For a few months last year, I was obsessed with my left eye. Before you ask: yes, I am aware of the concept of war and wars ongoing, and yes, I still cared a lot about my wonky eye. Every morning on my way to work, I would take a selfie on the train platform and recoil in horror at the result. I was hideous. My left eye was smaller than my right. Why weren’t babies wailing at me in the street?
It was a relief, then, when scientists from Stanford University’s department of computer science discovered last month that selfies distort our faces like a “funhouse mirror”. Plastic surgeon Boris Paskhover, who co-authored the study, found the average selfie – taken 12 inches from the face – alters a person’s looks, making their nose appear 30 per cent wider than it is in real life. Paskhover said this distortion could be a public health concern, as 55 per cent of American facial plastic surgeons have seen patients who wanted procedures to look better in selfies.
If you’ve never hated your face, this all seems horribly frivolous (don’t worry, I still haven’t forgotten war). But 34 per cent of British girls aged ten to 15 are unhappy with their appearance, telling researchers from the Children’s Society that they feel “ugly” or “worthless”. The 2016 Good Childhood Report found the pressures of social media were at least partially responsible for this unhappiness, with one 12-year-old saying: “All you can see is pictures of celebrities and my friends looking beautiful in selfies and everything, and then there’s just me.”
It’s easy to see how teenage hormones, selfies mathematically proven to distort your face, and celebrities’ perfect Instagram pictures can make teenage girls unhappy. But there’s another factor in the mix. Facetune is an exceptionally popular £3.99 selfie-editing app that allows users to “improve” the way they look.
More than ten million people have purchased the software, which lets them slim their jaws, enlarge their eyes and plump their lips at the touch of a button. One teenager I spoke to called it “the digital version of plastic surgery”. In the early 2000s, much was made of the fact that young women picked up unrealistic body expectations from magazines – we now get them from each other.
“I only really use Facetune when my skin is severely acting up and I’m having a breakout, I just use it to smooth my skin a bit,” says 19-year-old Keira, a student from Liverpool who asked that I didn’t use her last name. Keira worries that by clearing up her spots she could be “perpetuating social views that acne is gross”, but enjoys using the app overall. “Being able to make myself look better makes me happy,” she says.
In February, the model Chrissy Teigen tweeted about this societal obsession with digital skin-smoothing. “I don’t know what real skin looks like any more,” she wrote, gaining 7,000 retweets and 65,000 likes. Just before Easter, the beauty blogger Huda Kattan told her 24 million Instagram followers that she was “waaay too into Facetune”, arguing that “I think as a community we can all try to use it less”.
Is it possible that we are leading ourselves into a dystopian future where we can no longer appreciate the look of real skin, lips and eyes? My skin often troubles me in selfies, even though I seldom have spots. Rather than any imperfections, it is the roughness and discolouration of real, human skin that I find off-putting.
Jane Lashay, a 19-year-old American waitress, tells me the app has both negative and positive effects on her self-esteem. Some days, she compares herself to the edited, “perfect” photo and feels sad. Yet on other days, she is pleased she can hide the acne with which she has “always” struggled. “Usually, my pimples ruin every good photo I take and it makes me really upset,” she says.
Academic Katrin Tiidenberg has written a book about our obsession with body image and digital representation, Selfies: Why We Love (and Hate) Them. Her view is that the positive and negative consequences of selfie-taking depend on a “particular person’s personality, vulnerability and level of awareness”. Take, for example, 20-year-old Canadian student Monika Koitsis. She has used the app to alter her face only once, and stopped when her mother noticed. Yet her best friend is the other extreme: when Monika takes pictures of them together, her friend won’t allow them to be posted online until she has edited them herself.
As well as Facetune affecting users’ mental health, Tiidenberg notes that the app causes “representational concerns”. Selfies have broadened traditional beauty standards because anyone can be visible to a large audience without the need for a modelling agency or a beauty magazine. Yet Tiidenberg says of Facetune: “We can ask if beautifying selfies re-narrows the standards of what is acceptable to show… making some traits invisible by making everyone look the same.”
Panicking about Facetune, however, can remove agency from young women whose intelligence is underestimated. “If something makes a girl feel good about herself and it’s not affecting your life, then it shouldn’t be an issue,” Koitsis says fiercely.
It’s hard not to be concerned that ten million people feel the need for “digital plastic surgery”. I feel sad to think of a younger me who would have definitely downloaded Facetune to enlarge that pesky left eye. Yet selfies and image manipulation apps now pervade society. Boris Paskhover, co-author of the selfie distortion study, knows the answer is not going under the knife – overcoming his own potential bias as a plastic surgeon. Yet, unfortunately, his research still promotes unrealistic body goals. To take the perfect selfie, the scientists found, humans would need five-foot-long arms.
This article appears in the 04 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire