By Karen Espig

I don’t know about you, but I find it disturbing looking at many of my friends’ “improved selfies” on social media. So much so that I have adjusted notifications to avoid viewing them. 

It started out innocently enough—cat ears and whiskers, a funny hat—but some have permanently adopted the oversized eyes, full lips and air-brushed complexions. It causes me to worry about them; it makes me sad. Beauty is a broad spectrum, and these filters and unrealistic distortions narrow that spectrum into something I don’t even recognise. 

Altered photos are not new. We have been subjected to them via television, print, and now, digital media for our entire lifetime. What is new is that the software is no longer in the domain of corporations and advertising agencies. It is literally in our own hands via the smartphone. The upside to this is, of course, that we control it.

So what is the payoff, and what is the cost of this ability to alter our image so easily?

What’s The Payoff? 

Validation: A curated and perfected photo will yield more likes and positive comments, creating social interaction. There is instant gratification and a feel-good moment when the image is posted, and the “love” starts flowing in. 

The positive attention feels fantastic, releasing dopamine (the happy hormone!), so the poster keeps on posting similar images of themselves. The thirst for approval can become relentless. 

Money: If you are popular enough, TikTok, Instagram and YouTube all have ways you can earn from your “look”. If you have appealing, modified images, you can increase your followers and community engagement, metrics that are key to swinging the algorithms in your favour and helping the dollars roll in. 

What Are The Real Costs? 

Decreased Self-Esteem: Wait, what? How does everyone telling me how fabulous I look decrease self-esteem? 

Well, all the positive feedback is based on an image that does not look like the real you, and deep down, you know it. So, really what it ends up doing is making you feel like the real you is not good enough or attractive enough, while the filtered you becomes the star. 

There is also a little something called the Mere Exposure Effect. Basically, the more we are exposed to something, the more familiar it becomes, and the more we like it. When you repeatedly look at the altered photos of yourself, you begin to think this is what you look like. Then boom! A quick visit to the mirror, someone sharing an unfiltered candid photograph of you or sitting in on a Zoom session shows you a different story. 

Increased Interest In Plastic Surgery:  In a peer-reviewed study in Science Direct by Megan A.Vendemia and David C.DeAndrea, it is suggested that the use of modified selfies (regardless of the nature of the modification) decreases personal appearance satisfaction and increases the desire for cosmetic surgery. 

In fact, in 2021, The American Association for Facial and Plastic Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS) found that 75% of facial cosmetic surgeons saw patients who wanted to look better in selfies. They first noticed this trend of wanting a “real-life filtered look” in 2016, but during 2020, it increased by 33%!

Dr Tijon Esho coined the term “Snapchat Dysmorphia” in 2018 for individuals wishing to alter their appearance to match their modified/filter image. 

Mental Health Issues: A report by The American Psychological Association found that social media such as TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube have increasingly been linked to anxiety, depressive symptoms, and body image issues in today’s youth. Adults are at a somewhat lower risk as they generally have an already established sense of self. 

What Can We Do? 

We can all start by examining the image of ourselves we put out to the world—real and virtual. I think we often underestimate the effect individual actions have on those around us. When it comes to that selfie or profile picture, if you just are not ready or willing to put the unfiltered you up for all to admire (or, unfortunately, judge), perhaps consider an alternative photo? Maybe choose something important to you or your favourite pastime? 

Try to engage more with followers with more than a skin-deep interest in you and remove accounts that are not encouraging body positivity.

Social media technologies have evolved thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, and usage has dramatically increased, bringing even more image pressure.  

There are many resources for parents and individuals via The Dove Self-Esteem Project, which aims to redefine beauty, bringing it back to a real and relatable standard. The US Surgeon General has this helpful guide to youth mental health strategies.

Social media is here to stay, but we can all change how we use it. I believe we have the same responsibility on social media as in the real world to be kind, honest, do our best, and maybe even make a difference.