Despite the surge in body positive and self-love movements, we still live in a society that glorifies thinness. So it was no great surprise, really, when I stumbled across Perfect Me: Body Slimmer, an app that promises to "make you look much better than you are".
Start searching and you’ll quickly find a cornucopia of applications to help you digitally lose weight. Thin Camera, Facetune, Make Me Thin, Bikini, Retouch Me, and many more… all available to download for free on the iTunes app store to ages 4+, and simple enough for anyone to use.
From making your waist smaller to lengthening your legs, brightening your skin, reshaping your nose, and even covering up bald patches, the apps promise – with some variation in wording – "perfection". Here's Facetune’s blurb: "Facetune provides easy-to-use, powerful tools to perfect every photo or selfie… Now you can be sure that all your portraits show only the best version of you – whether you’ll be using them for your professional profile or simply sharing online with friends."
Very few people – myself included – enjoy seeing (or sharing) pictures in which they look 'bad'. However, while it’s natural to prefer photos of ourselves in which we feel we look our best, as specialist consultant psychotherapist Sara Rourke explains: "If we only present our 'social media' identity, which is a falsified 'ideal' self, then our true self becomes ossified, surrounded by layers of what is deemed to be 'good' and 'acceptable'. This could engender feelings of shame, guilt and an overall lowering of self-esteem."
And in the short term, if you’re used to seeing photos of yourself looking "perfect", anything that demonstrates otherwise can be a bit of a shock. Heidi, a 38-year-old teacher, has used Facetune for over three years and admits: "It is surprising when you see an unfiltered picture or if someone else takes a photo of you." Heidi uses the app to clear blemishes, whiten her teeth and the whites of her eyes, and slim down her body. "If it’s a full-length shot I’ll cinch everything in a couple of inches from top to toe." Heidi then posts the retouched images on Instagram, Facebook and sometimes Tinder.
Photo manipulation is not new. It’s been around since the beginning of photography itself, gaining prominence with the release of Adobe Photoshop in the 1980s. However, its move from the professional to the home (or phone) sphere marks a serious change. What began with simple filters to enhance a sunset has grown into a widespread practice of editing entire lives, and bodies.
These apps don’t exist in a vacuum. Mainstream diet culture is all-pervasive, and despite natural – and healthy, see Darwin – anatomical body diversity, our society has established that slim is best. (Fuelled, in part, by the billion-dollar weight-loss industry that relies on the lie that life would be better if we just weighed less.)
Sara explains that this approach creates polarisation. "[It] suggest that thinness is 'good' and therefore the opposite – larger – is 'bad'. This creates a hostile societal environment. Our lived experience is full of variations and possibilities, which helps to make life, and us, beautiful and unique. When a value judgement is placed on any variable, such as thinness, there is a shutting down of other variations to celebrate. Enter stage left: hatred, trolling, bigotry, bullying, stereotypes and prejudice."
While much was made in the early 2000s of the effect of traditional media on young women and body image, we’re only now beginning to understand the influence of social media and our peers. According to a 2016 study, images of our friends and colleagues on social media have a bigger negative impact on our body image than those of models or celebrities. Many models and celebrities have been "caught" using these apps, but while we’ve come to realise that images of famous people in magazines and advertisements may be digitally manipulated, we don’t expect that of our friends. We may understand that their feeds don’t capture the multiplicity of their complex lives, and that they mostly display the good, but apps such as these challenge our images on an epistemological level (aka fake news).
Though social networks such as Instagram and Facebook provide us with a space for self-expression and connectivity on an unprecedented scale, they’re also huge public platforms for self-objectification and comparison. So what if the "real" images we’re comparing ourselves to aren’t even real? What if the beauty standards we’re holding ourselves to are physically impossible?
If my face looks swollen I’ll suck in my cheeks...I don’t overdo it, I don't want to deceive people.
Twenty-four-year-old Maria, a successful chef with a sizeable Instagram following, uses PhotoWonder. "If my face looks swollen I’ll suck in my cheeks... I don’t overdo it – I make sure it looks natural." Maria, who has experienced bulimia in the past, discovered the app via a yoga teacher friend, who uses it to alter images of her body. Despite the great work of movements like Health at Every Size, the coupling of health with thinness is dangerous and real, and Maria says she personally feels the pressure to look thin. "I don’t want to deceive anyone," she explains. "There’s a big dilemma in my head."
In Heidi’s case, all her friends use the same app. When a group picture is taken, she tells me that it’s sent round from person to person so that each can nip and tuck their image before it gets posted anywhere online.
Heidi and Maria both say they have "no issues" with seeing their images altered, but what about the three-quarters of British teenagers who have a social media profile of their own? A 2015 survey, "Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image", found that 35% of young people worry about friends tagging them in unattractive photos, and 27% feel stressed about how they look in posted photos.
Personally, I found being a teenager with an eating disorder difficult enough. But while I know that body image is complex, multifaceted, culturally specific, and does not depend on the influence of social (or traditional) media alone, I’m not sure our increasingly appearance-dependent culture, with its image-comparison platforms, would have helped me much.
Both Heidi and Maria express similar concerns. "I feel sorry for young girls now," says Heidi. "I don’t pay much attention to other people’s images, but I can see how young women are really influenced by body image and the impact it’s having. It’s gotten to the stage where I wouldn’t even want to have a daughter because the social pressures are so huge. It’s a disaster. I play my part in it too, though," she acknowledges.
As Sara explains, what may appear like an innocuous way to edit out the bits you don’t like, has the potential to turn into something much darker. "When the vicissitudes of life take hold, such as ageing, in a society and reality where perfection is demanded just to be 'normal', this could have seriously destabilising effects on the individual, and be catastrophic for mental wellbeing."
Women have to be allowed to exist without being defined by their bodies, without constantly obsessing over them.
Many of these apps are designed for use on Instagram, which often comes under fire with regard to mental health, self-esteem and body image. However it’s clear that Instagram is simply the stage on which society is playing out its narrow idea of a desirable and worthy body. As journalist Anna Kessel writes in her book Eat, Sweat, Play: "Women have to be allowed to exist without being defined by their bodies, without constantly obsessing over them." Until that happens, apps like these will always find a space. "These apps show that there are definite ingrained value judgements based on thinness being a virtue, present within our western European society, operating on a subterranean level within our collective psyche," explains Sara. "They feed in to an insidious pejorative narrative, under the guise of 'just being a bit of fun'."