This is a guest post for Reel Girl by Melissa Duge Spiers
“Cosmetic surgeons say patients who once requested celeb features now come armed with their own ultra-filtered selfies. About 1 million self-portraits are taken daily, and more than a third of these are retouched…” —Women’s Health Magazine
There is so much that is disturbing in the preceding statement it would take volumes to unpack, so when I initially read it I focused on the part I’d never heard before: ultra-filtered, retouched selfies? Like most, I had abstractly pondered bits and pieces of the selfie phenomenon (why do so many women take them in the driver’s seat of their car?) but I had only occasionally wondered about the photos themselves: the round-faced FB acquaintance whose rotating stock of profile photos shows random cheekbone prominence, the celebrity we all know to be zaftig suddenly appearing waifish. I saw them, but I didn’t really THINK about them, sort of like we all know our parents had sex because, well, here we are, but we really don’t give it any credence: it must have been a lucky shot somehow…surely not intentional.
I had frankly just ignored the whole selfie phenomenon, hoping it was a passing fad like jeans belted below the butt. It has, of course, become abundantly clear that both unsightly crimes of overexposure – both so self-consciously “casual” yet so obviously calculated – are here to stay. And while the low-pants problem seems to hobble only those who sport the style, the retouched selfie has a deep and reverberating effect on all women.
With the help of new apps and filters today’s self-portraitists make no attempt at truth: they have become impressionists, not photo-realists. Standard filters in every social media platform let you create perfect skin, erase wrinkles and blemishes, adjust your coloring and add or subtract makeup effects. Dozens of other free, downloadable apps and filters can make you appear taller, skinnier, curvier, blonder, or tanner, not to mention redesigning your nose and jaw, making your eyes bigger, and perfecting your skin. With Perfect365 you can adjust the structure of your face, create a new jawline, and make your eyes bigger. ModiFace also lets you change your nose, the size of your lips and the angles and curves of your jaw. Spring and Facetune give you tools not only to change your face but your whole body: create or diminish curves and height with a simple pinch of your fingers. Want to be taller and thinner, with a narrower waist, bigger boobs, and curvy hips, but skinny thighs? Just squeeze, slide, and save. Modern selfies are reproducing their subjects about as accurately as Picasso reproduced Dora Maar.
Of course, for years before Instagram, Photoshopping celeb photos was the dirty secret of magazine wizards, slimming down and prettying up their cover subjects and advertisement models. There used to be regular protests and outcry against such gross distortion and misrepresentation; suddenly there are no more critiques. Celebrities regularly tweak nearly all their candids and selfies (whole websites and blog posts are devoted to pointing out the doctoring of famous faces and posteriors), and where the social-media aristocracy has gone the rest of us have followed.
Talk to any teenage girl and she will confess to at least “trying” the face- and body-altering apps. Already struggling to grow up in the overly sexual, image-saturated 21st century with anything remotely resembling a positive body image (or, more important, a positive self-image based on something other than her body), girls now feel compelled to make Bratz dolls out of their photos. And while it’s so easy to blame “society” for this mess – those dolls, those magazines, those tv stars and models – a quick flip through Facebook or OurTime reveals that we can’t just finger media sources and stars. Beyonce and Kim Kardashian are not the only ones presenting unreal images to the world; we need to look closer to home. Instagram and Facebook (with an overwhelmingly middle-aged, female base) overflow with profile photos in the ubiquitous fish-lip kissy pose (instant cheekbones! Wrinkles smoothed! Puffy lips!) and now with over-processing from filters and apps our middle-aged-mom photo collections are becoming a veritable Madame Tussauds guessing game: is it plastic surgery or filters or Facetune?
Yahoo Labs’ reported, after studying nearly 8 million selfies, that “doctored shots were more likely to be viewed and draw likes” than natural ones. Instead of using our wisdom and experience to denounce this sham contest of popularity-based-on-pretend, women of a certain age are lining up like baby birds, mouths agape (with lips artfully puffed by app or derm), and competing for attention. In our younger, pre-selfie world we shored up fragile egos by fishing for compliments in the locker room, moaning “I’m so fat!” and counting on a chorus of “you are NOT. I’M fat!” and “You are SO not fat. I wish I had YOUR legs!” to make us feel better. Now when we feel a little insecure we post a soft-focus, subtly slimmed, kiss-puckered selfie with an aren’t-I-just-playful title like “My goofy date night face!” Or we post a blown-out b&w photo so artistically grainy you can’t tell if our eyes are open or closed and we demur modestly by using Trump-speak third person “Just me – just Suzie…no makeup – no filter…” Then we sit back and wait for the pile of predictable, soothing views, likes, and comments to roll in: “wow! Beautiful!” “You are so gorgeous, girl!” “Beautiful inside and out!” Et voila – instant Selfie-worth! Selfie-esteem! Selfie-confidence!
The truth hurts, they say, and right now it’s staring middle-aged mothers in our over-filtered faces. We’re probably not fooling anyone with our fish kisses and filters, skinnied “Spring” selfies and sexy soft focus, but we are damaging our daughters without a doubt. We’re buying into a falsified reality – creating it ourselves, and using it to bolster our self-esteem…and we’re modeling it for our daughters in a very public forum. The real problem, obviously, is not the filters or fillers, the soft focus or Facetune. The problem is that we’re still getting our self-worth from our looks – and now they aren’t even our looks any more.
Read Melissa Duge Spiers previous posts for Reel Girl: