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Filtered Out Illustration by Salini Perera.

Filtered Out

After years of using face-altering photo filters, Houda Kerkadi sees the bigger picture.

A few days into quarantine, I found myself in my Montreal apartment with absolutely nothing to do. My university classes were on hold and it was too cold outside to even go for a socially distanced walk. Suddenly, I had no real excuse to put off a task I’d been dreading for months: clearing out my phone. 

Curled up on my couch, I scrolled through my seemingly endless camera roll and started deleting some of my 12,867 photos. Flicking past the occasional pictures of food, memes and other memories, it quickly became clear what I was really doing—a selfie-erasing session. It was my countless selfies, more than anything, that were clogging up my phone. 

But as I sat there fixated on my screen, I was struck by how, despite having thousands of photos of my face, there was barely a photo that looked like me. Nearly every single image was filtered, steeped in some kind of digital preset effect that transformed or obscured my features. 

Either consciously or unconsciously, I realized, I had spent the better part of the last two years taking selfies that barely contained a trace of myself. The problem wasn’t that I looked bad in these photos—quite the opposite really. I liked, even identified, with the person in them. My eyes were bigger, my cheeks more defined, my features highlighted by a slight spotlight and glossy shine. When I would come across a rare photo of myself without a filter, the face in it looked strange in comparison, more flawed.

Scrolling that day, I started coming to terms with how the filters in the apps I use have completely shifted my self-perception. People always want to talk about how social media makes us present ourselves falsely to the outside world, but this problem felt bigger to me, more existential; I had been presenting falsely to myself. Somehow, it had gotten to the point that I barely recognized my own face. 

I belong to the generation that grew up with smartphones and whose childhoods were entrenched in social media. Back in 2015, when Snapchat—a multimedia messaging application with disappearing messages—launched its filters feature (at the time, they were fittingly called “lenses”), it made sense to my teenage brain to use them every time I took a selfie, like everyone else in my social circle.

Snapchat first introduced face filters as a clear form of embellishment. Obviously, no one is born airbrushed like a ghost or with a flower crown on their head. These filters created a playful, animated effect, a way to send your friends silly selfies rather than improve your looks. And in the beginning, it was fun. Snapchat’s unprecedented popularity in 2015—with user growth rivalling Facebook’s—meant that I spent a big part of my junior year in high school huddled in the back of the chemistry lab, laughing endlessly about a rainbow spilling out of my mouth or my friends’ bug-eyed selfies. 

When Instagram introduced its own filters in 2017, they looked much the same. But by the next year, the flower crowns and dog ears began to drop by the wayside. Over the next two years, filters left the realm of fun and entered the realm of self-improvement. The app’s digital presets prioritized muted, self-corrective changes over decorative ones; a single tap could enlarge your eyes, sharpen your jaw, inflate your lips or clear your skin. The person in the filtered selfie staring back at you was still you, in many ways, just 25 percent more conventionally attractive. 

This new kind of filter tapped into a universal desire to look better with little to no effort. Except, of course, that the notion of “looking better” doesn’t exist in a vacuum. These filters work towards a beauty standard popularized by a collection of celebrities, socia media “influencers” and makeup companies. The overall appearance they push has become so pervasive that it’s been given its own name—the Instagram Face. The Instagram Face is ethnically ambiguous, with big eyes and long lashes, defined cheekbones and thick eyebrows, a sharp chin and perfectly proportioned full lips. Celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Emily Ratajkowski and Kim Kardashian could all be considered its blueprints.

While filters that replicate this face for the masses can seem subtle—a fairly offline viewer might not even recognize when someone’s face has been altered with one—their names are not. The filters are often bluntly called “Perfect Face,” or “Top Babe Look,” or “Beautify!” I was once with a friend who was taking a selfie during an acne breakout; she told me, “Wait a second, I have something for this,” scrolled through her phone and applied a filter called “Clear Skin.” The name itself only served to reinforce the idea of instant beautification: tap your screen and adjust your cheeks, mouth and jaw in one go. The sweeping names help obscure the series of individual changes being made. 

