tatum van dam
dog filter dysmorphia
Updated: Oct 1, 2019
I still remember the day it happened. The day I pressed update, opened the application, and proceeded to see my reflection by the means of the front facing camera. I held my finger down on my reflection and all of a sudden, I had transformed. On that very day, my eyes grew larger than life -- almost like an anime character, and my mouth appeared to be shooting out a rainbow.
Yes, I am talking about the very first day that Snapchat implemented filters.
After looking at my cartoonish face for two seconds too long, I swiped my finger across the screen to find that a number of these “masks” existed. Some were better than the whole anime-rainbow ordeal, like the light pink flower crown plus clear skin duo serving Coachella 2015 vibes, and others were a bit comical, like the eating chipmunk with cheeks the size of balloons. After trying out every possible option, I decided on my favorite one: a dog. Yes, I had ears and yes, I had a nose, and yes, I had an oblong tongue that emerged every time I opened my mouth… But I also had larger eyes, clearer skin, and a slimmer face. So, yeah, what I’m saying is that I may have been a dog, but at least I looked cute.
Though Snapchat filters have been around for several years now, it was not until recently that the term “Snapchat dysmorphia” was coined by researchers at JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery in an article titled Selfies—Living in the Era of Filtered Photographs. It discusses the normalization of filters through applications including (but not limited to) Instagram, Snapchat, and Facetune. The researchers created the term due to a shift in referential images from plastic surgery patients. In the pre-filter era, patients brought in photos of celebrities, such as Kim Kardashian or Brad Pitt, to give surgeons an idea of what they wanted to look like.
Now, in our era of filters, patients are bringing in photos of themselves. Filtered versions of themselves, that is.
You’re probably thinking, “that’s crazy. I like using filters for fun, but I would never go to the extent of actually changing my face to look like a smooth-skinned fairy wearing a flower crown.” And you’re absolutely right -- I mean, yeah, I like how some filters look, but I am not about to drop my nonexistent cash to turn into a human doll. While this idea of getting surgery to alter one’s image is not common amongst the majority, anyone can be at risk to developing selfie induced dysmorphia. Some might have it without even realizing it. Susruthi Rajanala of JAMA states:
These filters and edits have become the norm, altering people’s perception of beauty worldwide.
And Rajanala is correct. Once you see yourself in a way that is in tune with stereotypes of what is to be considered beautiful, it can be hard to un-see yourself knowing what you could look like. We begin to see ourselves as what we could be and not for who we are, which can lead to a negative perception of one's self. People often struggle to realize that what we “could” be is intangible. It does not exist, and it might not ever exist… so why let a non-existent version of yourself affect the way you perceive your current, existent self?
Using filters and edits on photos has become completely standard. During the growth of this normalization, many face-editing applications emerged. One popular application whose purpose is to edit selfies by clearing blemishes, or perhaps adding the right amount of synthetic makeup, is called Facetune. According to its product biography, Facetune is “the best portrait and selfie editor app available for iOS & Android. It's fun, simple, powerful, and jam-packed with tons of retouching tools.” I remember downloading Facetune as a middle schooler with the curiosity of seeing how I would look wearing makeup. The Facetune filters, in comparison to some of Snapchats, were almost comical. The “makeup” was poorly pixelated and failed to align with my face. I looked nothing short of a photoshop attempt gone awry. I regarded the application as more of a joke than anything else; however, with its now-updated software and large user base, the application has taken over today’s young teenagers by storm. Part of this phenomenon can be credited to social media influencers and celebrities such as James Charles.
James Charles is a YouTube beauty guru and social media influencer with an audience reaching over 16 million people. He is also a notorious advocate of Facetune. Last year, he published a video called “FACETUNING MY FOLLOWERS SELFIES”, where his followers sent in self portraits and James attempts to “fix” their “imperfections.” Now, I am completely aware that the followers sent in their photos with the full acknowledgement that James would retouch them -- but the implications of his actions are much greater for the rest of his fanbase. His target demographic is teenagers between the ages of 13-18 years old, roughly the period in which one explores their sense of self and personal identity.
An ABC news article discussing photo editing apps and their effects on teenagers on social media states:
According to a recent study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, 91 percent of teens who use social media post photos of themselves. Moreover, the study concluded that those with high scores for manipulating their photos also were associated with high scores for body-related and eating concerns.
Influencers might not be aware of it, but by advocating for retouching applications like Facetune, their audience might go to extremes to look and feel a certain way. If developing teenagers are being taught that it is okay to retouch a photo for fictitious social media likes, there is a lurking possibility that it can lead to greater mental and physical health concerns.
While there are celebrities who are advocating photo retouching, there is hope for the latter. In an interview with Billboard, Taylor Swift talked about the pressure that social media puts on young people (in particular, young women) with regards to body image and self esteem. Swift said: “You don't need to look like a filter. You’re great.”
Taylor Swift is correct -- you do not need to look like a filter. And you are great. Though it might not appear as such, selfie induced dysmorphia is a real issue, especially in our current society that seems to be fueled by the means of likes and followers and comments. It is important that we teach young people (and all filter-using people alike) that they are enough. I cannot begin to stress how subjective beauty is. What’s beautiful to me might be entirely different from what is beautiful to you, and it is important to acknowledge that. Social media is a gateway to self esteem and mental health issues and Snapchat dysmorphia only worsens it.