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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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