The ugly side of filtered beauty: Unreal standards set by social media
Despite digital filters on social media setting impossible beauty standards and encouraging plastic surgery, avant-garde algorithms continue to dictate the idea of ‘perfect’ beauty.
Behind her sun-kissed complexion, chiselled face, wide cheekbones, pulled-back ears, full lips and the ideal canthal tilt, is a lie. The only filter through which Delhi-based, up-and-coming Instagram influencer Prapti Nagpal (name changed) sees herself is perfection. Without it, “she cannot recognise herself” sat times. Nagpal’s desire represents the gargantuan demand for reality-skewing beauty augmentation tools on social media.
The future is ‘algorithmic beauty’, where avant-garde codes dictate the idea of flawless allure; something the ‘Instagram face’ phenomenon has already benchmarked—a socially accepted template with airbrushed skin, arched eyebrows, wispy lashes and pouty lips, all made possible by an array of filters.
The digital beauty culture is arguably the most transformative, yet threatening. The Artificial Intelligence (AI)-dominated future of beauty is prompting apps and platforms to leapfrog towards innovation, making the Kardashian-esque aesthetic—complete with facial features such as a frozen forehead, pinned ears, pulled-up cheeks, plump lips and a sculpted jawline—not only achievable, but also driving the development of sophisticated infrastructure to meet the growing demand for surgically transformed personalities.
Unlike earlier, the inspiration does not lie in model faces spread across glossies, but in one’s phone. “The selfie is the muse,” says Gurugram-based aesthetician Dr Rohan Dhawan. “People, mostly aged between 25 and 40, come with dramatically altered photos of themselves created by using dimorphic effects. Sometimes, these people look nothing like the photos they’re holding of themselves,” he says.
The quest for perfection turns deadly when young girls insist on cosmetic encasements, even when
it’s medically devastating.
“Last year, a 17-year-old aspiring model walked into our clinic, desperate to repair her Pollybeak deformity and pixie ears that were a result of previous plastic surgeries gone wrong. Another one came in a few months ago with a nasal valve collapse as a result of a failed rhinoplasty. During counselling, both showed heavily edited, almost morphed, versions of themselves, created using a paid face filter, that offered greater distortions than unpaid ones,” says Dhawan.
Research backs this. According to the annual survey by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 2020, 72 percent of its members reported patients seeking cosmetic procedures to look better for their selfies in 2019, up 15 percent from the previous year.
The pandemic paradox
The lockdowns made the situation worse, as plenty of recovery time at home and the ability to hide evidence of cosmetic surgeries gave a boost to them. Delhi-based plastic surgeon Dr Rajat Gupta saw a 200 percent rise in patients consulting him during the lockdown. “The increased necessity to show up online for work led to the ‘Zoom effect’. It made people critical of their facial features. The dissatisfaction encouraged many to go under the knife,” says Noida-based psychologist
Dr Prapti Sharma.
The need to compare one’s photos with others has also led to self-deprecating behaviour and social media anxiety disorder. To live up to a likeable standard, filters are an ever-available tool. “This creates a sort of identity crisis, wherein the disconnect between the real and virtual alters your sense of self. Therefore, people with an impractical idée fixe are more likely to go for cosmetic fixes or augmentation,” says Dr Sharma.
The environment of comparison invites self-esteem issues, anxiety, headaches, muscle tension, tremors, loneliness, even self-harm. “Social media is reinforcing in nature.
It activates the brain’s reward centre by releasing dopamine, a chemical associated with the feeling of pleasure or ‘reward’, every time validation-seeking behaviour is met with a favourable response. The goalpost of desirability keeps shifting. You are never good enough. Something always needs to be fixed,” says Dr Sharma.
Though popular social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat do not make their data on filters available to the public, popular filters have users possibly in millions. “The more distorted the effect, the better,” says Mumbai-based independent AR filter creator, Ruchi Sridhar. Over the years, she has been asked to include more deformation effects—those that alter the shape of the face dramatically—in the filters she creates.
“What started as gimmicky fun with bunny ears and puppy nose on Instagram and Snapchat has today spiralled into the growth of a multi-million dollar industry serving virtual perfection,” says Sridhar, pointing to the astounding virality of deformation filter ‘Golden Hair’, which was used close to 300 million times, while a similar filter without deformation 7.2 million times.
Talking of hair, as of January 2021, the most popular form of cosmetic surgery in India, according to search volume data, was hair transplants with over 30,000 results per month, whereas Botox was at 11,000. In an article by Dr Nikhil Mehta, Consultant, Plastic and Cosmetic Surgery, Max Hospital, Gurugram, published in 2022, selfies and social media were two of the biggest contributors.
It’s a gendered thing
Claire Pescott, a researcher at the University of South Wales, UK, who studies the behaviour of preteens on social media, observed through her 2020 study published in Sage Journals, titled, ‘I Wish I was Wearing a Filter Right Now’: An Exploration of Identity Formation and Subjectivity of 10-and-11-Year Olds’ Social Media Use’, that girls use filters to enhance their appearance, while boys use them just for fun.
The girls spoke about using filters for contouring, plumping up cheekbones, and achieving flawless skin. One child remarked, “I wish I was wearing a filter right now.” That right there is an unfiltered, dangerous reality, indeed.