I contain multitudes. Or rather, my iPhone camera roll does. If I click on the album simply labelled 'selfies' which the pocket computer I carry everywhere with me has kindly put together, I can go back to 2010 – the year I got my first iPhone and, coincidentally, the year that Instagram launched – and look at close-ups of my face spanning a decade. Selfie stigma, selfie shame, a guilty feeling that I might be a narcissist threaten to swallow me whole as I flick through the 1,472 images. Ah, the light was good that day. Oh, it was weird when we were all using the Snapchat filter that made us look like an extremely attractive dog. You know what, I actually look alright sometimes.
Lately, instead of the buzz I used to get from doing this, I find myself zooming in on every image, interrogating every line, blemish and pore. Growing up, I would compare my appearance to the photoshopped photos of models in magazines. Now, I compare myself to the younger version of myself, to the filtered version of myself, and find what I see looking back at me in the mirror wanting. Time for a bit of Botox here? A little filler there? Do I just feel weird about ageing? I keep asking myself. I’m 32 so, of course, it’s obscene to be comparing my face to the 22-year-old version of it. Or has endlessly scrolling past other people’s filtered faces on Instagram and using filters myself – even if only in a tongue-in-cheek way – started to warp my perception of how I’m supposed to look?
Much has been written about the phenomenon of 'Instagram face' and, particularly, how it impacts women. Last year, Instagram said that it would remove all augmented reality filters which depicted or promoted cosmetic surgery amid concerns that they were harming people’s mental health. Studies from around the world (like this one conducted in India or this one from the US) have confirmed that there is a correlation between these filters, body dysmorphia and a desire to get plastic surgery or 'tweakments' like Botox and fillers. Be that as it may, while writing this article I found several filters which promise to make you look 'snatched' which, in a nutshell, means it will help you conform to the current Instagram beauty standard of pale, smooth skin, high cheekbones, a tiny nose, larger lips and doe eyes.
Politicians are concerned too. We know that influencers and celebrities filter, Facetune and alter the images posted by their online avatars but, still, we enter into a cycle of compare and despair when we see them. Last month the Conservative MP Dr Luke Evans proposed a new law which could ban celebrities from posting doctored images without declaring that they have modified them.
I never used to feel weird about my face. Growing up, I liked the faces of older women. I thought the most interesting ones were the ones that suggested the person they belonged to had lived a full (if not always happy or easy) life. So why am I finding myself standing in front of the mirror and thinking of ways to stop my own face expressing the life I live? The projection of unattainable beauty standards in the media is nothing new. But something about what started out with that attractive dog filter and is now so normal on Instagram that we barely question it feels particularly insidious. You couldn’t pick up a copy of Vogue and layer Christy Turlington’s face over yours but you can use filters to project a modified version of yourself to the world online.
Janella Eshiet is a professor of communication studies at California State University. Earlier this year she published a paper called "Real Me versus Social Media Me: Filters, Snapchat Dysmorphia and Beauty Perceptions Among Young Women". As she sees it, "Filters on Instagram and Snapchat are fuelling body dysmorphia among young women because many of these filters are now changing how women view themselves." No longer do we merely compare ourselves to others but to altered, perfected images of ourselves.
Of particular concern to Janella is what she calls 'Snapchat dysmorphia'. The term was coined by Dr Tijion Esho in 2018 and is used to describe what leading plastic surgeons and aestheticians see as the growing phenomenon of young women (and some men) bringing filtered photos of themselves to consultations and asking for procedures to make their real face look more like their filtered face. Increasingly, Janella says, "Women have this notion that they must be perfect just like the filters they use."
Perhaps I am naive but this is more prolific than I had realised. On a recent holiday, I was surprised to learn that several friends were using filters on their Instagram photos. One even uses Facetune on all photos of herself before posting them, even if it’s just on Instagram Stories. As part of her research, Janella interviewed young women from different colleges across the US. She says that she, too, was surprised to learn that young women are increasingly using filters to 'beautify' themselves in accordance with Instagram’s beauty standards. "They make you look like you have flawless skin and no imperfections," she explains. "If you do not feel like wearing makeup or you have a zit you are trying to cover up, some of these filters will do the trick...but a few participants said they would cosmetically change their appearance to look like their filtered photo. A few of them expressed how they loved how the filters gave them fuller lips and one participant said that she did get lip fillers because of a filter that made her have fuller lips – she loved it and got fillers within the next month or so."
We spend so much of our time on the internet now that what happens there is as real as anything we do offline. Social media is indisputably real life, albeit a hyperreal and enhanced version. So it feels increasingly difficult to determine whether Instagram is shaping beauty standards or merely reflecting beauty standards back to us. In 2005, before he bought Instagram, Mark Zuckerberg described Facebook as a mirror to what exists in real life. Fifteen years later, in the aftermath of multiple scandals including, most recently, the question marks over the role of Cambridge Analytica in influencing elections and therefore the makeup of governments across the world, the idea that social media merely reflects reality sounds like a sick joke. If social media is a mirror, then in our politics and our personal lives, that mirror is not only distorted but distorting the ways in which we see ourselves.
