How Beauty Filters Are Rewiring Our Brains

With the reigns of Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram, it’s never been so easy to filter, contour, smooth and shape our selfies into something completely different from the raw material. But social media doesn’t just influence the way we look online. It may be permanently rewiring our brains to alter what we think we look like in real life – and messing with our body images in deep ways. What’s being called Selfie Dysmorphia, Social Media Dysmorphia, or Snapchat Dysmorphia, is leading people to sometimes get extreme surgeries on their faces to resemble something that’s not actually naturally occurring.


Social media doesn’t just influence the way we look online. It may be permanently rewiring our brains to alter what we think we look like in real life – and messing with our body images in deep ways.

We are now two decades into the age of social media, but with the reigns of snapchat, tiktok and instagram, it’s never been so easy to filter, contour, smooth and shape our selfies into something completely different from the raw material. Devices now come with a “beauty mode” automatically added to the camera, regularly pushing us to stare at a supposedly better version of ourselves.

Clarissa: This is what I actually look like. Your girl just got outta bed, ok, so watch out on those dating apps. - @bitemevancouver/TikTok

So what happens when we then look in the mirror and see ourselves unfiltered? Those smoothing effects of social media filters – combined with dopamine hits from likes and shares – are a perfect cocktail to make us feel pretty bad about ourselves when we log off.

What’s being called Selfie Dysmorphia, Social Media Dysmorphia, or Snapchat Dysmorphia, is leading people to sometimes get extreme surgeries on their faces to resemble something that’s not actually naturally occurring. Here’s our take on the problem with trying to chase a look that literally doesn’t exist.

Filters used to be kinda playful — dog ears, sunglasses, maybe a chance to see what you’d look like with a mustache. Now, they’re so transformative it’s akin to seeing what you might look like after a cosmetic procedure — or what you hope to look like after one.

One of these filters that’s evoked intense reactions is TikTok’s “teenage filter”. According to plastic surgeon Dr. Dominic Castellano, the filter removes shadow lines, boosts facial volume, and creates an even skin tone to give a much more youthful appearance. But it’s an idealized, artificial version of youth, applying a one-size-fits-all template.

Tess Holliday: Why does this make me sad and creep me out? - @tessholliday/TikTok

The filter, coupled with emotive soundtracks like Alphaville’s Forever Young, evokes a feeling of nostalgia, which then becomes equated with this smooth, unblemished appearance. But if you look at actual pictures of your youthful self, the differences between then and now are more complex and unique for each individual.

Klara McDonnell: My freckles were actually darker when I was younger. Anyway, if people wanna believe this is really what they looked like when they were younger, it’s a little bit delusional. - @klaramcdonnel/TikTok

Meanwhile, the Bold Glamour filter has gone viral for turning you into a quote-unquote more beautiful version of yourself — in practice by smoothing your skin, brightening your eyes, and sculpting your facial features. Unlike other filters, it also moves seamlessly with your face. But people have already begun talking about how, while for some people the effect is relatively subtle, for some it’s drastic.

The biggest point to remember is that no one actually looks like these filters in real life. Even someone like Kim Kardashian, who appears to have literally no visible skin texture, was caught looking different in her own released photos and others’ photos of her at the same event. (It’s revealing, no doubt, that Kardashian – who’s probably the most referenced face shown to plastic surgeons – is also the queen of selfies, having released the selfie coffee table book Selfish.) So you can have the most top-notch cosmetic procedures, self-care and makeup, and you still can’t truly look like these edited photos. As a plastic surgeon told the Guardian, in the complexion these filters give you, “Your naso-labial [laugh] lines, from the nose to mouth, aren’t existent – but that’s not a human face. No one doesn’t have those. You can see them in children… People wanting bigger eyes is another one – it’s just not possible.

The growing problem, though, is that this smooth, untextured face is becoming the dominant look online, where beauty filters are now ubiquitous, if not the default. It’s one thing to offer filters that you can consent to turning on and off. It’s another entirely when your camera adds one without you even knowing. And that’s what Apple did in 2018, automatically putting their beauty mode onto their selfie camera and making it impossible to turn off.

TikTok has been doing the same thing with its live streams, automatically applying a facial feminizing effect, and freaking people out in the process.

Tori Dawn: See that. As long as that’s still a thing, I don’t feel comfortable making videos because this is not what I look like! - @toridawn817/TikTok

Soon after this was discovered, TikTok made a statement effectively saying it was a bug affecting Android users, and it was fixed in a couple of days. However, MIT Technology Review’s Abby Ohlheiser found that other apps like WeChat and Douyin use this same subtle auto-filtering technique, and points out that, even if TikTok’s was a glitch, it was a pretty big one given that it’s used by around 100 million people in the US alone.

