This piece was originally published on 20 March, 2019.
I have a question: Do we even know what real skin looks like anymore?
How can we be sure? For the most part all we're inundated with is a digital representation of plumped up lips, poreless skin and narrow noses, the so-called Instagram ideal of beauty.
By now, we all know Photoshop is not our friend and I'm not just talking about how difficult it is to use (why y'all gotta make it so complex?). Apps like FaceTune, Perfect 365, Beauty Plus and many, many more work because they make it easy for one to alter images with more precision than Instagram/Snapchat filters but less confusion than other professional photo-editing tools like Lightroom, Photoshop, etc.
Plus, they're right there on your phone.
Facetune's description on the App Store reads like this: "With Facetune you can now you be sure that your selfie shows only the best version of you - whether you’ll be using those portraits for your professional profile or simply sharing your selfie online with friends. In a world constantly becoming more visual, putting your best face forward has never been more important!"
Vanity got the best of me and I decided to give Facetune 2 and Perfect 365 a go to see if they live up to the hype. Ahead of Women's Day, now is a good as time as any to be talking about the psychological effects of a "digital facelift":
Down the rabbit hole I go
I put up a poll on a trusty all-female group on Facebook asking women if they use these apps and most of them answered that they don't, a few said sometimes and even fewer answered yes, all the time. Okay but celebrities do use these, right? Apparently not.
I reached out to three actors I knew, all flat-out denied it, saying the edited pictures on their grid are from shoots which have already been edited but they don't tweak them personally. One actress, who's pretty popular on such platforms said, "Maybe my social media manager uses it before posting on my account but I don't for sure."
My friend, Natalia* who's also an Instagram influencer (yep, that's a thing now) seems to think that's not exactly the truth: "The whole trick is to use it in a way that no one can tell you've used it and that's why you never have to admit to having used it. Duh!"
Basically don't be a beghairat who smooths out her skin to the point of no pores. EVERYONE HAS PORES PEOPLE, IT'S TOTALLY NORMAL AND AN ACCEPTABLE INSTA AESTHETIC.
Celebrity stylist and writer, Haiya Bokhari confirmed what my friend shared: "Most celebs I know, especially the ones who are very active and influential on social media will definitely use photo-editing apps to fine-tune the image before posting. The idea is make the photo look polished and to remove any blemishes or correct flaws."
I downloaded the app to see what exactly these things are capable of. Going into it I was a little scared of going overboard, having edited my photographs in the past, and this is strictly just messing around with the brightness/contrast, I know I have a tendency to be a little extra. Don't blame me, blame the colonisers that made us believe fair is lovely. I own my melanin now. I just wish my 16-year-old self knew that blown out Simpson yellow is not a good look for me. I had to show restraint.
I started off with just smoothing out the skin because like Regina George, I too have giant pores. And of course I had to remove that little blemish from my forehead.
Okay, not too bad.
I had to make my nose smaller alright? I just had to! I was surprised at how efficient these tools were and so precise; you can fix everything from the length, width, size, you name it, of your nose. Your eyes can be closer together or further apart. Your brows can be sharper, your lips can be enhanced. You can even put on makeup.
I'm shamelessly obsessed with blush so I added some of that.
I made people in the office try it, a couple of my friends, admittedly mostly regular average Joes and women in their late 20s. Most of them said that while they could see how this could be addictive, it isn't something they're going to religiously do.
One staffer said they'd use it sometimes: "I don't think I'd normally use it to change my features entirely because it would be fairly noticeable but maybe for dark circles."
"I'd do it for the novelty of it, like to change my hair colour drastically maybe," said Sonia... followed by: "I have entered a new world, what have you guys done to me? I’m never letting someone else take a picture of me again!”
I gotta say, this blurring tool is amazing. And just speaking from the technological point, this app is very slick and user-friendly. Still, I don't think I'm obsessed just yet. If I want smoother skin, I can just use primer and work with good lighting. It's nothing make-up can't already give you. Moderation is key here.
But even concealer can't hide bumps so if I'm having a bad skin day, I'm using that blemish brush. Why not? That's not a part of me, it's just a pesky visitor. Even dark circles I say are forgivable. I refuse to acknowledge mine as a part of me. Those can be concealed and I just need to get more sleep, shush.
Like another one of my guinea pigs after using the app shared: "The difference is so minimal that only I can tell the difference and somehow, it makes me feel better so what's the harm? I'm not deceiving people."
Teens and tweens may be the worst victims of photo-editing apps
Though not right off the bat, it soon hit me how these apps might affect teenagers differently than they affect me.
My social media presence started with Orkut, long before Instagram and I think at that time we weren't constantly being fed this narrative of not being pretty enough, or smart enough. We've always have been made to feel insecure by unrealistic beauty standards, be it on billboards or magazine covers but not to this extent.
I understand how it could be a dangerous tool for people who casually joke about getting a lip job or have wanted a nose job since they were young (it me).
Even then, I thought maybe it's harmless. What's wrong with people doing whatever they want to do to make themselves feel good right? It's better than opting for more invasive cosmetic procedures I thought. In fact, it's even better than makeup — no chemicals involved.