Where do we go from here? It’s never felt less okay to be imperfect and it’s never been easier to airbrush our imperfections, concealing them from the world. I don’t know. Increasingly unsure of everything – including my relationship with Instagram and, by proxy, with myself – I put this question to Dr William Van Gordon, an associate professor of contemplative psychology at the University of Derby.
There is, Van Gordon says, no doubt that filters are fuelling dissatisfaction and dysmorphia. He cites two further reports, one unpacking the relationship of filters to disordered eating and another which spoke to young women in China about how constant comparison with others and with filtered images was impacting their self-image. Both underline the cause for concern. However, Van Gordon notes, we must remember that the desire to alter our appearance is nothing new. "It has an evolutionary link," he explains. "It’s normal that we try to enhance our appearance whether that’s for forming relationships, finding partners – we do it in real life anyway. So the principle of doing this isn’t necessarily something that we need to be concerned with." The problem, he says, "is the level of disconnect that there can be between a filtered image and the person’s real appearance."
This is where something called social comparison theory comes in. According to this idea, human beings have always had a natural tendency to compare ourselves to others. Today, though, Van Gordon says that "we are not only comparing upwards – with people who are deemed more attractive or more successful than us," we are comparing ourselves with perfected, optimised and idealised versions of ourselves. "That," Van Gordon says, "can have a much more detrimental effect on our self-image because inevitably that version – which is not real – will fall apart."
This is where patriarchal beauty standards and capitalism overlap, forming a dangerous Venn diagram at the centre of which so many of us unwittingly find ourselves. The celebrities – the popstars and actresses – who have long adorned magazine spreads were always unattainably beautiful. Being out of reach was part of their success and, as a trade-off, they were expected to maintain their beauty in ways most of us would never be able to: daily 5am personal training sessions, liposuction, wild diets. But Instagram is a seemingly democratic platform which has sold us all the idea that the self – our own online image – is the key to making our fortune, to achieving success and popularity. Surely, therefore, we have to consider the feeling that getting more likes gives us in the context of optimising ourselves, our lives and our appearances for financial gain: if I looked more like this or that then maybe I, too, could have 500,000 followers, a nice house and a wardrobe full of #gifted clothes.
This is something Will Storr writes eloquently about in his book Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed And What It’s Doing To Us. One of the defining aspects of our culture today, he notes, is that "we can be anything we want to be – to win the neoliberal game we just have to dream, to put our minds to it, to want it badly enough." This message is fed to us constantly from all angles and young women in particular have internalised it wholesale (see girlbosses and manifesting). But, Storr writes, "It’s not true. It is, in fact, the dark lie at the heart of the age of perfectionism...Here’s the truth that no million-selling self-help book, famous motivational speaker, happiness guru or blockbusting Hollywood screenwriter seems to want you to know. You’re limited. Imperfect."
Part of the problem with filters, then, is that they make perfection feel as though it is just within our reach. "I do believe that filters have shaped beauty standards," Janella says. "Many young women use a beauty filter and notice that their appearance changes (in their eyes, in a good way) and they start to think about the 'what ifs'... What if they change their nose, or put fillers in their upper lip, etc." This is reinforced by the fact that doctored images seem to get more likes. An Instagram magazine called Shame Magazine recently demonstrated this in blunt terms. They posted two images of naked women standing in the sea with their arms around one another. In one version, their waists had been made smaller, their bums larger and rounder. In the other, they were undoctored. The altered version got more likes and, therefore, as a result of Instagram’s algorithm, was shown to more people.
Janella’s research reinforced this. "Some of my participants explained how they would get more 'likes' on social media when they post a filtered photo versus a non-filtered photo," she says, "so that feeds into them wanting to change their appearance." Likes are addictive. They fire up what's known as 'dopamine-driven feedback loops' in our brains and make us feel good. Once we've had a hit of this feeling, we only crave it more. We also now associate it with being successful and learn to manipulate the version of ourselves we sell to the world so that it will continue to get positive feedback. If you can get this feeling online by filtering your appearance, it makes sense that you'd be tempted to recreate it in real life.
Is it the responsibility of social media companies like Instagram to do something about this, to decide where fact ends and fiction begins, to impose laws that distinguish between a bit of harmless fun and what's dangerous and dysmorphia-inducing? Should politicians step in and make it their remit? That conversation will undoubtedly continue but somehow, while it does, we have to find a way to acknowledge our limits and imperfections, to be not only okay with them but embrace them. The Greek hunter Narcissus saw his reflection in a pool of water, fell in love with it and drowned. Perhaps, like him, we are drowning in the endless stream of images of our own reflection. The detrimental impact that this is having is starting to be understood so perhaps it's time to turn our heads and look at something else. If we can do that, if we can free up the headspace we devote to comparison, we might surprise ourselves with what we can achieve.