Reality, or at least our perception of it, has come under pressure over recent years. To live up to the expectations that our filtered culture has learnt to value is becoming increasingly difficult. What does it mean to be beautiful? Does Photoshop and social media distort our impression of the reality written on our faces? Or was our reality distorted to begin with?
The pursuit of perfection:
In a recent article by The Guardian, cosmetic doctor Tijion Esho discusses the widespread effects of social media editing and Photoshop. In the piece, Esho looks in particular at our fixation with external appearance. He considers how the journey to the perfect self has experienced a dramatic shift in recent years, coining the term ‘Snapchat Dysmorphia’. He describes the startling impact of filters to digitally enhance our appearance:
‘While some used their selfies – typically edited with Snapchat or the airbrushing app Facetune – as a guide, others would say, “‘I want to actually look like this.” With the large eyes and the pixel-perfect skin – and that’s an unrealistic, unattainable thing.’ Tijion Esho
What is interesting about this shift, is the blurring of boundaries between our digital and physical selves. Previously, before the widespread use of social media, many cosmetic clients would bring in photographs of celebrities and models to get the perfect nose or jawline. However, our love of filters appears to have moved the goalposts of perfection much nearer to home. Esho explains that:
‘Once, where patients had [previously] brought in pictures of celebrities with their ideal nose or jaw, they were now pointing to photos of themselves.’ Tijion Esho
Comparing ourselves to …ourselves?
Don’t compare yourself to others. A phrase we are no doubt all familiar with. Easy enough to say, but no doubt more difficult to execute in reality. So how does this work when the comparison suddenly transforms to a flawless-skinned, chiselled-jawed, plump-lipped version of yourself? We are no longer comparing ourselves to a living, breathing ideal. Instead, what we experience is a digitised airbrushed translation. Moving in real-time and effortlessly captured through the modest translator of a Snapchat filter. The goal lingers tantalisingly close. Your ‘perfect self’ is no longer unattainable. No need for invasive surgery or hours at the gym. It is instant. It is available to share instantly.
Here lies the difficulty. This ‘other’ has become the ‘self.’ Now, we are not only looking to celebrities to shape our expectations of beauty, but we have turned the lens round to our own faces. Like Wilde’s Dorian Gray: we are intoxicated. The glamour of celebrity culture has intensified. Facilitated by increasingly accessible round-the-clock digital platforms. Our exposure to images of the ‘ideal’ self are constant. They hide in the palm of our hands.
What do we percieve?
Seeing both ourselves and the world around us through a lens is no new phenomenon. Whether literally through a camera, or metaphorically as a mode of perception: we see the world through numerous lenses. We always have done. The framework through which we see the world is shaped by the conventions by which we live. Ultimately, we see what we expect to see. Taught what to see and how to see it through the social conventions of modern life. Bigger eyes. To see more or to be seen? Plumper lips. All the better for speaking with? These conventions, whether we willingly or consciously play into them or not, shape the systems of what we come to expect: both of ourselves and others.
Images of faces dominate our cultural landscape. We see celebrities through the rosy-tinted glass of an iPhone screen, through a golden haze of Instagram filters and good angles. What’s a bad angle? Acute or obtuse? Cute or obscene? Magazine covers offer a snapshot of perfection. The ‘natural’ makeup look. Do we laugh at the irony of these paradoxes, or are we numbed to the unrelenting miasma of what it means to be beautiful? Does beauty have a meaning? Or is it merely another set of conventions through which we frame our standards and expectations?
To even attempt to unpick the mechanisms of aesthetic perception, we must consider what exactly the ‘reality’ is that these filters are manipulating. Is this ‘reality’ the authentic ‘true-to-yourself’ version of you that we are so often being told to ‘love’ and ‘embrace’ like some infirm relative? What sort of ‘authentic’ self are we trying to get at by avoiding the culture of self-improvement via cosmetic procedure, makeup, and filters? It’s a difficult and complex issue. Whether in the neat A4 sheet of a glossy magazine, or the pixels of a phone screen; these images too, represent a form of reality. A reality in which these images are given space, power and authority to set the bar.
Responsibility and ethics:
Recent statistics from Statista Global Analytics report that 64% of Instagram users are aged between 18-34. The demographic of social media usage is clearly dominated by millennials and young people. These figures reveal that young people are significantly more likely to be both influenced and simultaneously desensitised by the culture of photo editing.
The International Communication Association held a recent conference discussing the effects of Instagram filter usage. The talks focussed in particular on young women’s body image and self-perception. They found that social media platforms themselves actively encourage photo editing.
‘Numerous features on the platform promote photograph editing. For example, the platform automatically presents filter choices when a user begins the process of uploading a photograph or video.’ International Communication Association, 2019
These findings highlight that we are actually prompted to edit a photo before sharing it. A user of Instagram myself, I wasn’t even actively conscious of this. It has simply metamorphosed into another stage of the social media experience. This is just another way in which we present ourselves, even at a subconscious level.
This assumption that a photo will inevitably be edited is perpetuated through the platforms we use. These kinds of apps are therefore both a reflection and product of the society in which they have been created.
Body image and self esteem: The consequences
The effects of social media and its impacts on self-esteem has long been of interest to researchers. This case looked at our reliance on digital media and its relationship to public health. The report in the US medical journal JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery suggested that:
‘This kind of exposure to constantly filtered images blur[s] the line [between] reality and fantasy and as a consequence, could be triggering body dysmorphic disorder. This mental health condition results in its sufferers becoming increasingly fixated on imagined defects in their appearance.’JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery
It is clear that intense levels of self-scrutiny are immensely damaging to our health. Crucially, however, these are very often ‘imagined defects.’
This notion of reality, it seems, is just another case of perception. What one person perceives to be the obvious reality, can only be imagined by another.
Do you see what I see?
Ultimately, the question of whether filters and photo editing software manipulate our perception of reality is a complex one. They certainly change what we see, and even how we see it. But ultimately, what they offer is nothing more than a different version of reality. Is this a bad thing? This depends on our relationship to both this new image of reality, but also our relationship to ourselves. To acknowledge this sense of the self as a digital translation.
This raises an interesting question. By interacting with this culture of photo-enhancing, are we playing into the conventions of potentially harmful self-obsession? Or can we redefine this interest in the enhancement of colour, shape, and form as an artistic mode of perception? The way we see and how we are perceived has never been more prevalent in our lives. The rise of digital media has no doubt exacerbated this. So, perhaps the most important thing is not what we see, but how we perceive it.
For more information on body dysmorphia, visit the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation at: bddfoundation.org