When I was a young teen in the early- to mid-2000s I wasn’t generally allowed to wear makeup (much to my displeasure).
That wasn’t the case, however, for the girls my age whom I saw most regularly — those in my dance classes. And this was particularly unfortunate given that I spent hours comparing my reflections with theirs in the mirror.
For anyone who doesn’t know this, makeup can substantially change the way you look.
As a kid, I didn’t truly realize that. I compared my unmade face with its reddened skin, apparently small eyes, and practically invisible eyelashes and eyebrows to the made-up faces of my peers.
Clearly, I was not as pretty as them, and I was constantly reminded by the ever-present mirrors.
As soon as I could get away with wearing makeup, I did, and I felt a whole hell of a lot better about how I looked in it. It was so much better, in fact, that I never went out without it.
Actually, I didn’t even like staying in without it. And if I was going to bed with a boyfriend, I sure as hell wasn’t taking my makeup off first.
The only thing that got me out of my daily makeup addiction was the hours of swim lessons I taught in my early twenties and the uselessness of putting on makeup that would only end up making me look worse as it left dark circles around my eyes.
Thankfully, I’m over the makeup now. I’ll put it on for special occasions just because it feels kind of fun. Otherwise, meh.
What’s interesting, however, is that I continue to forget that the faces of the other women I see are not their ‘real’ faces. It’s like my mental attractiveness scale is calibrated using my face without makeup and others’ with makeup.
I think this is an important mental tendency to note, especially now, in the days of social media and easy photo editing that does way more to change one’s looks than makeup ever did.
Social media came into my life for the first time in the form of Myspace when I was almost sixteen, and it was used for nothing more than talking with friends and sharing photos taken at events we were all at.
There was not some important online image of ourselves that we were intentionally creating back then.
Now, however, social media is almost entirely about crafting your online image, an idealized version of you and your life that you broadcast out to everyone in your network.
Gen Z has grown up with this version of social media, and many, whether or not their parents knew, had accounts as early as middle school (a time I think we should all remember is pretty much the worst).
The stats say that 72% of teens use Instagram and 69% use Snapchat, although anecdotally, my impression is that their use among U.S. teens is likely higher. That’s bad news given what we’re learning about social media and mental health.
“In 2017, Instagram was rated the worst social media platform for mental health by people aged 14–24, with Snapchat coming in just above it. Both are heavily image-focused.”
To make matters worse for poor Gen Z kids, they’ve come of age in a time when tailoring your photos is easy — easy and dare I say, necessary. At least if you’re to have a chance of being seen on the same level as your peers.
According to one study, only 29% of social media users are willing to post a picture of themselves without editing it first.
Those extensive edits are now accessible to anyone, and perhaps most accessible to tech-savvy young people thanks to the app, FaceTune.
The app came out in 2013, was the most popular paid app of 2017, and has made possible the sort of photo alterations once could be made only by photo editing pros.
In subsequent years, it’s only gotten better, which is probably worse for all of us.
Tonight, in the spirit of research, I downloaded FaceTune 2, and after just two hours of playing around, I already feel the mental confusion and dysphoria it can engender.
I decided to start with a photo of myself taken today sans makeup in my living room. And then I started playing.
The first version came out looking a bit like an alien, albeit one with a more ‘ideal’ bust to waist ratio. I tried again and ended up with these photos below.
Quite clearly, the one on the left is unaltered and the one on the right is FaceTuned.
Admittedly, the photo on the left looks more like a real person. She also looks older and more tired.
In fact, just having the photo on the right has instilled in my mind the idea that I’m starting to look old.
Maybe this isn’t surprising. One study out of York University in Toronto showed that the participating undergrads actually felt less attractive after taking and posting a selfie — even the ones who’d gotten the chance to edit to their heart’s content.
The lead researcher said of it, “Even though they can make the end result look ‘better’, they still are focused on aspects of what they don’t like about the way they look.”
