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PUsing a beautifying filter on the TikTok video she was shooting seemed harmless to Mia. It looked like she had put on makeup, removed the suspicion of a double chin that still bothered her, and gently altered her bone structure to make it a little closer to perfection.

After a while, using filters on videos became second nature – until she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and realized, to her horror, that she no longer recognized her own. face.

“I felt so ugly… It’s a very scary moment,” she said.

“When you have this filter in place all the time… you almost disassociate yourself from that mirror image because you expect you to look like this.” Then when you don’t, the thoughts of self-harm begin. It’s pretty dastardly the way you think of yourself next.

Live augmented reality filters on photo and video-based social media platforms including TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat aren’t new, but they’ve gone from silly hats, puppy ears, and scaled-up features. comically to more subtle beautifying effects that may not be immediately obvious to other users.

In addition to adding makeup, many popular filters that have crept into app libraries also change the proportions of the face, usually to fit European female beauty standards, with thinner faces, longer noses. small and full lips.

Mia, who requested that her real name not be used, says she started using filters when one of her TikTok videos unexpectedly went viral and her audience suddenly skyrocketed.

Mia: “I was in bed crying some nights about how ugly and disgusting I felt.” Photograph: Jackson Gallagher / The Guardian

“I’m a bigger girl,” she says. “At the time, I weighed around 100kg, so it was really scary for me to have people looking at me.”

As her video garnered over a million views, abusive comments started pouring in. “I was getting a lot of hate,” she said, adding: filter. So it was so much easier to use them, just to make me feel a little better… but honestly, they don’t even sound like me.

“I was in bed crying some nights about how ugly and disgusting I felt. I am almost 30 years old! I shouldn’t be feeling this… Imagine a 10 year old using these filters. That scares me.

There isn’t a full body of research yet on the psychological effects of these filters, but Dr Jasmine Fardouly, a body image expert at the University of New South Wales, says a study she has conducted last year suggests that the standard of beauty is more inaccessible as young people are exposed online, the more harmful it can be…

“It’s the promotion of an ideal of beauty that is not achievable for you,” she says. “It’s not accessible to anyone, really, because no one looks like it. Everyone’s faces are made to look exactly the same.

“The fact that it is more difficult to know that it is a filter can potentially be worse for the promotion of these ideals.”

When filters are used through TikTok, Instagram, or Snapchat’s built-in software, a small label with the name of the filter appears on the video. While introducing these warnings, both in traditional and social media, has been a key goal of policymakers, Fardouly says research so far does not suggest they are working.

“Research suggests that unless you show people the real version of that person’s appearance, it doesn’t seem to make a difference.”

There is a strong relationship between negative body image and the use of photo editing, but Fardouly says it’s less clear in which direction this correlation is flowing; if people’s self-esteem is lower due to the constant increase in their images or if those with low body image are more likely to use these features in the first place.

“Body dissatisfaction is a strong predictor of eating disorders and a predictor of depression and low self-esteem… There is also a link with an increased interest in cosmetic surgery. “

This is something Amy Hall-Hanson experienced firsthand. The 29-year-old has struggled with body dysmorphia for many years, but says she was never obsessed with her lips until she started using beautifying filters for every Snapchat and Instagram photo she took. ‘she took.

“There are a few filters that make my lips really beautiful… and it made me want to do them,” she said.

“I even played with drawing my lips too much, then I stopped and thought, ‘Why am I doing this? Like, I never had a problem with my lips before in the photos…

“I was looking at myself in the mirror and my lips would look so much thinner than they probably were in real life… I had to take a little break before taking a picture of myself just to put that stamp on. square.”

Fardouly says there are no easy solutions – but there are things social media platforms can do to mitigate the potential damage.

“I think the algorithms could be updated so that more diversity is recommended and shown to people,” she says. “Ease [with] which people can use filters [is a problem]. Especially if they change the structure of the face and promote these unattainable beauty ideals, then it would be helpful to remove these filters from the platforms.

Instagram and its parent company Meta, formerly known as Facebook, have taken action to limit the use of what they call “face modification” effects. Although their open source filter maker, Spark AR, allows you to download effects that change the shape of the face, they will not appear in the “Effects Gallery”, which shows the main effects on the app. that time. Filters that add makeup or smooth skin are detectable there, and users can still use the search feature to find face modification effects.

“Effects that directly promote cosmetic surgery are not allowed on Instagram,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

“We want AR effects to be a safe and positive experience for our community, and we have guidelines for creating and publishing effects using Spark AR. We recognize that creators primarily use face modification and increased functionality to share artistic, playful, and fantastic effects, and these effects are a creative way for our community to express themselves.

Mia is looking at her phone
Mia: “We should really embrace who we are and what we look like. “ Photograph: Jackson Gallagher / The Guardian

Snapchat does not have specific restrictions on facial modification or beautification filters submitted by users through the platform’s “Lens Lab”, but a company spokesperson said the focus by the application on private rather than public communication sets it apart from other social media.

“[Snapchat] was created at a time when everyone had a “perfect” self-image online. Snapchat… is private by default to create an environment where people feel free to be themselves in an authentic way.

The spokesperson said Snapchat had “invested in an in-house sociologist to think about the impact of our product and its features on our community.”

“When someone sends a snapshot with a lens to someone else on Snapchat, the recipient always sees what lens it is. “

TikTok does not allow users to submit their own augmented reality effects; they are created by the company. The ethics of a number of their beautifying filters, including “fake freckles” or “glow,” have been the subject of intense debate among users.

TikTok declined Guardian Australia’s request for comment.

Fardouly says social media companies shouldn’t be held solely responsible for damage caused by unattainable beauty standards.

“It’s kind of human nature… A lot of the problems with platforms also come from the desires and motivations of people offline. People have always wanted to present themselves positively to others, this is nothing new.

“It’s just that social media really gives us the tools to control our appearance and to really spend a lot of time investing in our self-presentation – and that’s where the harm can come from. “

For Mia, this came to a head when she was driving the car with a friend and mentioned that she was considering fat dissolving injections to try and get rid of her now virtually invisible double chin.

“He looked at me like I was a crazy person,” she said. “He said, ‘What are you talking about? You don’t have a double chin.

After looking at her oddly unfamiliar and imperfect face in the mirror, Mia realized that she was no longer living up to the message she was using TikTok to send in the first place.

“Some of my content was about how we should really embrace who we are and what we look like,” she says. “But one day I kind of realized that all of this content was a lie and it was going to be so as long as I was using filters.

“I just woke up one day and was like, ‘No, if I post more content, I don’t post with filters anymore.’ And I didn’t.