Of Fish Faces and Filters: Middle Age and Selfie-Esteem

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:

Thoughts that come with Dove’s footsteps by Melissa Duge Spiers, guest post

Say it isn’t so, Siri by Melissa Spiers, guest post

No Comment! A Commentary on the ChapStick Story, guest post by Melissa Spiers

Chapstick sticks it to women by Melissa Spiers, guest post


Melissa Duge Spiers is a freelance writer based in Watsonville, California. You can follow her on Instagram (@mdugespiers) or Twitter (@MDugeSpiers) – she promises never to post a doctored selfie.

Thoughts that come with Dove’s footsteps by Melissa Duge Spiers, guest post

Perhaps I am the wrong person to open this discussion, because I was raised in a house where being beautiful (if you were a girl) was everything – I was dragged from under my bed as a 6-year-old, kicking and screaming, so that my “ugly” straight hair could be permed.  I was the only pre-teen I knew who was forced to wear makeup.  And I existed on air-popped popcorn throughout high school because I dreaded being withdrawn from school and put on a liquid diet until I lost weight like a friend of mine.  I grew up to make my living for a while from my looks, modeling and acting.  So it would be silly to claim I don’t carry some baggage about beauty, and I won’t even try. 


But I’m going to throw my hat into the ring anyway on the latest movement to redefine beauty, to make it more inclusive, to tell every woman she’s beautiful (yes, Dove, that’s you…and so many more).  I hate it.  I absolutely detest it.  Why?  Because even the most well-intentioned, politically correct, supportive, inclusive statements and movements can still be boiled down to this:  beauty is all important. 

The traditional wisdom – from my grandmother’s era – was a terse “if you’re not beautiful, cultivate a great personality, be the smartest, wittiest person in the world, be charming, develop great talents.”   This seems outrageously offensive in today’s era, yes?  It puts beauty in a removed and superior category which excuses the lucky ‘owners’ from doing anything else on that list (plus it reinforces the tired dichotomy of smart/witty/talented vs. beautiful).  As much as we sincerely applaud the use of larger-sized models and real women in these new campaigns, the honest truth is: nothing has changed.  We are still saying beauty is the defining item in women’s lives.  We’re just screaming for an expanded definition.    

If you take out the words “beautiful” and “ugly” in the widely celebrated, empowering “Everyone’s Beautiful!” campaigns and you substitute  the words “white” and “black” or “straight” and “gay” you begin to see how thoroughly stupid it is to waste time trying to define (or redefine) “beauty.”  Go ahead, try it:  “Everyone’s white! You’re white just as you are!” Or  “We just need to redefine straight to include all humans! Everyone’s straight!” 

It suddenly seems ridiculous (not to mention condescending), doesn’t it? These well-intentioned feel-good anthems really just posit beautiful (or white or straight) as the goal, as the “best” option, as the ultimate compliment/inclusion/approval.  Think I’m exaggerating? I can guarantee that someone in response to this article will think the most insulting, awful comment they can summon is “you’re just a jealous, fat, ugly dyke!”  But it’s not just those haters – it’s the advertisers, it’s the lawmakers, it’s the population, it’s each and every one of us.  We all keep thinking that telling women and girls they’re beautiful is the answer, as long as we adjust the definition to include everyone.  But we’re all still holding it up as the holy grail, the pinnacle of achievement, the most important thing they can be. 


You know, my mother thought straight hair was disgustingly ugly (a fact she will still tell anyone to this day).  As a child, did I wish she would open her beauty boundaries, recalibrate her metric, until it included my stick-straight strands?  That would have saved me a lot of tears and chemical burns on my scalp, sure, but really I just remember fervently wishing she would stop focusing on my damned hair so I could go outside and swing on the monkey bars.  Did my young friend wish her parents would say “honey, a few extra pounds are beautiful!” Not at all.  She felt nearly the same shame and humiliation whether they praised her weight loss or put her on a diet.  She simply didn’t want them or anyone else to discuss her body, in any way, good or bad – it was mortifying.  She just wanted to be riding her horse.

Each one of us – me, you, Dove, everyone – needs to stop trying to expand our precious definitions  (“beauty is valued, so we need to make sure everyone feels beautiful!”) and figure out why (and if) they’re important to define at all.  Everyone should be accepted and given equal consideration and rights, even if we’re not all straight, we’re not all white, and we’re not all beautiful.   Who cares? Let’s  cultivate our talents, our charm, our smarts, our personalities.  And then let’s run out and swing on the monkey bars.

 “Thoughts that come with dove’s footsteps guide the world.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Melissa Duge Spiers is a writer whose work has appeared in Adventure Sports Journal, Vermont Sports, and The Monterey Herald, among other publications. She is working on her first novel. A graduate of Barnard College, she lives in Santa Cruz, CA with her husband and four children.

Read Melissa Duge Spiers previous posts on Reel Girl: “ChapStick sticks it to women” and “No comment! A commentary on the ChapStick story.”