The first time I ever used FaceTune, I was trying to get rid of a pimple present in an otherwise Instagram-worthy selfie with friends. In one tap, it was gone; the software had somehow replaced the redness with my skin tone.
I was only in the sixth grade then. Freshly introduced to the tribulations of both middle school and acne, this app was like magic. But I couldn’t possibly understand how problematic it was to have discovered an app that could promise me clearer skin, a smaller nose, and whiter teeth at such a young age. As an impressionable tween, how was I supposed to know that the influencers I followed also used the app? I thought I was the only one who knew about the magic pimple-eraser. I wasn’t old enough to understand that the brick behind my favorite YouTuber was slanted because she had made her thigh smaller; I just thought that was her real body. I thought using the app was comparable to using concealer—I didn’t know that I, just like my favorite influencers, was creating a façade.
Years before this, at seven years old, I had asked my mother about makeup. We were driving up a parking garage ramp when she told me that when someone frequently wears a lot of makeup, people sometimes think they’re sick or tired when they sport their bare face. I remarked, “I’m just never going to start to wear makeup! Then I won’t ever have to worry about being seen without makeup, or people thinking I look sick.” She smiled and shook her head, explaining that when I was older I would end up feeling left out.
Though she only meant that I would feel left out when it came to wearing makeup, growing up in the Instagram age has made me feel excluded from everything. After years on social media, my veteran eye now notices when any body part is Photoshopped. But even though I now know everything that influencers post on Instagram is most likely fake, I still compare myself to the FaceTune-enhanced TikTokers that are getting more and more famous every day. In an age when teenagers are getting thousands of followers for simply standing in front of the camera and looking pretty, it’s hard not to compare yourself. You wonder how you can possibly measure up to the ever-climbing measures of conventional attractiveness. You teach yourself that the abundance of “likes” and “followers” that they have must mean that they’re superior. You wonder how you, too, can get these likes, how you can replicate what they’re doing. But the issue is that, oftentimes, they’re not doing anything at all—they’re just using filters. Filters that turn their normal noses into upturned, perfect ski slopes, filters that give them Angelina Jolie-esque cheekbones, filters that give the illusion of plastic surgery without having to spend $10,000 on that nose job.
Instagram filters called “BEAUTY” and “ANGELS” by user @alexandra__kisa have gained immense popularity. Alexandra herself boasts one million followers, her bio reading, “Follow to unlock my filters, new filters every week!” The filters are all different, each one offering up a new novelty like fake tattoos or the word “babe” printed on your face. But what they all have in common are perfectly positioned freckles, a small button nose, full lips, shiny and straight teeth, and doe eyes—everything social media has trained us to want.
After removing one of those filters, the fantasy is over and your nose looks ten times bigger than it did before. The dysphoria I’m filled with after I click out is extraordinary. These filters are designed to make you look beautiful—but what does beautiful in the age of Instagram mean?
There’s no one version of beautiful. Still, these filters, social media, and FaceTune are all pushing us toward one hyperspecific definition of beauty. In investigating “Instagram face” for The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino writes, “It’s a young face, of course, with poreless skin and plump, high cheekbones. It has catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; it has a small, neat nose and full, lush lips. The face is distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic.” Celebrity makeup artist Colby Smith told [Tolentino], “It’s Instagram Face, duh. It’s like an unrealistic sculpture. Volume on volume. A face that looks like it’s made out of clay. Whether it’s a face made out of clay or glass skin with no pores, everyone wants to have the ‘Instagram face.’”
To be clear, this face is nearly impossible to have. And when you don’t naturally fit that mold, it’s virtually impossible to not end up hating your natural self. It’s not as simple as putting on makeup anymore—we break ourselves down to fit a mold that was built to be wholly unattainable. Will Benzian, a student from California, said to me about Instagram face, “These filters teach us that, instead of beauty stemming from the self, it stems from a product of sorts. Also, filters and FaceTuning apps tend to promote very Eurocentric standards of beauty, which are very alienating for many marginalized groups.”
Trying to fit a mold is no new phenomenon. Since the beginning of society, beauty standards have created anguish for those subject to them. In the 19th century, eating arsenic wafers to lighten your skin was the norm, and women in Imperial China bound their feet to make them as tiny as possible. Though arsenic wafers are no longer sold and binding your feet is medically frowned upon, beauty is still pain. A blog post from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia reads, “Adolescents’ constant access and digestion of these images can influence unhealthy diet and exercise practices in hopes of looking like edited versions of themselves or their peers.”
I’m not writing this to look down on anyone who uses these readily available face-altering filters. That would be hypocritical, as I’ve probably used one myself at some point today. After all, it’s tempting to slap one on. Even as I’ve been writing this piece, the filters feel impossible to resist. They make me feel beautiful, and I’m aware it’s Instagram’s definition of beautiful, but I still feel beautiful. So I innocently use a filter on my finsta. I post on my story and forget about it. I blur out a blemish. But every time I use one of the filters, every time I open FaceTune, I’m subconsciously programming my brain to think that my normal face isn’t good enough.
By Chloe Rose
Illustration by Yoo Young Chun