After my initial photo experiment, I decided I needed to manipulate a selfie, particularly since the full-body photograph didn’t have the resolution to play adequately with all of the face-centric features.
The photo below was taken last August. Which version is edited and which one is not is pretty clear.
Now, did I go a bit crazy? Yes.
Still though, which version of this photo do you think most young women would choose to present to the world? The one with acne scars and slight wrinkles across the forehead, or the one that looks suspiciously like an Instagram model?
Horrifically, by the time I was part-way through editing this photo, I’d already started to feel weird about the shape of my chin. My real chin, that is. Actually, in every photo I edited, I made my chin narrower.
Thank you, FaceTune for making me realize I have a ‘problem’ chin.
Unfortunately, I’m not alone in this realization. Apparently, “…cosmetic surgeons have identified a new trend among would-be-patients approaching them for procedures which will make them resemble their digitally-altered likenesses, dubbed ‘Snapchat Dysmorphia’ by Dr Tijon Esho.”
After the living room shot and selfie, I still wasn’t satisfied or ready to stop. I really wanted to try to replicate the idealized bodies that are often posted on social media, both by celebrities and the general public.
I had to go back a couple of years to the days of vacations to find a useable photo, but find one I did.
In this photo, I edited my bust, my waist, and my *ass. And frankly, I think I look way hotter in the edited one. Again, I’m feeling displeased at the perfectly acceptable body I have, now that I have a taste of this other version.
If you had to pick between posting one of these photos to Instagram, what do you think you would do? Are you sure you wouldn’t choose the one that was just slightly dishonest and would make everyone envy you and your hot bod?
Now, I might be able to resist that temptation as an adult, but you can be d*mn sure I’d have posted the edited one when I was sixteen.
Actually, in my photo search, I found a photo series of my sixteen-year-old self at the beach with a friend. It happened to show us using the ‘elbow trick’ she’d just taught me.
(For those who don’t know, it’s the analog version of editing one’s breast size in photos. You lean forward with your upper arms pressing into the sides of your boobs and it amplifies your cleavage. Thanks, Hannah!)
Moral of that story? Teens generally want to look hot. (At least I did.)
Speaking of teens and photos, I found an even younger photo of myself and decided to run it through one more edit.
I would have been twelve, almost thirteen here. Middle school. You know, the age when kids are getting their smartphones and social media accounts.
I’m telling you right now that I would not have thought the photo on the left made me look pretty.
The photo on the right though? That’s a pretty girl, even if she does look a tad young for her age.
Please note that the adult me does not actually feel that way about what are photos of a child, but back then, I felt so much pressure to feel attractive in a world where that was what seemed to matter.
If I was a twelve-year-old today and posting on social media, you can be sure that I’d be posting edited photos. Three reasons:
- I would want to look and be seen as attractive.
- I would be comparing myself to all the edited photos that would be flooding my feed.
- I would quickly lose sight of what I really looked like, just as I did with makeup, and I would begin to dislike my actual appearance.
Given the state of social media and ubiquity of cosmetic photo editing, I thank whatever the hell is out there that I wasn’t born just ten years later than I was.
Things are tough enough as they are, thank you very much.
As much fun as it was to tinker with my magic photo manipulation app, I’ll be deleting it when I shut down my laptop tonight.
The truth is, not only do I think it’s not personally healthy to manipulate photos of myself in this way, I believe it’s borderline unethical. It isn’t kind or fair to publish photos of oneself that set unrealistic standards for what one ‘should,’ or even can, look like.
I’m thirty — my skin isn’t baby-smooth. My body is not made in the proportions of a Barbie doll. My hair looks crazy because I haven’t cut or dyed it in months. That’s just the truth.
I think we could all do with being a little more truthful with what we show of ourselves. Those perfectly-curated social media lives. They’re not real. And as much as we may all know they’re not real, that does not mean that some part of us doesn’t still believe it.
So let’s cut the sh*t. Stop editing the hell out of your photos, and start letting people see who you really are.