Recently I realized that some of my friends are manipulating their faces. I don’t mean cosmetically, though that happens too. I’m referring to the digital doctoring that anyone can now do with photo editing apps such as Facetune, which has experienced a meteoric rise since its launch in 2013 and was Apple’s most popular paid app in 2017. It promises to improve one’s selfie game by revealing smoother skin, brighter eyes, whiter teeth, and a smaller waist, if you wish.
Talk about a beauty and wellness hack.
We might chalk up these digital tweaks to harmless enhancement, not so different from snapping a photo by candlelight, or wearing good concealer, or choosing the right Instagram filter. But in finding yet another way to curate an online presence, are we feeding the addictive, anxiety-building social media beast? Can altering an image warp our minds to make us less healthy or happy? The answer is probably a bit of both.
Like any online trend, this one originated with the youths — I know using that term ages me; that’s the look I’m going for here — but Facetuning now seems to be gaining a firm (blemish-free, reduced-cellulite) hold on the rest of us. Perhaps predictably as tech trends can go, the kids are probably already on to the next thing. Meanwhile, more of my peers in the, ahem, slightly older camp are just getting started.
I can’t bring myself to jump on board though. I rarely wear makeup in public and now it seems I must apply virtual makeup to appear online? Plus, I’m skeptical of yet another “pink tax,” an added cost of being a woman, wherein we must spend more time and energy to seem more appealing and unblemished, bright-eyed and slim, for everyone else. Oh, men Photoshop their faces, too you will say. But, let’s be real, the gender breakdown is hardly even. A quick Google search of images featuring the product demonstrates as much, and the company website for Lightricks, which owns Facetune, depicts only photos of women in connection with its suite of Facetune products.
Not to mention my chief concern: What is wrong with our real faces?
I posted a photo of myself recently, along with my toddler. It’s tough to get a good one of both of us with our eyes open, and this one was cute enough. Before posting it though, I heard the voice of my inner critic enumerating the lines in my forehead, zooming in on the dark circles under my eyes, contemplating how much is too much to spend on a new face serum.
Facetune costs $3.99 by the way. Do you know how many anti-aging serums exist for $3.99? Precisely zero. And I’m not even talking about the fancy ones, which can run you up to $200 with no guarantee of better photos for Instagram.
Which brings me to the crux of it all: Wouldn’t correcting my online face be a bait-and-switch for my real-life face? When this identity masquerading is done intentionally, it’s called “catfishing.” Critics of photo editing apps cite catfishing as one concern, as well as body dysmorphia and feelings of isolation, among others.
I felt a bit naive for not realizing sooner how popular these apps are. I figured one of my best friends was just getting an enviable amount of sleep lately. Either that, or the nine months in age that separate us had been multiplied by a factor of 15 by some nefarious Internet influence so that I looked like I belonged to a different generation altogether. Musician Amanda Palmer also helped enlighten me. She shared side-by-side photos with and without the app, which she joked as being, “simple and satanic.” Known for her authenticity and unwillingness to bend to music industry or cultural norms, her transparency was refreshing. It reminded me that maybe my own furrowed brow is not old or unattractive, but rather quite rockstar.
And these lines in my brow might only worsen, as I worry that people I don’t see very often would bump into me on the other side of a zhuzhed up social media bender, see my actual face, and say, “Wow, you look REALLY tired,” or “I almost didn’t recognize your unsparkly eyes” or “Are you dying?”
Of course that wasn’t the response to my friend who used the app. Loving people makes it easy to see them in their best possible light, and what’s a little airbrushing among friends? It never occurred to me at first that her image was edited. Instead, I worried about my own drab appearance by contrast. Which brings us to the real dark side of social media, doesn’t it? Comparison. It may start as a vague awareness of shortcomings in relation to someone else and run an insidious gamut toward erosions in self image.
Studies show that the comparisons we make online—someone’s glowing posts to the travails of our own humdrum, day-to-day, often unphotogenic reality—are responsible for alarming declines in our collective mental health, increases in anxiety, depression, and loneliness among them.
So, without the desire to spend more time online, increase my personal allotment of anxiety, or lose my rock star lines, I’m keeping my face the way it is. Friends are welcome to “like” it or scroll on by.
Rebecca Pacheco is a writer, speaker, and yoga and meditation teacher. She is the author of “Do Your Om Thing: Bending Yoga Tradition to Fit Your Modern Life.” You can connect with her on social media @omgal.