Are Face Enhancement and Editing Apps Making Us Feel Ugly?

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Photo: Courtesy of Kinga Cichewicz

I recently upgraded from an ‘iPhone 6’ to an ‘iPhone X’, but it wasn’t for the snazzy OLED screen or the ‘Face ID’ feature that allows users to unlock the phone by simply looking at it. Nope. What I was most excited about was ‘Portrait Mode’ – a feature of the new ‘iPhone’ allowing users to take professional-looking selfies with the front-facing camera. Kind of epic, right? No longer would I have to rely on strangers or my husband (who loses patience after the second try) to snap pictures of my kids and I, hoping they would pass muster. I wouldn’t have to lament another almost-perfect photo ruined by my frizzy hair or tired eyes and uneven skin tone.

In a world where most interactions happen over social media, the majority of us fall into one of two categories: those who snap a million pictures until they get the one deemed good enough to post, and those who increasingly turn to filters as well as enhancement and editing applications to tweak their appearance. With a myriad of apps such Facetune 2 (which has been downloaded more than 20 million times so far, according to The Guardian), “fixing” your face and body has never been easier.

Which got me thinking; when did we get so picky about the way we looked? And are filters and face editing and enhancing apps doing us more harm than good?

Is editing our pictures to look prettier making us feel uglier?

“If you think about it, feeling beautiful or ugly doesn’t really have anything to do with what we look like. We judge our appearance by how we feel — not how we look. Our self-image, whether positive or negative, is a mental picture that we create in our minds, and it is dependent on how we feel about ourselves,” says Muna Shakour, founder of ‘Inside Out with Muna,’ a life-coaching organization. “These new enhancing or beautifying apps are only bringing the symptoms of an existing problem to the surface, and what they have done is amplify some of our insecurities.” According to Shakour, when people use such apps and filters to make themselves look better, they are in effect working on “feeling” better about themselves.

But do they actually feel better? According to Dr. Girish, a psychiatrist at coaching and counseling center LifeWorks, the answer is no.

“Apps and filters used to “fix” physical flaws enable us to project an imagined perfect version of ourselves. This definitely perpetuates low self-esteem as we depend on others’ “likes” and “comments” to form and define our own body image. Hence, our sense of self is heavily dented,” he said. Regularly using these apps will also cause negative side effects, he believes. “In the long run, you are unable to distinguish between a true self and a “fake” self, leading to very distorted self-esteem that can cause stress, anxiety, depression, and a lack of satisfaction with how one looks.”

We judge our appearance by how we feel — not how we look.

Those of us who grew up in the 80s or 90s make fun of selfies and roll our eyes at our own vanity, because most of us don’t take it seriously. After all, we grew up physically admiring celebrities that were beyond our reach. But millennials born into a selfie generation, where digital enhancements take seconds to make, are at risk because they are comparing their real selves to the digitally altered version of themselves. When they see the way they could look, they can’t reconcile that with the way they actually do look. Their self-worth is measured in likes and follows and visions of what they’d look like if they went under the knife. It’s not trivial and it’s not conceited.

Furthermore, according to Shakour, the more insecure we become, the easier it is for such apps to get the better of us.

“One of our most primal needs is for connection and attention. If you observe children playing in the park, you will notice them calling out to their mothers, ‘Look at me, mom! Look at me!’ This need does not disappear when we become adults, but we find it socially unacceptable to bluntly say to people, ‘Look at me.’ So, instead, we find other means of getting the attention we crave,” Shakour explains. “Social media has created this platform for us to see and be seen, and with that we have started comparing ourselves to the photoshopped, enhanced, and color-corrected pictures of both our friends and strangers. With most of us carrying the baggage of our imperfections and deeply ingrained insecurities, we were ripe for the picking when these apps were created.”

So, how do we teach ourselves (and our children) to find beauty in our imperfections? By going bare.

Is It Time to Go Bare?

“One of the main reasons we find it hard to accept our flaws is that, in our minds, we magnify our imperfections. We don’t see ourselves for who we really are; we see ourselves as who we “think” we are.” The solution, Shakour says, starts with changing our own thoughts and perceptions about ourselves, which is done through investing in greater self-awareness. “Our thoughts, if left unchecked, can tell us so many false stories about ourselves, including what we look like. With enough self-awareness and a conscious decision to monitor our thoughts, we can start to question the beliefs we have, and we will often find that they are baseless.”

Those of us who grew up in the 80s or 90s make fun of selfies and roll our eyes at our own vanity, because most of us don’t take it seriously.

Dr. Girish agrees, but also points out that the solution lies in emphasizing that beauty is indeed skin deep, and that physical appearances are just a small part of one’s personality. “People need to realize that it’s a fallacy that, if one doesn’t look perfect, one isn’t good enough. Accepting flaws actually boosts self-esteem as one gains insight into identifying and dealing with what needs to be worked upon.”

On a recent trip to Italy with my girlfriends (the first such trip in eight years), I decided to post a series of pictures that showed us just the way we were – mostly with our heads thrown back in laughter, toothy grins, frizzy hair (humidity sucks), and rounded bellies thanks to copious amounts of pizza and pasta. And although I didn’t love the way I looked, I didn’t care enough to edit the pictures either, because I’d had a damn good time, and it showed. Now that’s what I call picture perfect.