When apps like Instagram first released photo editing filters in 2011, they seemed relatively harmless. Boost the vibrancy in a sunset photo. Neutralize some unnatural lighting. Create a sense of drama. Tap into a retro vibe. But soon, the platform was saturated with heavily edited photos. Hashtags like #nofilterneeded and #nofilternecessary popped up as reminder that life is beautiful exactly as documented and experienced.
Fast forward a decade. Now, Instagram photo filters are the tip of the iceberg in altering imagery for the sake of perception. What once began as a seemingly simple means of adding an artistic touch to a photo has transformed to a pervasive, often invisible norm. Filtering and editing features take the filters to a new extreme. Beyond changing the hue of your photos, you can change, well, everything. Rather look like a puppy than a human? No problem. Missing a flower in your hair? Here you go. Forgot to douse yourself in glitter before leaving the house? Poof, you’re all set.
No doubt, some of these options are fun, silly and irreverent. But many are geared toward a more harmful purpose: editing the face to look more “beautiful” through the lens of social media. Apps now offer the ability to alter every aspect of a face – enlarge eyes, smooth skin, change skin color, minimize the nose, modify ears, eradicate pores… yes, even pores don’t stand a chance against a “pretty” Snapchat filter.
As the options for modifying our faces on social media have grown, so have the ill effects of those options. With the rise of facial editing apps, cosmetic surgeons saw an increase in requests for facial modifications. In 2015, cosmetic surgeons reported 42% of their clients seeking modifications to “improve” their appearance in selfies. By 2017 alone, that number rose to 55%. Cosmetic surgeons are also seeing younger and younger patients who seek to alter their appearances. It is heartbreaking to consider that teenagers are now seeking out cosmetic surgeons to look more like a filtered selfie.
Zooming out beyond the selfie, now social media apps offer the ability to edit the entire body. TikTok’s latest feature is a body editing app, which allows for the ability to change one’s physical shape, add muscles, add curves, and essentially mold the body into whatever form most suits the social media landscape. The dangers of this feature cannot be overstated.
The eating disorder treatment and recovery community has long understood the harmful impact of unrealistic beauty standards for those struggling with issues related to body image and food. Photoshopped models on magazine covers regularly cultivate an impossible standard of thinness, gazing out from every newspaper stand. In and of themselves, these magazine covers can be extremely triggering for those who are working toward loving and honoring their bodies as they are. Eating disorder treatment and recovery advocates have lobbied against these advertising practices for many years, pushing for greater truth in advertising and for transparency on the use of Photoshop.
Now, the power to alter the face and body lies not just in the hands of an expert Photoshop user – it lies in the hands of hundreds of millions of social media users. As these falsified bodies proliferate our social media feeds, the universe of triggers grows. For those who are seeking to cultivate or sustain recovery from an eating disorder, these images can detract from or shake a hard-earned commitment to body positivity and self-love.
The path to an eating disorder diagnosis, the journey through eating disorder treatment, and the commitment to eating disorder recovery are hard enough. At Reasons, we witness our patients taking these brave, challenging steps each and every day. We stand beside them in their struggles, their doubts, their pain, their realizations, their healing, their victories and every moment in between. So, it comes as no surprise that, when we witness the proliferation of new body editing features in social media, we feel compelled to speak out.
Enough is enough. Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and every social media app owe it to users to flip the script. Features that promote unrealistic standards of so-called beauty create nothing beautiful. They create angst. They foster low self-esteem. They sow seeds of self-doubt. They dredge up insecurities. They promote false narratives. They glorify the unhealthy and impossible. They contribute to an ever-expanding epidemic of depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia and eating disorders. Need we say more? We could go on.
It’s time for social media apps to take accountability for how their features negatively impact the real-world-lives of humans. Despite what TikTok or Snapchat may lead the eye to belief, bodies are real and they are beautiful exactly as they are. No edit necessary.