As a result of all this, plastic surgeons say many of their patients are increasingly referring to their selfies, asking to look more like those pictures, even when that’s impossible.

The Instagram vs Real Life trend has existed for more than a decade, so people know theoretically that the images we put on social media aren’t reflective of how we live or look in the real world.

Sophie: These kind of edits, even small edits, really highlight Instagram’s objectification problem. - @residualdata/TikTok

But actually that divide is getting a lot blurrier, especially where they merge in our mental self-images.

The biggest indicator of how our lives online impact our lives in real life came during the pandemic, when we were forced to spend almost all of our social time through our screens. In fact, a 2018 study confirmed that computer cameras actually give more of a fishbowl view, with noses appearing around 30% larger in photos taken from 12 inches away, compared to five feet. The result of this was an increase in people getting cosmetic procedures to “fix” the imperfections, wrinkles, and asymmetries they had become intimately familiar with over the preceding lockdown.

Kayna Whitworth: The American society of plastic surgeons found 35% of its doctors surveyed believed video calls are driving interest in plastic surgery. - ABC News

What’s clear is that while we may think our lives are separate from our lives online, in reality, our self esteem and self image is profoundly affected by how we see ourselves on screen.

A 2019 report showed that 32% of influencers had negative body image issues from working in that industry, with another from 2017 ranking Instagram as the most dangerous social media app for young people.

As a reaction to negative reports, in 2022 Instagram allowed users the ability to turn off the likes and view counts on their pictures and reels. But while this choice is a step in the right direction, it basically acknowledges that there’s a problem to begin with. Instagram’s head Adam Mosseri has even admitted that the goal of changes like this is to “depressurize the experience a bit,” yet experimenting with the likes feature has historically had mixed reactions and results.

Rosanna: If you want to take away the temptation to always be judging your content on likes, it’s still there. - @byRosanna/YouTube

And there’s no true win. Perhaps it’s implied that now those who have chosen to hide their likes are indicating an insecurity or an inadequate response to their page that they wish to cover up.

Chasing a trend is like trying to hit a moving target that keeps changing directions. The cosmetic surgery boom in response to these TikTok trends speak to this short termism. And platforms like TikTok or phone devices that have found great success with filters are products that need to stay ahead of the curve. Surely they’ll create new, even more sophisticated filters for people to try out, obsess over, and eventually feel bad about. So, what can we do to stem the tide?

One potential ray of hope has been the rapid growth of BeReal, which reached 73.5 million active monthly users in August 2022. The app – which gives users a 2 minute window each day to post an unedited glimpse of what they happen to be doing – is almost the antithesis of beauty filters. And while it’s been accused of being mundane and doesn’t have the popularity of TikTok or Instagram, its huge, rapid rise shows that there is demand for an image sharing app that allows you to connect with other people, but isn’t about chasing clout or misrepresenting your appearance.

Bowen Yang: It’s the only honest social media.

Miles Teller: You think I’m an idiot? Honest social media doesn’t exist! - Saturday Night Live

It’s also interesting to note that while globally social media usage continues to increase, since 2019 there has been a decline in use of every social media platform by users aged between 18 and 29, with these users citing that their trust has been eroded by the constant changes these apps have made. While TikTok is the notable exception to that trend, it’s clear that the loyalty of younger users is conditional.

Maybe the most hopeful thing is that users are increasingly aware of the links between these filters and issues of body dysmorphia, and the negative effects social media can have on self esteem and body image. So at least some are taking steps to improve their relationship with social media, viewing it as an important place for connection and socializing when used with appropriate limitations and boundaries… The rise of social media detoxes has been championed by people like Lizzo and Tom Holland, with one 2022 study finding that even taking a week away from socials improves wellbeing, depression and anxiety.

Clarissa Adekanye: When you spend too much time on social media, you lose a lot of moments. - @Clarissa Adekanye/YouTube

It’s easy when you’re living through trends to think that this is what it’s going to be like forever. But that’s not the case, and if you notice yourself feeling anxious or overwhelmed, unplugging might be the easiest, kindest thing you can do for yourself.

The conversation around body image predates social media. We had it with airbrushing in magazines, and with advertisements on TV. The problem now is that people aren’t being invited to compare themselves to celebrities, they’re being given false images of what they could look like, and equating that with the life they could be living.

Rhonda Christie: I love my big nose, and my unusual lips, and they really just make me who I am, but if these things had been around when I was really struggling I don’t know what it could have done. - @rhondachristie

But the first step to escaping this trap is to challenge the assumption that this filtered picture of you is actually better at all. The face in the mirror may have more wrinkles, or freckles, or less defined cheekbones — but it’s your face, and it always will be, no matter what beauty trend is going viral.


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