Perhaps what’s most distinctive about these filters, in fact, is how Instagram does all the adjusting for you. In older photo sharing and editing applications, a user had the liberty to choose what features and details they wanted to edit (with one exception: Snapchat filters could change part of your appearance, but the platform never pushed a multifaceted, uniform standard in this way). Now, Instagram has pre-defined what’s conventionally attractive. It doesn’t matter if you always liked your nose the way it is—these filters shrink it for you. Without ever needing to consider, let alone question, what changes are being made, you too can become a “Top Babe.” 

Face-adjusting technology is by no means new. Ordinary people have had access to this kind of editing software ever since the introduction of Photoshop thirty years ago. Photoshop has since led to countless B-rated offspring: simple, accessible applications developed for phones not only to self-adjust our faces, but also our skin, hair colour and body shapes. 

Since its release in late 2013, the ever-problematic application Facetune, which exists independently of any social media platform, has been downloaded more than sixty million times.  For about $5, the app lets you alter everything from your hair roots to your hips before sharing a photo. There has been no shortage of controversies over these technologies. In 2016, for example, Snapchat came under fire for whitewashing, as users pointed out that a couple of its popular filters “brightened” their faces in a way that made their skin tones appear fairer.

But Instagram filters normalized this look more than any other platform, for a few reasons. Globally, Instagram is in the top five most popular social media platforms (just behind its owner, Facebook), with a rate of downloads that Snapchat and Facetune have never reached. With 93 million pictures posted on the platform every day, it’s gained traction partly because it serves both personal and business purposes. It’s also fast and free to use, unlike Photoshop or Facetune, meaning the adjustments happen effortlessly—and sometimes, it turns out, unknowingly.

Instagram Face has become so ubiquitous on the app that I’ve started noticing how face-altering presets are being built into many filters that aren’t even related to beauty enhancement. Let’s say you decide to forgo taking a selfie with a beauty filter and opt instead for one that paints animated fish on your cheeks, or Louis Vuitton logos on your forehead. The bizarre embellishments of these “fun” filters tend to disguise the facial alterations taking place underneath. If you’re distracted by a fish on your face, you’re not necessarily noticing that your features are being shaped to meet one uniform standard.

Then, in late 2019, Instagram exacerbated the problem by introducing a feature that allows users to design and publish their own “augmented reality” filters, which all users can then borrow. Any average person can create effects of their choosing. Now, if you search for the “Perfect Face” filter, you have more than a hundred options instead of just one. 

For me, the biggest problem with my selfies wasn’t that I was unaware that the face I was photographing wasn’t really mine—it’s that I didn’t care about the difference. The fact that these filters brought me one step closer to looking like every influencer on Instagram was enough of an incentive to keep using them. I didn’t mind that my nose was being made slimmer when it was being made to look like Kylie Jenner’s.

The main drawback of filters, I now realize, is this self-erasure. When I take the time to look at my old selfies, I look like a fabricated version of myself, a version that ignores my ancestors’ imprint on my face, and in turn my identity. My face carries traces of my Algerian lineage; this summer, when flipping through old photo albums of the women in my family, I was moved by how much we all look alike. My eyes, especially, I share with my mother, who shares them with her mother, who shared them with her own mother before her. But these filters dissolve this connection I have with the past three generations of women in my family. When I start to look like someone else, I stop proudly carrying my roots. 

Face-adjusting has always been problematic, but there’s something especially sinister about filters that ordinary people use, willingly, to conform to a predetermined standard. This standard erases the features that carry the stories of our cultures and where we come from. 

A whole new set of problems arises when we log off and have to confront the reality of our actual faces. Studies have found that people, especially teens, increasingly have an altered view of themselves because of their filtered identities. Boston University researchers found in 2018 that filtered images can negatively affect users’ and especially young girls’ self-esteem. 

That’s when the pursuit of a real-life Instagram Face begins. In North America, there’s been a surge in daily contouring practices (an extensive makeup technique that uses three different powders to define and enhance a person’s facial features), excessive makeup shopping and dangerous “vampire facials,” a procedure that involves extracting and re-injecting your own blood into your face to reduce wrinkles. 

