Snapchat dysmorphia: Here’s looking at you, kid
The late American author David Foster Wallace had an idea about “videophony”. In his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, long before phones became an extension of our selves, he imagined a world where video calls had become commonplace. He predicted that this would lead to widespread self-consciousness, which in turn would give rise to digital masks that would brighten skin, erase wrinkles, delete dark circles and give us the perfect smile.
Eventually, people would become so obsessed with these digital masks that they would avoid going out and letting people see their real selves.
That prescient idea now has a name. Snapchat dysmorphia is a term coined by British cosmetic surgeon Dr Tijion Esho, first used in a report in 2018. He coined it, he has said, when he started noticing that patients were bringing in filtered pictures of themselves as references for cosmetic procedures.
How much is too much?
With the swipe of a finger, filters on phone camera apps and photo-driven apps such as Instagram and Snapchat let users acquire the biggest eyes, the smoothest skin, cute freckles, long lashes, luscious lips.
It’s easy to fall in love with this version of one’s face. But when you start seeing too much of an image that looks like you but has been altered to a point where it is no longer your real self, this can bring about changes in one’s psychological state and neural wiring, says cosmetic surgeon Dr Debraj Shome of the Esthetic Clinics in Mumbai.
This is further exacerbated by likes and comments on social media. “They are a sort of positive reinforcement that initiates a dopamine surge, which becomes something one wants more of,” says Dr Shome. “It reaches a point where you are now dissatisfied with how you actually look.”
A 2019 study conducted by the Esthetic Clinics and published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology aimed to explore how altering and posting selfies on social media affects an individual. The survey covered 300 men and women aged 21 to 26; 75 each from Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Hyderabad; all active on social media. The subjects were divided into three groups. One group was asked to post filtered images on social media; the second group was asked to post unfiltered images; and the third was asked to read items unrelated to appearance, such as the news. Each group was then asked how they felt (their psychological state).
The first two groups reported higher levels of social anxiety (60% higher in women; 58% in men, on average, when compared with the third group). They also reported a decrease in confidence, and a decrease in their sense of their own physical attractiveness.
This kind of body dysmorphia is real, and is causing concern in the medical community, says Dr Shome. “One patient said to me, ‘I hate meeting myself,’” the doctor says. “He said most of the time, when he looks at himself, it’s to take and post pictures, and there’s a filter on. When he sees his actual self, maybe on Zoom or in the mirror, he feels distress.”
Google released a report in 2020 that indicates that over 70% of photos taken on Android devices use the front-facing camera. The use of filters, the report stated, was most widespread in India and the US, particularly among women.
In order to understand the effect filtered selfies might have on wellbeing, the Google report says it consulted with mental health experts. Their recommendations led to changes in the newest Google Pixel phones. Face retouching options are now turned off rather than on by default; when filters are turned on, this is more clearly indicated. And the some of the language associated with the filters has changed.
The “natural” filter has been renamed “subtle”, product manager Vinit Modi wrote on Google’s The Keyword blog. Terms like beautification, enhancement and touch-up are being replaced. “We’ve steered away from references to “beauty,” by using iconography and language that is value-neutral, so you can decide what retouching means to you.”
It takes user vigilance too, to keep the use of filters healthy. Tanya (last name withheld on request), a 27-year-old communications executive who’s been sharing aspects of her life on social media for a decade, was jolted out of her own face filter obsession when she saw how their use was affecting a friend.
“Every time she took a picture, she would use an app that lightens your skin, gives you big eyes and makes you look like a doll,” Tanya says. “Here was a really attractive woman who didn’t feel pretty without this app.”
Tanya realised she was over-using Instagram filters too. “I was using them even when I had make-up on”. She hasn’t stopped using filters altogether. “But as I grow older,” she says, “I’ve begun to focus on taking care of myself, making sure that if I want to look good, it has to be real and not airbrushed.”