illustration by Marina Muun

Put On Your Beauty Face

Samsung‘s new phones automatically “improve” your looks by default

Back when photographs were first inching into people’s lives, when a stranger would crouch beneath a black curtain, snap a shutter, and imprint a scene in silver nitrate, many people shied away from the camera, wary that each pop of the flashbulb would steal their soul.

But things changed. The curtain vanished, the shutter became mechanical, and the box and mechanisms shrunk down until they fit into our pockets or round our necks. We shed our fear that the lens could snap up our humanity.

Now, however, the pendulum may be starting its journey back. With the rise of photo retouching apps, cameras can, in a way, alter a person’s essence. Programs for editing photos used to require download and installation — manipulating a picture took some work. But now, “beautification” apps come preloaded and switched on in smartphones, and some of the powers we once feared cameras might possess have actually become real.

Cell phones from the world’s biggest manufacturer roll off factory lines preinstalled with software designed to remove all your blemishes by default each time you take a photograph. You have to opt in to appearing natural.

“I’d say more than half of photo-takers in general, those who post to Instagram or Facebook, use some form of photo touch-up,” says Jennifer Tidy, Vice President of Partnerships at ModiFace, an app development company focusing on photo retouching that was spun off from research at the University of Toronto and Stanford University in 2006.

The research ModiFace carried out before launching was on facial feature detection and face detection. In the mid 2000s, the researchers began asking what else they could do with the technology they had developed.
Today, they have more than 100 different smartphone applications, which have been downloaded more than 40 million times. ModiFace also license their technology to beauty brands and retailers to create customized branded applications for smartphones or in-store display.

ModiFace holds 11 different patents for the technology it deploys in its apps. Though Tidy says she can’t go too in-depth into how the apps work specifically, she says that “we do have face detection and facial feature detection. Using that, we’re able to apply an effect to a certain region of the face. How it’s applied and what’s being done is proprietary stuff I can’t really divulge.”

The most popular enhancement deployed by ModiFace users is skin smoothing, says Tidy. But different users of different apps from different cultures use different features. Anna Wang, the international communications manager at Xiamen Meitu Technology Company, a Chinese firm that develops BeautyPlus, a similar retouching app with 30 million global users, says that “women in Asian countries generally like fair skin instead of tanned skin so the skin whitening feature is popular.” A leg lengthening function proves more popular in Japan than elsewhere, she adds. Western users have much different aesthetic preferences, so Xiamen Meitu is developing a separate app for that market.

It’s one thing to willfully tweak and tuck, smooth and brighten. People have been doing that for years. I’ll often put a filter on my Instagram photos; I have previously tamed windswept hair and soothed angry spots in Photoshop. But these features aren’t just add-on apps any more; they are often part of the automated sequence of operations the occur each time your fingertip touches the shutter button.

A few weeks ago I got a Samsung Galaxy Ace 4, a middle-of-the-road smartphone at a relatively low-budget price. When I bought a new T-shirt a few days later, I used the occasion as an excuse to try out my new phone’s souped-up camera. Using the front-facing lens, I snapped a selfie. As it captured the image, there was a small bar of text at the top of the screen showing the words ‘Beauty Face.’

Beauty Face is a piece of technological wizardry that retouches photographs in a split second without you even asking. It’ll “automatically smooth out the texture and tone of your face,” explains the Samsung promotional video touting the tool’s powers. “A really cool feature is that it will actually make your face a little bit narrower, so you get a little skinnier,” it continues, “With the Beauty Face mode, you become a little more beautiful.”

For some people, this is a welcome development. But it takes away the features that make us unique. All the creases and shadows are ironed out in an instant. We meld toward some corporation-approved physical ideal. When I pushed the button, that’s what I saw in my image.

I was automatically pushed through the beautification machine and came out looking like a computer rendering of porcelain, several steps away from reality. There were no angles, no lines, nothing of substance.

The phone I bought isn’t that expensive. It’s marketed as a beginner’s smartphone — the sort of thing you’d buy your son or daughter when you’re first letting them go to shopping malls and city centers alone. The Beauty Face feature is built into millions of these. Samsung’s Twitter account makes jokes about it. Some users don’t know how to turn it off. And you can’t stop it being on by default, though several people have asked Samsung to change that.

I contacted Samsung’s press office, asking them how long Beauty Face has been installed on its smartphones, what percentage of its smartphone roster had the filters installed as default, where it is and isn’t available (the company’s website notes it may not be available worldwide) and why that’s the case, and for how long it has been turned on as default for front-facing pictures.

The company said it was unable to provide answers, because it didn’t have easy access to the information required.

I’m 25 years old, and though I don’t like to look hideous in public, it’d be fair to say that I don’t live or die by how I look. I’m relatively media savvy; I’m aware of Photoshop and filters, of body image and post-production. I wrote about one person’s unerring pursuit of vanity, and his use of plastic surgery to make himself feel more valued in society. I can make a conscious decision whether I want to opt in or not. But other cell phone users — those who are younger, older, less tech-savvy, or less informed, may not be so aware of the virtual reshaping they undergo each time they share a selfie. To assume everyone must want to be run through the facial homogenizer says a lot about the state of culture, and enables individuals to say very little about themselves. Some people like their crow’s feet just fine, thank you.

illustration by Marina Muun


A field guide to the designed world

    Chris Stokel-Walker

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    UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you:



    A field guide to the designed world

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