the extreme version of self-image distortion “Snapchat dysmorphia.” Researchers have found that instead of bringing celebrity pictures to plastic surgeons like in the past, people are now showing heavily filtered pictures of themselves as references.
“For a lot of women, it’s also increasing the amount of time and money they spend on cosmetics,” said Engeln. “If you want to look like that filter or even hope to come close to it, it takes a level of expertise and money and time that was never required before.”
So you buy 10 make up brushes and learn contouring and shading just to go out. It’s no longer about using concealer to cover up a pimple. Now, make up is supposed to reshape your entire face.
The new type of celebrity born out of social media — the influencer — helped popularize this aesthetic, also known as Instagram face. The economic business model of influencers relies on sneaking by the defenses we’ve built to protect ourselves from believing the false ideals promised in ads. They do this by blurring the boundary between celebrity and close friend.
And some who may espouse body positivity are still Facetuning.
“People who are all caught up in taking down ideals in advertising still use the filters,” said Harris-Taylor. “They don’t necessarily see the link between the two because it’s on your phone and seems harmless.”
Why we Facetune, even though nobody buys it
That’s not to shame people who express themselves through make up or enjoy beauty bloggers. But the common response to criticism that these pretty filters are confidence boosters is negated by the fact it can have the exact opposite effect, Engeln said.
“We’ve never been in a historical time period where we saw this many perfected images of beauty. It’s like a flood that’s constantly swallowing us.”
Sure, posting pretty-fied Instagrams of yourself might get you comments with flame emojis. But the high is fleeting, and only increases the demand for more — particularly when you’re confronted with what you actually look like in the real world.
We all know Facetune images are lies, but it’s as if they’re just the next illusion we all agree to accept, another evolution in the pseudo-real online personas we make for ourselves.
“It’s become so common to filter your face before you post, that it could be that posting your regular face just doesn’t look right to you anymore. It’s like posting in black and white when everyone else is doing color,” said Engeln. “Particularly for young people, it’s started to look normal.”
“For people that are brought up with these apps, they don’t see it,” agreed Harris-Taylor. “They just see the ideal they need to look like.”
There’s obviously degrees to its overuse. Like plastic surgery, Harris-Taylor said, you can tell when someone’s done too much work with a filter. But it’s getting easier and easier to be subtle and get away with it passing off as reality.
Regardless of how believable or unbelievable your use of Facetune and filters is, though, it doesn’t do much to protect against its negative psychological effects.
“It’s not enough to know that it’s fake,” said Engeln. “You still want the perfection, even when you know it’s out of each.”
Accepting ourselves, #nofilter and all
People are trying, though.
While the face-positivity movement is still small and lacking direction, there’s many examples of photographers, models, and influencers fighting Facetuned perfection under hashtags like #freethepimple or #acneisbeautiful.
Harris-Taylor‘s series wanted to show the beauty of facial flaws, born out of her own struggles with acne growing up. “You feel like it’s not common [to have acne or flaws] because you don’t see anyone else out there looking like you do. But actually it’s a majority of people. And it doesn’t make them unattractive,” she said.
So the idea was to shoot natural, totally untouched pictures of regular people wrestling with skin issues, and shoot them looking like they belonged in Vogue.
“For me it was about making people who are suffering from what their skin looks like feel like they have someone to look up to,” she said. “And a majority of the responses were people realizing, ‘Oh I’m not alone. Actually these women are beautiful, so maybe I am, too.”
Last year British-Australian influencer Danielle Mansutti posted a video about her unhealthy relationship with Facetune, vowing to not use it any more. Celebrities like Chrissy Teigen and Kendall Jenner are being more open about their own acne struggles.
But both Harris-Taylor and Engeln are skeptical of these early efforts to make skin acceptance mainstream.
Harris-Taylor has seen a bit more interest in skin positivity in the professional photography world, but unlike her series, it often focuses on the blemish rather than the person behind it.
“We don’t need to point out that the skin they have isn’t perfect, because it’s just skin. It’d be weirder if their skin was just perfect,” she said.
That’s why she’s waiting for the day when skin positivity becomes less of a talking point. It’s hard to see Kendall Jenner as a champion of imperfections by talking about her acne when she’s also the one profiting from partnering with a skin care product designed to fix them.
For another, like bad examples of body positivity, face positivity can fail to be inclusive of embracing all marginalized skin tones and skin colors.
“I’m sort of skeptical of the face positivity movement in the same way that I don’t think it’s really body positivity if it’s just a bunch of thin white women in bathing suits who love their bodies. It’s also not face positivity if it’s a bunch of people with youthful, white, clear, non-disfigured skin representing everyone,” said Engeln.
Research has shown, for example, that the #nofilter hashtag is filled with a substantial amount of images that are very filtered and edited.
Finding truth in #nofilter
There’s little we can do to stop the spread of a lie we all want to believe in, especially when it makes us look so damn good. But there are ways to lead by example to create the kind of social media environment that prefers we look like regular human beings.
Harris-Taylor suggested that instead of taking selfies, people can pass off photographer duties to a friend or loved one, and invite them to capture candid moments of each other. “They’ll always take a picture that’s more focused on your personality. You’ll still hate it because you’ll only be looking at your double chin or bad side, but they’ll love it because it’s more representative of who you are. Because actually that’s what people tend to love: the flaws.”
Or maybe turn the camera away from people altogether, making your social feed more about images you see in your day-to-day that reflect your interests and activities. Whatever it is, avoid the selfie, which removes all context around you and puts the pressure of being a good image all on your appearance, filtered or otherwise.
Engeln is a bit more extreme in her suggestions because she’s tested many other theories and only seen one sure-fire cure.
“My solution is deliberate, intense unfollowing and muting. If you’re someone who’s worried about your image or worried about how much time you spend on appearance, then you have to start curating your social media feed very carefully,” she said.
But Engeln also knows that real change comes down to what young people think is trendy. On the one hand, there’s the rise of digital influencers, who are like the final evolution of inhuman perfection online. On the other hand, Engeln could see a rebellion against the current status quo winning instead.
“What I’d like to see is a movement in the young generation that just doesn’t see this as cool anymore. It’s not cool to be so obsessed with how you look, spend hours doing makeup, filtering, then posting pictures,” she said. “I’m rooting for it. Because I think often when a social trend goes too far in one direction, we then see backlash.”
Unfortunately, knowing that the weird alien babies on your Instagram feed aren’t really what your friends and family look like doesn’t help.
“The problem is that beauty will compel us whether we think it’s real or not. When we see those perfect images, our eyes are drawn to them,” said Engeln.