By ChiChi Okigbo, Clinical Inter at The Naderi Center for Plastic Surgery and Dermatology
Back in 2014, I embarked on an annual family vacation to the island of Bahamas. As a family, we were exposed to all the alluring attractions the country had to offer, including zip lining through palm trees, relaxing on white sandy beaches with clear blue water, and exploring the mainland where the natives live. While exploring the village, I asked my mother to take a picture of me while holding a T-Shirt she got me from a nearby shop, but as I viewed the photo she photographed, I noticed that something seemed peculiar. My entire body was 10x lighter in shade in the photo than what it was in real life.
“Mom, what did you do with the photo?” I asked her in confusion.
“I took the photo using my beauty camera filter app. Don’t you look amazing!” she exclaimed. I thought I looked amazing before…
The introduction of filters added onto digital content started off as an innocent way to initiate more fun and personality to the everyday photographs. Snapchat, a social media networking app, was one of the first apps to partake in this, launching child-like filters including the infamous dog and halo filters in January of 2015. Adding these light-hearted and enjoyable filters into the nature of the app instituted the platform’s growth, allowing them to amass over 75 million users by the end of that month (Routley). The rise in popularity of Snapchat filters influenced competing apps, like Instagram, to imitate them and release versions that resonate with the app’s purpose and main goals. As Snapchat built their platform using photographs and videos to update loved ones about current events happening in one’s life, Instagram became a social media application built on the idea of showcasing perfection to the public. As a result of the core messaging implied, the social networking app launched their version of Snapchat stories in 2017, but instead of including innocent stickers similar to their competition, they added beauty filters to their program, which further reinforces the idea of displaying unrealistic superiority for hundreds to see. Instagram beauty filters allow alterations to one’s natural facial features, making one’s eyes and lips bigger or adjusting one’s nose to look smaller; all traits which mirror Westernized beauty standards. The mimicking of European beauty standards exhibited in social media beauty filters can create problematic self-esteem issues for people of color who do not exhibit those facial features naturally.
Over time, beauty filters have evolved to become more discreet, with most not even knowing a filter was put in place to begin with. The worldwide launch of social media beauty filters has popularized more extreme ways of photo-editing, including the use of Adobe Photoshop and Facetune. These subtle facial adjustments made by beauty filters can lead young impressionable audiences to toxically compare themselves to others online and chase unattainable beauty standards. Because beauty filters alter facial features in more subtle ways rather than drastically, many people turn to plastic surgery in order to achieve the results they may see in their filtered photos.
According to the 2021 annual survey results from the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, “79 percent of facial plastic surgeons identify patients seeking procedures for an improved appearance on video conferencing. The now culturally ingrained desire to look better in selfies (aka ‘selfie awareness’ as coined by the AAFPRS) continues to trend up, with 77 percent of members, reporting this as a driving factor for patients – up 35 percent overall since the AAFPRS first identified this trend in 2016” (Kugler). When attending a consultation appointment with plastic surgery specialist, often, beauty filtered photos have been used as a “reference” photo for the plastic surgeon to imitate. Patients who practice such flawed surgery preparation fail to comprehend the limitations of quality plastic surgery, ignoring the fact that the alterations done to one’s face by a beauty filter are not attainable results. Several factors go into creating realistic aesthetic work, depending on the age, race, skin thickness, and the overall health of the patient. This type of information is neglected by patients because of the difficulty in understanding that some changes, even if they appear more subtle, are not always feasible. The lack of knowledge about realistic surgery expectations is a major reason why some patients may be unhappy with the plastic surgery results, which can socially and financially hurt a plastic surgery office as well as discourage future plastic surgery patients from receiving the treatment they desire. Too easily is the term “botched” thrown around when plastic surgery results do not fit with one’s expectations, but a well-informed patient would already be aware of realistic results from the beginning, making them less likely to be disappointed by plastic surgery results in the end. Uninformed individuals continuing to undergo cosmetic procedures contribute to the negative stigma behind plastic surgery as a whole, which triggers feelings of shamefulness within current plastic surgery patients.
Unlike uninformed individuals, educated patients embrace such changes and share their positive experiences with others. Karla Barbosa, a wealthy executive with over 31,000 followers on social media, broadcasted that she recently underwent a gold micro infusion facial which minimizes the appearance of pores, creating the illusion of airbrushed skin (Kelly). “It’s like a real-life filter for your face,” she captioned the clip. “Seriously. GLASS SKIN.” As Barbosa explained to CNN Business, “If you want to tweak a photo a bit more to feel a bit more confident … or get a facial or botox filler to make you feel more confident … that’s up to the person and how they feel” (Kelly).
While others see changing their appearance as empowering, others see it as problematic. Dr. Kamleshun Ramphu spoke to CNN Business and expressed concern about the underlying issues that may direct someone into believing they need plastic surgery in the first place. Dr. Ramphu states “Do teenagers know that these filters don’t reflect changes they need and do these filters make them feel ‘ugly’ and ‘ashamed’ of their current appearance? We need more research to answer these questions” (Kelly). With Dr. Kamphu’s logic in mind, social media platforms have been taking steps to eliminate the discretion around filters by adding captions that note whether a filter has been placed onto a photo, ensuring that the audience knows the truth behind the photos they may be witnessing. Through promoting the truth, people will be able to clearly decide whether plastic surgery is right for them.
Kelly, Samantha Murphy. “Plastic Surgery Inspired by Filters and Photo Editing Apps Isn’t Going Away.” CNN, Cable News Network, 10 Feb. 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/08/tech/snapchat-dysmorphia-plastic-surgery/index.html.
Kugler, Thomas. “American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Inc..” American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 10 Feb. 2022, https://www.aafprs.org/Media/Press_Releases/2021 Survey Results.aspx.
Routley, Nick. “Timeline: Looking Back at 10 Years of Snapchat.” Visual Capitalist, 19 July 2021, https://www.visualcapitalist.com/timeline-looking-back-at-10-years-of-snapchat/.