AR-based Instagram filters setting new beauty standards

Technologies are becoming an active part of our life, more than we can imagine. Late Millennials and Generation Z have always lived surrounded by technology, always at the center of continuous advancements. This process has gone further than we can actually objectively perceive and what was before considered as sophisticated software is now part of daily life. From virtual reality to intricate algorithms scanning our needs, these systems are all around us. 

The virtual place in which different technologies are extensively deployed is definitely social media. Social media, especially during the pandemic, are the new “place” where conviviality takes place, where public debate expresses itself and where new trends come up. Their role and influence on us is more pervasive than we might expect.

Social media as new reality

As social media are often considered “places” to spend your leisure time in, little attention is paid on the subtle impact they have on us. Nonetheless, their use has become a central part of everyday life, bringing people to find themselves having a fully alternative life on those platforms. Indeed, a significant increase in social media usage has been registered in 2020, with a 13,8% growth rate for Tiktok and 1,3% for Instagram. This trend has been foreseen to keep growing also in 2021, to then remain more steady, Statista reports. The virtual world allows users to present themselves as they prefer, showing only the best side of themselves and of their lives. This has more consequences than we might imagine, leaving scars that go well beyond virtual life. 

As every other social media feature, filters also started off as a game, as a way to entertain users, to engage them and to keep them on the platform. These filters rely on a more complicated technology than we might expect: augmented reality.

What is Augmented Reality?

Augmented reality is a system that enhances the real world by superimposing computer-generated information on top of it. It can be thought of as a variation to virtual reality, which is instead a purely synthesized informational environment. On the contrary, augmented reality starts from the information available in the real world to build a new set of information on top of it. 

These two technologies fall in the realm of Extended Reality. These systems have become the center of the technological advancement of the last few years and one of the most popular social media features used during the Pandemic. Nation-wide lockdowns forced people to remain in their homes, which became the place where all the lived experiences took place. From travelling to shopping, everything has moved inside, and Extended Reality systems made this possible. These systems continue to dominate  customer experiences and trends, from virtual tours in Museums to virtual try-ons. 

AR in Social Media

In social media, augmented reality has been introduced to create funny filters and games that could please users and increase engagement. Although they started off as bunny or dog ears, weird eyes, facial transformation or cartoonish distortions, they are now widely used to improve one’s facial appearance.
It is now a common practice for users or influencers to use Instagram or Snapchat filters to have a brighter skin, smaller nose or more defined jawline. These filters rely on the same principle of augmented reality, they start from one’s facial features and either exaggerate them or add other features. In this sense, these filters represent more than a leisure activity, leading experts to be quite concerned. Despite many of the filters starting off as absurd and grotesque facial modifications, they are now becoming more realistic. I believe they are often inspired by real people, whose face is the result of years of plastic surgery like Kim Kardashian or Kylie Jenner.
This practice would not be worrying, if it did not have  such a pervasive use. It has been noticed that for each filter, on average 30% of viewers saves and uses it, which explains how fast they spread.  

@jhonyaugust via Instagram

How filters impact our perception of beauty

These filters are now setting higher perfection standards and opening up a new chapter of body dysmorphia, experts say. Often these virtual facial transformations present unrealistic elements that set a new level of perfection, that neither those VIPs that inspired those filters can reach. 

As a demonstration, plastic surgeons are registering a strong increase in patients showing them one’s own picture with a filter on, asking to replicate that appearance. While before people used to go to surgeons showing off a picture of a model or their favorite actress, now they are presenting themselves as a source of inspiration. Even though it might appear healthier, this is an even more negative practice. Some might argue that through these filters, they are not doing big transformations but improving their facial appearance. Others instead insist on saying that they are indeed imposing a beauty standard that does not match reality.  Using filters as inspiration, implies having standards that are not naturally achievable, since created through augmented reality. This specific element is what is worrying many experts, since it might be a new source of psychological problems, increasing the sense of inadequacy. This tendency has been often considered a whitewashed idea of what is normal and what is beautiful. In this sense, those filters promote an eurocentric beauty standard, excluding minorities whose features might be perceived as categories needing to be altered.

@fayedickinsonx via Instagram

These filters can basically make your skin change completely. From whitening your skin, to thinning your nose and eliminating your dark circles, filters promote the false myth that this is what normal skin looks like. In this sense, they manage to inculcate the perception that  non-filtered pictures are worse and less pleasant, changing the way you perceive your appearance. 

Social media filters impact plastic and cosmetic surgery

In addition, the world of beauty is changing with the changes in needs and perceptions. Indeed, as a consequence of these new standards, people do not want their plastic intervention to be too obvious or evident. In this sense, board-certified plastic surgeon David Shafer, when interviewed by Allure, has noticed that its patients are looking for a more natural change and look. In addition, the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS)’s annual survey, showed that four-fifths of all treatments performed by facial plastic surgeons in 2018 were cosmetic, non-surgical procedures. This shows a switch in preferences, that go towards simpler procedures with lower invasiveness.

This is consistent with a strong trend called “Tweak-ment”, for which “people want to look more like their own filtered photos or a Photoshop version of themselves. And recently, people are preferring the tiny little micro-optimizations that make them feel a little bit more confident but are not completely obvious.”, says Doctor Shafer to Allure.

Patients want to reach the perfection standards that Instagram and Snapchat filters are inculcating. In addition, despite being usually perceived as a feminine practice, it is actually becoming widely done by males too. Indeed, Lara Devgan, a board-certified plastic surgeon in New York City, says 15% of her patients are male and the percentage is increasing annually. 

To conclude, it is important to shed light on the consequences of our social media use, so to acquire awareness. The use of social media has many benefits: connecting with people far away, creating bonds, sharing ideas, creativity and knowledge and also experiencing fun leisure activities. But we should be also aware of the implications of social media use and abuse. Do we manage to maintain a certain safety distance? Are we aware of the backlashes? Can we use them with the right balance? These are all questions that we need to ask ourselves so as to take the best out of these platforms, avoiding falling into unhealthy and unrealistic standards. Instagram and Snapchat filters are introducing an unreachable beauty standard, bringing a new dangerous cause of body dysmorphia to the table. In this sense, it is important to maintain awareness of what is real and what has been fictionally created through Extended Reality systems. 

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