At a Verily meeting the other day, a couple colleagues mentioned some subtle yet disturbing Photoshop-like edits that certain Snapchat filters add to images. This isn’t about the rainbow-vomiting unicorn or the filter that blasts laser beams out of your eyes when you open your month. This is about the filters like the flower crown or Kentucky Derby hat; you know, the ones that we don’t expect will change our facial structures, only add accessories or scenery.
But as it turns out, even those minimalist lenses on Snapchat make pretty drastic changes. They effectively alter our faces, not unlike how magazines Photoshop celebrities.
I hadn’t noticed it before, so I tried it out. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of a totally untouched makeup-less photo next to a similar pose of me using Snapchat’s flower crown filter.
I had used this filter before. I thought I looked cute; the flower crown is adorable and perfect for the music festival season that no doubt inspired its creation.
But when I saw the images side by side, I was disappointed that I didn’t just have a crown—suddenly I also looked like a doll with porcelain skin. It widened and lightened my almost black eyes, narrowed my flat nose, airbrushed my blemishes and under-eye circles, slimmed my face, and brightened my skin.
I could hardly believe my eyes. In one swipe, my face was transformed to standards that the fashion and beauty industry has been pushing for decades: wide eyes, a petite nose, a thinner face, and a crystal clear complexion. I felt, in a word, ugly. Were my almond eyes, brown skin, and round face less attractive? Did they need to be changed to put on a fun crown? For the first time ever, the answer was right in front of my face—or, rather, on it.
I wondered at the impact this filter and others like it had on perpetuating mainstream idealized beauty standards through the millions of people who use and share photos via the platform. It may be intended as harmless fun, but we’re on to you, Snapchat.
And we’re not the only ones.
Buzzfeed recently published post after post of users noticing that “some of the app’s filters seem to favor white complexions or unnaturally lighten users’ skin tone.” But it isn’t just skin tone. Aimee Simeon writes for Popsugar, “The Coachella filter will instantly transform your face, leaving your complexion significantly glossier, your eyes more doe-shaped, and your skin tone noticeably lighter.”
Megan Breukelman writes for Atlas Magazine, “Amongst Snapchat’s terrific and advanced new filters comes one that I take issue with—the real-time retouching filter. In a time where we’re working toward positive self-image, why are we promoting these glossed-over, altered, magazine-ideal images of ourselves?”
As my friend and fellow editor at Verily Mary Rose Somarriba told me recently, “The problem with editing our faces or feeling we need to change to be beautiful can be especially heightened when the standards of beauty discriminate against certain ethnicities.”
As an Asian-American woman, I’ve experienced a unique struggle with positive self-image. My “look” is the opposite of runway models and most celebrities. I embrace my tan in a culture where you can buy your way to a bronze glow. But in the Philippines, where my parents are from, women try all sorts of bleaches and creams to lighten their naturally dark skin. When I was competing in the Miss America program, I was often asked to get a tan. “Why do I need a tan?” I’d ask. I’m Filipino! I am tan!
But other societal standards I didn’t meet disheartened me. I’ve wished I were taller and that my face weren’t such a moon. I’ve envied other girls’ luminous eyes and radiant skin. I’ve wondered about how invasive plastic surgery would be to get what Filipinos call a “higher nose.” I’ve thought, “I’d be prettier if I could just change these things about myself.” With a simple swipe, Snapchat made it easy for me to do just that.
It’s digital plastic surgery. In fact, Sylvia Gunde, a photographer friend of mine, calls the retouching filter the “plastic surgery filter,” saying, “The changes on that are most drastic of them all.” Sure, the changes are subtle enough that viewers may not even be aware that a filter was used, but that’s arguably what makes them so much more dangerous. It sends a weird subliminal message to the audience about how a person looks better if a certain algorithm were applied to her face. And, per business as usual, it comes with a hefty price tag.
Last September, Snapchat acquired San Francisco–based facial recognition start-up Looksery for a whopping $150 million dollars. Among zombie and old-person filters, a user “can also make themselves look more attractive,” Alyson Shontell reports for Business Insider. Why the big investment? Let’s face it: because beauty sells. And female beauty in particular is captivating.
A 2007 psychology study published by The Official Journal of Human Behavior and Evolution Society reports, “Findings indicate that, consistent with some evolutionary theories, perceivers of both sexes exhibited attentional attunement to attractive women, but not attractive men.”
Did Snapchat create these filters to gain more users to—as Snoop Dogg would say—make money, make money money? Intentional or not, it’s unsettling that a company is capitalizing on insecurities. “Just don’t use it,” some might say. “No one is forcing you.” But that’s precisely the problem at stake here. Snapchat is a master at appearing like the passive third party that gives its users free reign over their own self-expression, but someone had to design, engineer, and approve those filters. It’s disempowering because who really stops to think deeply about posting a filtered Snap? Apps geared toward instant gratification aren’t geared toward second thoughts.
Snapchat’s latest stats boast a hundred million active users per day and nine thousand snaps per second. “Even if it were ‘just a first-world problem,’ it doesn’t mean it’s not a problem,” Verily’s style editor, Lilly Bozzone, argues. “It’s a problem for the millions of women and young girls who are seeing themselves as a Snapchat filter perceives they ‘should' be.” Having a smartphone is a privilege, but Bozzone adds, “This doesn’t negate the fact that Snapchat is saying, ‘Hey, this is what you could look like if you fit an imposed concept of beauty. Too bad you don’t live in this filter we created to make you look better than you do in real life.’”
I’ll be honest. When I’m Snapping with a friend and I look particularly tired or unpolished, I’ll often use what I call the “no-makeup makeup” filter, which smooths out my skin tone and texture as if I’m wearing foundation. While it doesn’t change my facial structures, it still makes me look different from how I look in person. I do this out of my own insecurity (I struggled with cystic acne for more than fifteen years), and because, yeah, I’m vain.
But, in an effort to not be a total hypocrite, I’m slowly weaning myself off of using it at all, and I’m definitely no longer using filters that delude myself and my viewers into seeing a completely different woman. Add the flower crown, Snapchat, but there’s no need to make me “prettier.”
When it launched in 2011, Snapchat had all the potential to be the anti-Photoshop of social media—the one platform where you could share parts of your life as it actually is (hence the “view once before it disappears” feature), rather than the picture-perfect images that social media makes our lives out to be. Sadly, with these “beautifying” filters, it’s turning out to be just like the rest of them: showing others what we think they want to see instead of who we truly are. Oh, Snap.