Haiya made this very valid point though, one that I've also been thinking about: "It is a reality of the world we live in and if you're confident enough to use filters to edit your photos then have the guts to own up to it as well. My issue with this social structure is that everyone knows that the life we cultivate online is fake but the insistence on portraying it as real is where the true mental break down begins."
On the other hand, you'd think that would be comforting, that everyone knows it's fake anyway so no one takes it seriously but clearly, that's not true. Instead, one starts to feel like an imposter, envious of their own digital life, sad that they in fact did not #WakeUpLikeThis.
Back in the day, "faking it" was frowned upon, now it's the norm. Everyone knows you're seeing the director's cut of someone's life on social media but it has become so common that people are somewhat applauded for keeping up the charade. It's like the WWE; you believed they were really fighting each other when you were young, found out it's not real yet continued watching it, in denial of the fact that it's trickery.
Experts have claimed that Instagram is the application that's possibly the worst for your mental health; studies have shown that social media use is directly linked to increased rates of depression, anxiety and sleep issues.
And whose to say it doesn't lead to a spike in plastic surgery? Vice did this piece about women choosing to go under the knife to look more like their Snapchat and Instagram filtered selves. Snapchat dysmorphia is an actual word.
Maleeha Jawaid, an aesthetic dermatologist explains, "The whole idea behind fillers, Botox etc isn’t just feeling good about yourself. It’s to look a certain way to measure up to the social media expectations. All the celebrities nowadays or influencers have gone under the knife and transformed themselves which puts pressure on non celebrity people to do the same. Or at least some of it."
"People do walk in with bizarre expectations. For example, acne scarring, they want to get rid of it ENTIRELY and have their skin look like it does on Snapchat with a filter on. I’ve had people show me pictures and say this is the skin I want or how can we get the Korean glass skin. It’s a difficult and frustrating job because you can’t live up to the patients expectations but they’ll have someone somewhere tell them they’ll do it for them if they got 8930303 million procedures done. So they’ll keep losing money in the process and also their self esteem. Some people also bring pictures of celebrity’s nose or brows and say they want those exactly."
We need some real representation online
A Canadian beauty blogger, Samantha Ravndahl's untouched picture showed up on the Explore section on Instagram recently which was so, so refreshing to see (especially since I had been dealing with a PMS-fuelled flair-up on my chin):
This was someone being responsible. Scrolling through her grid, I saw some evidently unedited pictures, some with the original picture in a slide along with the manipulated one so people who can already guess or assume that the picture's been edited can actually register it.
We all know that what we see on social media is filtered but sometimes, you need to be reminded. It really made me wish we saw more 'real people' pictures from Pakistani influencers and celebrities, especially since it's a double-edged sword in Pakistan; you not only have to fit the Instagram ideal of beauty but also societal expectations i.e gori, patli, you know the drill.
Mindful Missy is the brainchild and passion project of Meher Tareen, a former editor of Paperazzi; an online zine and Instagram account that vows to not retouch any images in their magazine (not even the cover) and focus on one's authentic self.
"I was going through an internal shift and realised that we spend so much time on social media but there is no platform for like-minded people who are sick of investing time and energy in portraying perfect lives, when in fact our lives are anything but perfect. I wanted to be real and discuss the real issues that plague our lives."
"I also got tired of being bombarded with heavily edited images, promoting an unrealistic and unattainable standard of beauty and wanted to create a platform that celebrates body positivity and diversity. I wanted to feature stories of inspirational real life heroes and tell the whole story including their struggles instead of glossing over them," she explains.
While Tareen wasn't exactly what I'd call a normie — she's a socialite whose attended fashion weeks, was an editor of a lifestyle magazine — she did agree that more and more regular people are using these apps now.
"Generation after generation of beautiful girls are falling victim to a society (and many industries) that profit by creating and maintaining our insecurities. Girls turn into women, who feel inadequate and go to great lengths to fit into the narrow definition of beauty. Often turning to painful procedures like plastic surgery. The result? Everyone looks the same. One clone after another, insecure about her looks and always seeking external validation to feel good. We need to teach young girls to be confident enough to celebrate what makes them unique instead of sheepishly blending in with the crowd," she shares.
"Even those of us who like the way we look, are repeatedly given the message that in order to be prettier we need to change ourselves, because we are not good enough the way we are."
Haiya adds, "The same mentality is seeping into mass consciousness and you see young girls and even adult women succumb to editing their photos because of the unhealthy pressure of looking young, flawless, poreless and effortless...which, frankly, no one is."
For now, I think I'll just stick to using my brother's Samsung for selfies (that camera does the work for you!), I won't lie, I see the appeal. I soon discovered these apps are a slippery slope: they could give your confidence the boost it needs or take a toll on you in ways you didn't expect.
All's not lost though. Now here's the good thing about social media — you can tailor your feed for more diversity so you're no longer scrolling through a feed where everyone looks like each other. You are in charge and you can choose to hit that unfollow button.