How Instagram's plastic surgery filters are warping the way we see our faces

Plastic surgery filters have become an unavoidable part of Instagram. But the ramifications of obsessively augmenting our faces are even more extreme than you might think.

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It all started with a pair of dog ears. One of the first pre-set face filters to be added to Snapchat, the dog-ears face filter would give users, yes, a pair floppy dog ears and a broad nose, as well as an augmented reality tongue licking the screen whenever users opened their mouth. But the filter wasn’t really used in order to look like a puppy. It was used because the filter would slim your face, smooth your skin, and elongate your jaw; making anyone who used it look like a FaceTuned version of themselves.

Back in February, the Verge’s senior reporter Ashley Carman wrote her predictions for the future of Instagram face filters: “glossy, metallic, and surreal.”

“A phosphorescent mask wraps around the face of anyone using the Beauty3000 filter, making it look like they just walked out of the shimmer in Annihilation,” she wrote. “It’s eerie, intriguing, and makes everyone look good…Instagram’s creators are moving filter design forward with a less cutesy look and more of a futuristic art kid vibe, often covered in gloss.” Later in the piece, Carman notes that “most of these filters don’t perpetuate Kardashian-esque beauty standards, like contoured faces and manicured eyebrows. Instead, they’re more experimental.”

Over the course of the last month, Instagram – which added its own face filters back in May 2017 – has been pushing a new set of facial effects. “Plastics”, “LVBeauty”, “Top Model Look”, “HOLY NATURAL”, “HOLY BUCKS”, and “Perfect Face” are just a small handful of the Instagram face filters helping users look like they’ve had varying forms of plastic surgery, including cheek and lip fillers, a nose job, brow lifts, and skin-smoothing botox.

Some of these filters look uncannily realistic, most make people look like an alien. But regardless of how they may be perceived by others, people are obsessed with how they make themselves look. “This new Instagram filter has me looking up plastic surgeons”, “would yall be mad at me if i got plastic surgery to look like an instagram filter”, and “*goes to plastic surgeon* me: ok so i wanna look like THIS instagram filter” are are representative of the chorus of responses on Twitter.  

The writer’s normal face with the now-banned “Plastics” filter and the “LVbeauty” filter

“There is a hugely prevalent trend with young girls asking for bigger lips and contoured cheeks in a bid to emulate their filtered selfies on social media,” says Dr Max Malik, a cosmetic doctor at the Cosmetic Clinic.

He tells me he’s concerned by the increase in face-altering filters on Snapchat and Instagram that can be accessed by people as young as 13, nothing that they are pushing young people to constantly up the ante, requesting more and more extreme cosmetic surgery. “These filters and edits have become the norm, altering people’s perception of beauty worldwide,” he says. “...and they don’t sit within, what I term to be, the normalisation ratios of beauty. 

“They can have a significant impact on a patient’s self-esteem,” he tells me, “A young girl at the age of 13 is not only not fully developed physically but the mental ramifications of this can be detrimental.”

What’s additionally jarring about the prevalence of plastic surgery face filters is their popularity among celebrities who have already undergone the plastic surgery they are trying to emulate. From influencers to Love Islanders to Ariana Grande to the Kardashians, the use of these filters by celebrities is a regular occurrence even when they have openly admitted to already having had nose jobs, brow lifts, lip and cheek fillers. And for some celebs, it’s now rare to see them post a selfie on their Instagram Story without a plastic surgery filter on – meaning the filter becomes an inextricable part of the way that their Instagram audiences see their face.

Love Island 2019 finalist Maura Higgins now posts regularly with plastic surgery filters 

Melissa Atkinson is a lecturer and researcher in psychology at the University of Bath. She tells me that the process of internalising cultural appearance ideals (subconsciously absorbing an “ideal standard of beauty” via media and societal messaging) and appearance comparison (automatically comparing appearances of ourselves and others) both play a major role in the obsession with face filters.

“Particularly in Western society, the appearance ideals that are promoted to us reflect such a narrow ideal of beauty that, for most people, it’s unachievable,” she explains. “[But] we have this desire to fit or match or achieve those kinds of ideals that have been promoted to us. So there's an instant gratification in one sense if you can kind of fix your face with a filter.”

Atkinson says there’s a “real danger” that users could become reliant on using face filters. “We get lots of affirmations around our appearance and a lot of that is unintentional – it's a social norm to compliment people on their appearance – but generally we're complimenting people in a way that reinforces these perfect ideals,” she says, “So if somebody's getting affirmations or positive comments when they're using these filters it does then become a problem when they think about using their own face without one, because they've generated this particular image around themselves. I think people do tend to become dependent on that.”

“You can even compare it slightly to using makeup just in a different way – people become very reliant on only going outside of the house if they're wearing make-up because it becomes a part of their appearance and their outward face to the world.”

While I was writing this piece, Instagram announced that it would begin to crackdown on face filters that depicted extreme plastic surgery after a backlash last month for its promotion of the “Fix Me” filter (which literally superimposed plastic surgery-like markings onto the user’s face) and promoting the aforementioned filter “Plastics”. Both of these filters have now been removed.

An Instagram spokesperson explained that the company is currently “re-evaluating” its policies, and that, while it is doing so, it would “remove all effects from the [effects] gallery associated with plastic surgery, stop further approval of new effects like this and remove current effects if they're reported to us."

But this doesn't appear to have been fully enforced. All of the filters I listed above, other than “Plastics” and “Fix Me”, are still available on Instagram, and are still being used by high-profile celebrities and influencers (not just hidden in the niches). And not only that, these filters aren’t just being found through random searches and from seeing other people use them, but are coming up as suggested filters when you open up Instagram’s effects. 

“We're definitely in a time where the research is pretty clear about the negative impacts of idealised media and there's a lot of research now showing that with Instagram, Facebook, and other digital platforms,” Atkinson says. “Those media outlets and big businesses have to show corporate responsibility in recognising that there are negative consequences and doing what they need to and what they can do to reduce that.”

“The problem with filters is that they all serve to conform or reinforce this idea of what we should be trying to achieve. So really whether it says on it ‘cosmetic’ or ‘plastic surgery’ in the filter name or not, what you're putting out in the world and what other people are seeing is this idealised version of beauty and it becomes very hard for people to live in a world where they're constantly seeing these perfect images.

“It's not enough to just plead ignorance.” 

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.