Last year, the Advertising Standards Authority banned the use of misleading social media filters in cosmetics adverts. The ASA’s concern was that the subtlety of some filters may exaggerate the efficacy of a product, as consumers may not be able to identify the use of digital enhancements. Another ethical concern surrounding filters is the potentially detrimental psychological impact upon users, particularly in young women.
Despite this, ‘beautifying’ facial filters remain incredibly popular, and the filters themselves more sophisticated. The real-time edits have become almost undetectable, and so convincing that you would believe that is what the user actually looks like, had you not known them before.
The pursuit of artificial self-enhancement is not a modern phenomenon. Before the age of photography, high-profile figures cultivated their image through paintings. We only have to look to Anne of Cleves, (perhaps unfairly) condemned as the original catfish after Henry VIII despaired that she looked nothing like her portrait. At the same time, Holy Roman Empire Charles V seemed to rely upon some artful trickery to hide his distinctive ‘Habsburg Jaw’. Prior to the invention of Photoshop, Victorians manually retouched photographs by scraping the image or using paint to give the illusion of a smaller waist or perfect skin. Social media users are simply exposed to this phenomenon more frequently. Applying a ready-made filter requires no time or skill, and the algorithm often bombards us with hundreds or even thousands of augmented photos and videos a day.
While some filters are used for humorous effect, with wildly exaggerated features, the ones in question are those that apply subtle changes to the user’s face. The most common of which (enlarged eyes, shrunken nose, inflated lips, chiselled cheekbones and softened skin) are a problem in itself. Worryingly, the emergence of body filters has further blurred the lines between reality and fantasy. It was previously thought that a video could not be ‘faked’, but glitches in the recordings reveal the ability of filters to shrink one’s waist. If the highest-paid supermodels are accused of distorting their bodies, beauty standards have clearly gone too far.
Instagram automatically signals which filter is used above the image, however, it is believed that some users bypass this by simply saving and re-uploading the edited material. Users with a high following, like Kylie Jenner, have been accused of doing so, giving a false impression that they don’t use beautifying filters.
On one hand, filters may be regarded as simply a form of self-expression. Fans of filters will often defend their usage, comparing them to makeup. I admit, I know my angles and will opt for flattering lighting in a photograph. However, no amount of posing will change my bone structure or eye size. Studies have linked Instagram and Snapchat filters to body dysmorphia in young women, as our perceptions of self are warped. We compare ourselves to perfected versions of others that don’t exist, and to distorted images of ourselves.
The term ‘Snapchat dysmorphia’, coined in 2018, refers to the trend of clients showing aestheticians and plastic surgeons filtered selfies and requesting cosmetic enhancements to allow their real face to resemble the photos. Previously, you may have had to attend a surgeon’s consultation to receive a mock-up image of what you would look like with a smaller nose or plumper lips. Now, you can access an augmented version of yourself at the click of a button. The beauty industry often capitalises on our insecurities to sell us their products and procedures, and now filters are doing the work for them. Some may argue that the increased use of plastic surgery is not inherently a bad thing, and Isabel Hylton addresses the nuance of the debate here.
It is not unusual to encounter a TikTok product ‘review’ in which a smoothing filter is applied in the ‘after’ shot, though these overlays are becoming more and more undetectable. This, combined with the issue that many of these unbiased reviews are seemingly undisclosed paid promotions, is a deceptive form of advertisement. Increasingly, consumers have to wade through a plethora of misleading marketing content in order to make a truly informed purchase.
Would you take critique on your appearance from someone who has never even seen your face before? The creators of these filters have no idea what you look like, yet we embed so much of self-worth in these computer-generated images. There are steps we can take to avoid filters: remove them from your camera suggestions, unfollow accounts that make you doubt your self-worth and avoid the ‘explore’ page. It’s time we gave filters a little less power.
Megan is an editor and content creator with a love for beauty, fitness, reading and cooking.