The last four years has also seen a sharp rise in non-invasive plastic surgery, fillers and body-augmentation surgeries among teen girls and young women. Specifically, they’re coming in to plastic surgeons’ offices with filtered selfies in a phenomenon that British cosmetologist Tijion Esho dubbed “Snapchat dysmorphia” in a 2018 interview with the Independent. The Boston University researchers argue that while Snapchat’s filters work as clear embellishments, it’s the more discreet kinds of edits that impose a pressure to look a certain way. 

Instagram has, at least, drawn the line somewhere. In 2019, users began creating filters that mimicked cosmetic procedures even more graphically (one effect, named “Fix Me,” drew virtual pen markings on a user’s face to show how a plastic surgeon would map out a face lift on them). Instagram banned and removed this type of effect by the end of the year, citing body image concerns.

Still, filters that replicate post-surgical enhancements remain ubiquitous. It’s arguably their subtlety that actually encourages people to uphold filtered versions of themselves. When the line between our digital and physical selves blurs this much, we are clearly no longer just “posting selfies.” 

My obsession with Greek mythology makes me think of it this way: we have to understand the beauty standards set by these filters like the mythic monster, Hydra, the multi-headed beast. According to the myth, when one head is cut off, two others grow in its place; cut these two down and another four grow, and so on. 

Trying to play the blame game when it comes to filters feels fruitless. If I boycott Instagram, influencers will still perpetuate these beauty ideals. If I boycott makeup companies, magazines will still be there encouraging me to change how I look. The popularity of filters directly benefits not only Instagram but also marketing companies and the many arms of the beauty industry that profit from making the effects of filters possible in real life. 

In some ways, filters can be seen as the latest iteration in the long line of beauty standards pushed upon us. But they’re in a category of their own. The distinction, I think, lies in how little thought we’ve given to participating in them. Because they’re free and require little effort, we—my generation, at least—haven’t been thinking of ourselves as consumers when we use them. 

Still, in the last couple of years, not everyone is passively upholding these standards. You now see Instagram users with over a million followers, like the account CelebFace, influencer Danae Mercer and top model Paulina Porizkova, calling out celebrities for retouching their photos with Facetune and exposing the techniques they use. They also encourage people to post unfiltered, unretouched images. 

In 2019, Mercer, a self-proclaimed “self love activist,” began posting side-by-side comparisons of her selfies to show how easily one can manipulate their features and body shape. She challenged her followers to post their unfiltered selfies as an important reminder “that normal skin, with its pores and its flaws, well, that’s human.” Her posts went viral, with the comments full of encouragement.

But the responses also tend to share a sense of shock. Reading through people’s reactions, it’s refreshing to see that I’m not the only one surprised and disturbed by the extent of the disparities between filtered and unfiltered images. To me, the eye bags, the acne scars, the pores, the cystic pimples, the birth marks, are all evidence that we are breathing, living women. 

I’ve since decided to unfollow all the celebrities and influencers on my feed who depict themselves falsely, replacing my feed with accounts I know are unretouched. It feels human to see people, and especially young women, presenting themselves naturally. 

Meanwhile, I’ve stopped using filters myself. I’m not naive; I know one person’s actions won’t have any significant impact. But my choice has started a conversation among my friend group, which I like to think is making us more aware of the worlds, physical and online, we’ve been building together. Or at least it’s led to more inside jokes. Even though most of my friends have stopped taking filtered selfies by now, they never fail to shout “no filter!” whenever they spot one of our friends taking a filtered selfie.

It would be a lie to say that I prefer my selfies with an unfiltered face. I still like how I look with filters. I think it’s natural to prefer an idealized version of ourselves. But I noticed that when I stopped taking filtered selfies, the gap between my online self and real-life self did slowly start to dissipate. For the first time in years, I started to accept myself as I was created. 

Houda Kerkadi is an Algerian writer and photographer living in Montreal. She recently graduated from the communication studies program at Concordia University and her writing explores politics and cultural phenomena.