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Filtered Reality: Social Media & The Beauty Industry

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Growing up in the 2000s meant you were inundated with headlines telling you how to look slimmer, hide your body and natural features, and change yourself to be more “desirable.” In the early social media days, Snapchat filters were fun, designed by users, and you could easily tell when they were being used. However, by the time FaceTune was released in 2013, the goal of filters and editing apps being pushed by malevolent companies was no longer to use technology for fun, but to alter reality. The expectation to meet ideal beauty standards went from an unachievable goal to an accessible (digital) “reality” for anyone with $4 in the AppStore. 

An Altered Reality

With new photo editing apps that could smooth skin, whiten teeth, and cinch waists at the click of a button, individuals–and companies–could easily create a different, digital “reality”, without viewers knowing. Increasingly, companies began using this technology to change people’s bodies–without their consent. Dozens of celebrities have come forward over the last decade to accuse photographers, magazines, brands, and other companies of publishing significantly altered photos, even when they explicitly asked for the photos to be unedited. This isn’t just the case for celebrities, though. In 2015, a viral Reddit post detailed how a yearbook photo company had significantly edited senior photos for an all-girls high school, with some even claiming that their face structure had been altered in the photos. As technology has advanced, the problem has only gotten worse. TikTok has received widespread backlash for a variety of filters that look so real you can’t even tell when they are being used, a problem that is exacerbated by the fact that they started adding “beauty” filters to videos automatically without telling users in 2021. 

Destroying Young People’s Self-Image

This has had devastating consequences for young people’s body image and mental health. The Dove Self-Esteem project found in 2020 that 85% of girls in the UK downloaded a filter or used an app to change how they look in photos by age 13. According to the Harvard Business Review, “virtually modifying appearance can provoke anxiety, body dysmorphia, and sometimes even motivate people to seek cosmetic surgery.” They found significant risks associated with the use of Augmented Reality (AR) tools, which lead to a phenomenon they call the “augmented self” – a self-image that has been influenced by AR. The further one’s initial sense of self is from this augmented self, the worse the consequences are for users’ self-esteem, with those with higher levels of confidence experiencing the most devastating effects. AR tools have devastating consequences for users, so how did we get here?

Low Self-Esteem is Lucrative

The beauty industry is highly profitable, extending far beyond cosmetics into dieting and supplements, apparel, plastic surgery, and now, social media giants. Each of these industries are profiting massively off of making people feel ugly, and benefit greatly from exacerbating people’s insecurities. The new players in the game, social media and photo editing companies, must not be underestimated. FaceTune raked in over $80 million in just the last year, and TikTok, over the same period, made $25 billion in profits. In the face of this, an NIH study found that a quarter of people experiencing body dysmorphic disorder have attempted suicide. 

The un-reality promoted by these apps not only recalibrate what is considered desirable, but reinforce sexist and racist Western beauty standards that generate billions in profits for the 1%. These parasitic mega-corporations will never willingly give up their biggest money-maker: body insecurity. In order to prevent any further damage to mental health, social media companies should be run by workers, with genuine input by users. There is a lot that is positive about the technology behind these apps, and they allow young people to express themselves and hone new creative skills. But right now, these technologies are being used to destroy our self esteem for profit. Taking social media companies into democratic public ownership by workers and users would not only pay for itself, as many, such as Facebook’s parent company, Meta, have made the Fortune 500, but would put a halt to the literally unrealistic standards that a profit motive under capitalism incentivizes. 

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