Freckles everywhere, defined cheekbones, thick lips, a fine nose, infamous eyelashes, big and shiny eyes, smoother skin… All this is possible without going through surgery, thanks to social media filters. Users cannot stop incorporating them into their selfies. Social networks have an increasing weight in our society, especially in terms of beauty standards. The perception of the images we find in networks such as Instagram or Snapchat, together with the filters they offer us, shows their effects in cosmetic surgery.
The Mirage of Digital Beauty
Medical journals have dubbed this phenomenon ‘Snapchat dysmorphia’, referring to the first social network to launch the popular digital masks that deform the face in real-time. The first filters allowed you to see yourself with, for example, big, bright eyes and funny dog (or cat) ears. But now, the rhetoric has changed. Today, the most popular ones have become instant beautification tools. A single click allows someone to radically transform the creator’s physiognomy, creating the illusion of bigger eyes, prominent lips, marked cheekbones, and a thin nose. And this is the new standard of digital beauty with which reality competes.
Filters distort facial dimensions. Surveys carried out by the American Academy of Facial Plastic, and Reconstructive Surgery show an increase in cases linked to patients’ selfies: in 2015, 42% of patients said they wanted surgery to improve their image in the selfies, and the figure rose to 55% in 2017.
Many of these filters are designed to improve people’s appearance, so new beauty standards are being promoted. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) warns that this phenomenon is giving way to new self-esteem problems that can even lead to body dysmorphic disorder, which is characterized by excessive concern for body image, and irrational perception about your body, in addition to symptoms of anxiety and other psychiatric problems.
In it, the researchers explain that clients no longer come to surgery to look more like their celebrity reference but instead claim to want to be closer to their own image captured through a filter. Within this new logic, the new operations mostly in demand are related to correcting facial asymmetry, drooping of the eyelids, the appearance of wrinkles, and the nose’s appearance. There has also been a significant increase in the demand for lip augmentation to get closer to that image, which can be achieved in a matter of seconds through a filter.
The obsession with fitting into digital beauty can be transferred to the real world in the form of an obsessive disorder.
The sum of all these factors in the digital world sets new standards of beauty that are nothing more than an unattainable mirage when transferred to the real world. The perfect face of Instagram is hardly unmatched by reality. In my opinion, some touches are impossible to achieve in real life. For instance, adding excessive volume to the lips could deform the face; Furthermore, there is no point in correcting facial asymmetry.
It is a problem for patients to go to surgery, blaming ‘deformities’ created by the camera itself. But it is also worrying that they aim to go through surgery to improve their appearance in the selfies or look more like their retouched image. It is not reasonable that selfies set the standard of beauty because nothing we do in reality can compete with a digital image, fictitious and idealised.
And the fact is that the new beautification filters’ eruption is blurring the line between reality and fantasy. Many professionals in the medical community are already openly concerned about the implications of this phenomenon. Experts appeal to ethics when concerns that go beyond the scalpel and the needle are detected in the face of this. No professional should enter the trap of promising something that cannot be achieved.
Self-Esteem in the Age of Digital Filters
The adverse effects of the filters persist even when they disappear, and the user can see her face again without any distortion. At this point, the inevitable comparison between the ‘real me’ and the ‘retouched me’ emerges. Of course, the natural image can never live up to what has been designed as a beauty mask. The pervasiveness of these filtered images can affect self-esteem, make you feel bad that you are not in the real world, and even lead to body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).
The danger of these beautification filters is that they affect both self-image and self-esteem. If you get used to seeing yourself through a distorted image, you can develop a dissociative disorder (in which you no longer recognise yourself in a photograph that has not been retouched) and later a dysmorphophobic disorder (because you cannot keep up with the digital image).
The social pressure to fit into these unrealistic canons of beauty can be hazardous for psychologically vulnerable groups such as adolescents. It’s not healthy at an age when you are forging your identity to be exposed to a fictional standard by social networks. Even though you know that there can be tweaks, it is a problem that these distortions become part of your vision of reality.
The obsession with fitting into digital beauty can be transferred to the real world in the form of an obsessive disorder, as is the case with the already diagnosed cases of ‘Snapchat dysmorphia.’ The World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases manual defines this type of affliction as a persistent concern for physical defects or imperfections apparently imperceptible to others that cause profound distress in the sufferer.
It is necessary to teach and raise awareness about social networks’ functioning and avoid possible negative effects of their inappropriate or abusive use. In this case, these studies show how harmful they can be to our image and the associated psychiatric problems.
To stay away from the ideal of perfect beauty, it is important to understand that “the Internet” has a genuine part and a very manipulable part. This is the part you have to try to get away from. You can use it, enjoy it, but always bear in mind that our world is neither on the Internet nor based on filters.
Fadoua Soussi is a full-time scientist writing to make science accessible to everyone.