"I Worried To The Point Of Obsession" – How Virtual Beauty Apps Prey On Insecurities

Photographed by Eylul Aslan
I can change my lipstick from bright pink to intense red in a fraction of a second. I can try on a 'Vegas' look from a virtual makeup artist complete with false lashes, four different shades of perfectly blended eyeshadow, heavily defined eyebrows and magically contoured skin. While these looks aren't really 'me', I appear transformed (if a little artificial) as I stare at myself via an app on my phone. I play with different versions of myself over and over again until I become mesmerised. While I wait for each new effect to load, I notice the dark circles under my eyes.
Forget Snapchat or even Instagram filters; 2019 has seen the rise of virtual reality makeovers. While there are far more options available in the US (such as Sephora's popular Visual Artist), here in the UK, there are a handful of burgeoning apps which allow you to try on different hair colours, haircuts, shades of lipstick and much more in the comfort of your bedroom. In theory, they sound fun and innovative. Who wouldn't want to give an expensive new product a whirl before shelling out a small fortune? But the question is whether these virtual reality beauty apps might cause self-esteem issues in people who are already vulnerable, and join other filter apps, such as Snapchat, in giving people unrealistic views of what they should look like.
Research may suggest so. A 2018 report in the American medical journal JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery found that filtered images could be "blurring the line of reality and fantasy" and even discovered that this may lead to body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) – a serious mental health condition where a person will obsess about perceived flaws in their appearance. While these new virtual makeover apps aim to give the consumer a better beauty experience, could they contribute to feelings of disillusionment, like Snapchat and Facetune?

I kept zoning in on flaws in my skin because I was spending so much time staring at myself through the lens.

Having tried various makeup apps, Gina*, a 29-year-old teacher from London, finds the technology cool and interesting, but agrees that it has the potential to be problematic. While testing a makeup app, she found that it presented unnecessary filters which smoothed her skin "artificially", adding to the unrealistic effect.
Having used the apps myself, I would agree that they help to pinpoint which colours suit you (bold reds complement my skin tone, pale nudes just look strange). Interestingly, though, while trying on eye makeup, lipstick and Kim Kardashian-style contouring, I found that I kept zoning in on flaws in my skin because I was spending so much time staring at myself through the lens. This is something Refinery29's beauty editor Jacqueline Kilikita seconds. "Some VR beauty apps I've tried are incredibly fun, very useful and often harmless, allowing me to get a glimpse of what I might look like with huge winged liner or chunky highlights. But I found that I started to overanalyse my face – my skin in particular. I'd hone in on something considered 'problematic' like my oily complexion or acne scars."
For Dr Renee Engeln, professor of psychology at Northwestern University and author of Beauty Sick: How The Cultural Obsession With Appearance Hurts Girls and Women, beauty apps are simply the latest way that the industry can profit by preying on our insecurities. "While these types of beauty apps aren’t inherently harmful, they are a more customisable version of the filters and photoshopping apps, like Facetune, that are already mainstream." However, she adds, "marketers feed women's desire to look different and to look better. This can open the door to an obsession with trying to meet a beauty standard."
Dr Engeln continued: "We're already seeing the downside of those filters. They're fun to play with, but they emphasise the distance between the face you see in the mirror when you wake up in the morning and the face you wish you had. It's not particularly healthy to be confronted over and over again with that gap between the real you and the 'ideal' you, especially when you're swimming against the beauty-obsessed current created by these very powerful beauty industries."

I tried a face mapping app because I had a breakout and wanted advice but the app picked up on fine lines and hyperpigmentation ... I worried about these 'problematic' areas to the point of obsession.

It isn't just hair and makeup, though, as this technology also extends to skincare. Numerous brands have launched apps where uploading a quick phone selfie allows for a diagnosis of what might need 'work', such as fine lines or dark circles. Twenty-six-year-old recruiter Jasmine* admits that trying a new skincare app gave her a complex about her skin. "I recently tried a new face mapping skincare app because I had experienced a breakout and I wanted quick advice. The acne is what I wanted to target but the app picked up on fine lines and hyperpigmentation. These are things I'd never actually thought about, so I worried about my spots and these other 'problematic' areas to the point of obsession." Alongside apps, 'smart' mirrors are also gaining traction in the beauty industry. A handful even rank the quality of your skin via selfies: the higher the number, the 'better' the condition of your skin, with scores ranging from 'poor' to 'excellent'. This could well exacerbate insecurities, as it suggests your skin simply isn't 'good enough'.
While Gina mentions that she found beauty filters quite fun to use occasionally, she could imagine that if the apps had been available when she was a teenager (and if the technology were more sophisticated than it is now), she might have been more drawn in by them. "I could imagine putting photos on Instagram, getting that instant feedback and wanting to always look that perfect," she told me. "I might think that it was the norm, especially if everyone else was using them."
Clinical psychologist Mark Smyth, president elect of the Psychological Society of Ireland, says that the majority of people will be able to use beauty apps in a light-hearted way without affecting their self-esteem, but that they might have an effect on others. "Apps that can alter our appearance are incredibly popular and used by millions of people every day with no impact on their wellbeing. But for people who struggle with insecurities about their appearance, digitally correcting what they perceive to be a flaw can give them momentary relief from that anxiety."
Despite the risks experts have attached to apps like these, I personally find them quite entertaining – in moderation, as Dr Smyth corroborates: "If using these apps, it’s important to remember that they are just for fun and experimentation," he advises. "If you locate all of your self-worth in your self-image, then these apps might give you the illusion of being more secure in yourself. But it’s a false sense of security that unfortunately won’t last."
I might know how I could look with quite realistic pink hair without going through the rigmarole of bleaching and dyeing, for example, but one thing I will be careful about is just how much time I spend on these apps. If research has taught me anything, advances in beauty technology make it easy to become excessively interested in how we look and I want neither that nor to take any more selfies than I already do.
*Names have been changed

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