The pandemic has meant that we are all spending a lot more time with ourselves. And whether we like it or not, looking at our reflections—our digital ones especially. Normally when we meet someone or join a work meeting, we wouldn’t usually see our own face, but now here we are. On our phone screens and on our video calls we are bombarded with our image, distorted through the notoriously unflattering lighting of Zoom or the mirroring of front facing cameras. In response to what some are calling ‘Zoom Dysmorphia,’ cosmetic surgery is experiencing growth in many countries. The French Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, for example, estimates surgeries are up as much as 20%, despite the limitations on elective procedures. The pursuit of the post-lockdown ‘glow-up,’ the expectation that we should emerge from our cocoons fit, polished, and radiant, is also contributing. In the UK, Save Face, a register for accredited aesthetic professionals received a 37% increase in searches for nonsurgical procedures like Botox, after the British government announced the easing of restrictions. It seems that, although some have found the pandemic an opportunity to go au naturel, embracing their natural hair texture and signs of aging, the record number of hours we are logging online, have also affected many people’s perceptions and expectations about their appearance. As if there wasn’t already too much pressure, on women and girls in particular, to scrutinise the way we look, technology is pushing these unattainable aesthetics even further via digital beauty filters.
Using the same AR technology that might give your selfie cat ears or make flower petals rain down around you, a beauty filter locks onto your face and can smooth your complexion, contour your jaw line, or pump up the size of your lashes. TikTok has an ‘enhance’ filter. Even Zoom has a ‘touch up my appearance’ feature. However Instagram, with its infamous ‘Paris’ filter and options to use filters uploaded by independent creators, undoubtedly has the most choice. The popular Facetune app has even more drastic editing capability. Lightricks, the parent company of Facetune has reported a 20% increase in app usage since the pandemic began, with users spending an average of 25% more time editing photos.
The threat of photo editing to our self-esteem is not necessarily anything new. We’ve long had the airbrushed models in advertisements and glossy magazine covers to skew what beauty looks like. However, smart phone apps and social media filters have now put this retouching ability at our fingertips. While we might still suffer comparing ourselves to celebrities, we can now do this with a digitally idealised version of ourselves. Rather than a media elite controlling the beauty standards, algorithms aggregate social media data and proliferate a super specific, semi-Kardashian look. As experts weigh in on the long term mental health implications, a sizable pushback against filters is mounting.
Last month, Dove launched the ‘The Selfie Talk’ campaign which offers a full education toolkit for parents to talk to their kids about filters, influencers, and social media, as well as asking people to take a #noDigitalDistortion pledge. Stars like Lizzo have joined in to promote the cause. According to Dove’s research in the US, by age 13, 80% of girls distort the way they look online. Faye Dickinson created a ‘filter vs reality’ split screen filter which has been circulating on Instagram. Make-up artist, Sasha Louise Pallari started an online movement, #filterdrop, and successfully lobbied the UK Advertising Authority to enact more regulations. Increasingly beauty brands, like Olay, have pledged to end retouching in their ads as calls to show real skin grow lounder. Digital enhancements have become so ubiquitous that, research shows, most people can’t even tell when a photo has been altered. Technology is only going to get better at augmenting human faces and allowing us to shapeshift. Whether it’s being more rigorous about choosing influencers to work with, showcasing the diversity of beauty, or just simply being honest in what is real, brands have a vital role to play in slowing down this runaway train.