Instagram Filters: The Tyranny Of Digital Retouching

A 'plastic surgery style' is a new part of the culture exploding on social media.

Amaro (or Hudson?) your life
Amaro (or Hudson?) your life
Séverine Pierron

PARIS — A microscopic nose covered in bruises. Prominent cheekbones. Swollen lips with marks from Botox injections. The images are part of a recent trend on Instagram, and a pretty scary one at that.

The trend is to use special filters (with names like Bad Botox, FixMe and Plastica) that alter a person's portrait and give it a "just back from plastic surgery" look. They'll take your selfie, in other words, and disfigure it — doing in a virtual way what the wealthy New York socialite Jocelyn "Catwoman" Wildenstein, after multiple cosmetic procedures, did in real life.

Not surprisingly, such augmented reality filters are controversial, and last October, Facebook (which owns Instagram) banned their use.

At issue is the question, as suggested in an 2018 article in the journal JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery, of whether such filters encourage body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)​, especially among young people seeking "likes' and other kinds of online validation.

People with BDD, which is classified in the obsessive-compulsive spectrum, see aspects of their bodies as being exceptionally flawed and seek, therefore, to fix or hide the imagined problem. The disorder is thought to affect about 2% of the world population, according to a study published in 2018 the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

The concern is that for people who already have major self-image problems, the filter apps, by allowing them to drasticaly change their apperance in just seconds, can make them even more frustated with their real-life appearance.

You can start to get jealous of yourself, because you'd want to be the retouched girl.

Modifying one's face before posting an image online is "the new norm," says Carla, a 17-year-old high school student. "Everyone is doing it, even those who feel good about themselves," she says. "I personally use Facetune, for a smooth effect with no pimples. But I don't overuse it. I've got friends who have an orange tan, doll eyes and an over retouched body. Everyone knows it's fake but it helps them to have a better image."

Lena, a 12-year-old from Paris, says the filters are like a drug. "You can start to get jealous of yourself, because you'd want to be the retouched girl," she explains.

In the United States, many plastic surgeons agree. Young patients who seek their services want to look like their virtual self, the doctors report. Specialists even have a new name for this disorder: Snapchat Dysmorphia, named after the popular messaging service among teenagers, one of the first to use the image-altering filters.

Vanity unfair — Photo: Kike Calvo/ZUMA Wire/ZUMA

A few years ago, only pro photographers had tools at their disposal to "airbrush" their pictures. Photoshop, the famous Adobe software which is able to transform anyone into a top model, has been around for 30 years. It feels like an eternity. Since the boom of smartphones in the 2010's, retouching is ubiquitous; perfect faces or bodies are now a few clicks away We are losing track of all the specialized apps : VSCO, BeautyPlus, Perfect Me, Meitu, WowFace, Instabeauty…TikTok, the new short video social media platform, with 500 million users and growing, also has its retouching apps. How does it work? Thanks to artificial intelligence calculating pixels on your face and shaping them at will. Anything is possible, well almost...

The global filter market is huge. One of the pioneers, FaceTune, was designed in 2013 by Israeli company Lighttricks and downloaded some 180 million times, with a cost of 4.49 euros. Another hit is FaceApp. During the summer of 2019, more than 100 million of people had a go at making them themselves look older thanks to this app developed by Russian company Wireless Lab. The results were stunning. The only problem was, once you downloaded it for free, FaceApp reserved the rights to use your face for commercial purposes.

It's the future of cosmetics.

In China, where Instagram has been censored, the app Meitu (meaning "nice picture"), first launched in 2008, is huge. Chinese women are very fond of retouched selfies that look like K-Pop stars. According to the South China Morning Post, almost 500 million people are posting their "upgraded" face on a monthly basis. For many young women having their eyes widened, their bridge of the nose modified and their skin whitened is an alternative to plastic surgery. According to the creator of the app, Cai Wensheng, to "meitu-ify" one's face before sharing online is even a "way of being polite" like you'd tell a friend if her shirt was missing a button, or her pants were unzipped, as he told The New Yorker. Like FaceApp, Meitu has been accused of stealing user's personal data.

Photo: Tom Sodoge

If art explores new aesthetics code (even Cindy Sherman an American photographer uses Perfect365 an app for selfies on Instagram), the marketing world was bound to take over this "filter culture." One is Fenty Beauty (Rihanna's cosmetics brand), whose best-seller is named Pro Filt'r. At Nyx, there's a finishing powder named #NoFilter and Huda Beauty's high covering foundation named #FauxFilter. Other brands explicitly refer to Instagram in their naming, like Instamarc from Marc Jacobs.

"Digital clothes' only available in AR already exist.

Dior is taking the next step, moving into virtual makeup. In December 2019, the luxury brand offered an AR filter to test their new collection with a 3D effect. That's called digital makeup and, according to Peter Philips, head of creation and image at Christian Dior Make-Up: "It's the future of cosmetics." L'Oréal just acquired ModiFace, a "beauty tech company." By sending a selfie on the brand website, clients are invited to calculate their "skin diagnosis' and receive "information about aging, your skin strengths, signs to prioritize, and recommendation of products suited for their skin type."

AR filters are also becoming part of advertisers' tool kits. Snapchat offers branded filters to companies. L'Oréal, Disney, EasyJet or Nike have tried it successfully. Even better: companies selling "digital clothes' only available in AR already exist. With all of this on the market, your virtual self will never be caught looking anything but perfect.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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