Where Beauty Filters and Beauty Standards Collide

Artwork of a phone held up containing an outline of the European continent, representing the eurocentric beauty standards perpetuated through digital filters. Artwork by Alyson Sutherland.

“Small nose, defined jawline, high cheekbones, long slender neck… basically just picture a thin, white, blonde model with blue eyes, every [standard] that applies to her also applies to the rest of us,” describes senior Eleanor Parks-Orr about the standard of desirability that she feels beauty filters perpetuate through social media. 

Beauty filters, also known as Augmented Reality (AR) lenses, are computer generated effects created to be superimposed upon images and videos in real time. Their effects range from smoothing your skin on a Zoom meeting to giving you heart eyes in a TikTok. They are fun for many, kind of cringey for others, and potentially detrimental to how all of us perceive one another and ourselves, on the Internet and in the real world. 

AR lenses became widely available in 2015 when Snapchat launched its first face modifying filters. “When Lenses first became available, users were predominantly using them comedically and for entertainment purposes…However, the current trend for face filters is no longer fun and quirky transformations, but instead what is referred to as ‘beauty filters,’” according to an article by the software development agency Quantilus Innovation entitled “What’s Behind Augmented Reality Face Filters?”.

Despite this claim that filters were originally utilized primarily for comedic purposes and later morphed into something more glamorous and twisted, the reality is that filters have been controversial as early as 2016 for targeting women and exclusively highlighting eurocentric beauty traits. Seemingly innocent filters like Snapchat’s flower crown have been repeatedly accused of lightening skin, narrowing noses, lightening eyes, and slimming faces. By erasing BIPOC features and whitening skin, so-called “beauty filters” perpetuate the racist narrative of whiteness as the highest standard of beauty, and reinforce colorism that is already incredibly prevalent within the beauty industry. 

While filter designers themselves are not creating beauty standards, they are perpetuating pre-existing notions of what makes a person beautiful, and imposing that ideal onto anyone who happens to try their filter. By revealing to us a version of ourselves that is deemed more acceptable and worthy of praise, beauty filters plant the seeds of insecurities and then commodify them. 

In an article for the medical journal JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery, Neelam Vashi writes that “the pervasiveness of these filtered images can take a toll on one’s self-esteem, make one feel inadequate for not looking a certain way in the real world, and may even act as a trigger and lead to BDD.” BDD, or Body Dysmorphic Disorder, is a mental health condition that affects up to 2.4 percent of the population and according to the Mayo Clinic can “cause you significant distress and impact your ability to function in your daily life.” The term “Snapchat Dysmorphia” was coined in 2015 by Dr. Tijion Esho after realizing that an increasing number of plastic surgery patients were bringing in heavily edited photos of themselves with the hope of having their faces altered to appear as though they were wearing a filter.

In a recent interview with InStyle Magazine, Dr. Josie Howard, a psychiatrist who specializes in psychodermatology, points out that even without specifically seeking out face altering lenses, they may still have an impact on one’s body image and self worth. “While the impacts may first be seen amongst the users of social media, they quickly bleed into and permeate the general beauty standards and aesthetic expectations of all of us,” she says. “So, even if someone is not spending hours on social media, they are still exposed to images and products that are driven by the phenomenon of filter enhanced expectations.” 

The issues posed by the growing use of AR lenses are a symptom of outdated beauty standards rather than a cause, therefore, getting rid of filters altogether may be an unproductive solution. Perhaps instead, next time you wear a beauty filter, consider whose beauty you are striving to achieve and who is benefiting from the standards it promotes.

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