Mirror, Mirror, in My Phone: How Beauty Filters Corrupts Mental Health

Are virtual beauty filters doing harm in real life?
beauty filter mental health

Newsflash: Your phone’s camera lens is already distorting your face. And if that’s not bad enough, some cameras are embedded with minor beautifying effects by default. To add insult to injury, social media apps such as Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat host a myriad of filters, including some that augment facial features and alter tones in an image. These have a compounding effect, and at this juncture, we can already see that it’s taking a toll on the human psyche, causing facial dysmorphia. 

The word ‘filter’, by its very definition, means to select or remove a particular type of information from something. Armed with this knowledge, realise that these filters are taught to process imaging information. By whom? Humans that are wrought with biases. 

Terms like “Euro-centric” and “anti-black” are not just buzzwords we carelessly throw around. They have real-life consequences for the groups of individuals. Viral filters signal what is regarded to be the accepted standard, and any deviation from that model is deemed aberrant. And because the world (yes, us included) consumes so much content from these platforms, we contribute to and suffer from the problem. 

Masks Off

Not only do these beauty filters add makeup, but they also make the cheeks look slimmer, nose bridges higher, lips plumper, and of course, the skin smoother. There are also beauty filters that go the extra mile, changing up eye and hair colours so impeccably, that, if you didn’t know better, you might think is the real deal. 

Just take a look at the Bold Glamour filter on TikTok. Its jaw-dropping quality led it to have over 170 million clips under its banner. Unlike your run-of-the-mill filters, this one won’t glitch when something is placed in front of your face. Why? Because it’s made with machine learning. Instead of overlaying your face with a mesh, the filter uses the image data, and “redraws your pixels on the output of your camera feed,” said Luke Hurd, a pioneer for Instagram effects. This means it can recognise your hand and ignore it in processing, while still applying the filter to the face. 

That’s a somewhat drastic example of how eerily seamless filters work. So let’s talk about a more subtle one—which can be doubly insidious. Take the Paris filter on Instagram, for example. The effect is so minimal that you might even miss it. Designed to blur fine lines and pigmentations, many fall prey to its allure, and viewers can’t always tell whether or not a filter has been applied. 

The Cost of Perfection

Byrdie’s Amy Lawrenson reminded us to be mindful of our visual diet. “It happens fast—looking at filled faces and filters for just 90 seconds can shift your brain for hours afterwards,” she warned. If you’re constantly looking at yourself via the lens of these apps, you are, what licensed esthetician Charlotte Palermino called, “microdosing plastic surgery.” 

beauty filter mental health

In the past, the phrase “beauty is pain” referred to the lengths one is willing to go through to achieve beauty. Today, we can add mental suffering to the list. Dr Lazwani Kolandaiveloo and Dr Jason Yip of Kuala Lumpur’s Astute Clinic are of the same mind. “To the susceptible and impressionable, these filters gradually alter how we perceive ourselves. Over time, we get comfortable with this new or ’better’ image of ourselves,” remarked Dr Yip. It sounds like the brain conveniently forgets the memo, that these altered images are nothing but a sleight of pixels.

That fleeting surge of confidence vanishes quickly, too. Reality breaks the spell and leaves in its place a kind of withdrawal. “Beauty filters definitely give rise to the pressure to conform to certain beauty standards. When users lose sight of their individualised, unique beauty, it can trigger body dysmorphia,” said Dr Kolandaiveloo. We yearn and strive for perfection, but at what cost?