A decade ago, everyone was talking about how Photoshop was affecting body image.
Model Cameron Russell had a viral Ted Talk in 2012 in which she compared old photos of herself with the stylized shots in magazine spreads and on the cover of Vogue. “These pictures are not pictures of me,” she says. “They are constructions.” Hair stylists, make-up artists, photographers, and, of course, Photoshop, all work together to create a woman who is no longer Cameron Russell; she’s an ideal.
At the time, Russell reported that “of the 13-year-old girls in the United States, 53 percent don’t like their bodies, and that number goes to 78 percent by the time that they’re 17.”
Other models have striven to be open about the dishonesty inherent in their image-based industry as well. "I want to wake up looking like Cindy Crawford,” said Cindy Crawford, reflecting on her supermodel career a few years back.
Thanks to a push toward body positivity, we’ve been told, over and over again, that what we see in magazines, movies, and advertisements is fake. Maybe we even remind ourselves every time we see a close-up of a woman with no pores. But it’s harder to remind ourselves that we’re looking at a fake product when we’re scrolling through Instagram.
Social media stars are also peddling unattainable body standards, and no group stands out more than the Kardashians.
A few months ago, the family and its horde of agents scrambled to cover up the “scandal” of an unaltered bikini photo of Khloe Kardashian that was posted online. Posing in a barely-there leopard print bikini, the 36-year-old looks happy and curvy. Her skin flows the way skin on a human body does, but not the way skin on a Photoshopped model is supposed to look, and that, for the Kardashians, was the problem.
In an approved bikini shot posted around the same time, Khloe is wearing a full face of makeup, and some Instagram filters have evidently scrubbed her skin of any blemishes.
When the “scandal” happened in April, I remember thinking, “Who wouldn’t want to look like that?” All body shapes and sizes are beautiful, and so is Khloe’s. The fact that the Kardashians would be ashamed of the first photo seems insulting to the rest of us. But it’s clear that in the reality-star and social-media-influencer world, the only beautiful body is one that has been digitally altered into a semi-cartoonish state.
It’s also more of a reflection on the Kardashians and their perception of the world than anything else. As cultural theorist Jean Kilbourne asks, “How sexy can a woman feel if she hates her body?”
You might say that Khloe Kardashian wants to wake up looking like Khloe Kardashian.
It’s not just the rich and well-connected who can maintain the illusion of perfection through their Instagram feeds, though. Now, it’s all of us—if we choose to.
Facetune (a selfie editing app Vox describes as “a cheap, easy-to-use Photoshop alternative in the pocket of anyone with a smartphone, allowing them to smooth, slim, or skew any part of their face or body in an instant”) and its competitors bring the temptation for false-perfection into the hands of the less-than-famous.
I tried several popular Instagram filters to see how they’d change my face. I went from having no makeup on to having smooth skin, aggressively blue eyes, and tiny freckles. With another filter, I had long, black eyelashes; Kardashian-plump lips; and a thinner nose. One filter, less fake than the rest, simply washed out my features so I couldn’t see my under-eye circles. The illusion was good; it was probably the most eerie of them all.
Luckily, the body positivity movement hasn’t died, and there are plenty of videos around Instagram that show women with faces half in, half out of these filters, dispelling the illusion. They reveal that we really do all have pores and these filters create images of women who do not exist. The problem is that tons of us keep using them, and consuming imagery produced with them, anyway.
Instagram didn’t exist until 2010. Now, many of us are scrolling through it every day, flipping through thousands of photos and videos of seemingly normal but beautiful-looking people too quickly to evaluate how many filters have contributed to the final published look.
Nearly 50 percent of U.S. adults are using Instagram as of March 2020. And many of those users are ordinary women who’ve altered their photos. In a report surveying women in the United Kingdom, a researcher found that 90 percent “of women report using a filter or editing their photos before posting to even out their skin tone, reshape their jaw or nose, shave off weight, brighten or bronze their skin or whiten their teeth.”
As statistics show, many of us are not very happy with our bodies. And part of the reason is clear: We’re constantly being told that our bodies are not good enough; not just explicitly through plastic surgery advertisements and weight loss programs, but implicitly, through seas of beautiful women on Instagram who seem to live the same lives as we do—just looking prettier while doing it.
And while we can tell ourselves that Facetuned imagery is a lie, just like glossy, Photoshopped magazine spreads are a lie, it’s still hard at times to let that perception sink in. Maybe the answer is spending less time on social media, or encouraging women with big platforms to edit less. It will help to start getting real about the deception of Instagram filters, as many women have already done.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting photos to look good, but do we really want to contribute to a false reality that tells women time and time again that they’ll never be enough?
Every once in a while we need a reminder that our unfiltered bodies are perfect without the aid of photo-editing apps. It may not be easy to remember in the age of Instagram, but Regina Spektor summed it up pretty well when she sang, “I've got a perfect body / But sometimes I forget / I've got a perfect body / 'Cause my eyelashes catch my sweat.”