Looking at airbrushed selfies of people you don't know: that's one way to describe the social media experience. Whether we want to be exposed to it or not, an altered reality is something most of us have become all too familiar with in the past 10 years. It comes with the territory of social media, and for many people who see themselves as influencers, the need to uphold a fictitious version of themselves is a part of their livelihoods.
It was only in February 2021, 11 years after Instagram was created, that the Advertising Standards Authority told influencers they can't use filters to advertise products where the filter would exaggerate the effect of the product. Which begs the question, how many times have we been sold a lie before? Or, as Dr Kamleshun Ramphul, one of the writers of "Is Snapchat Dysmorphia a Real Issue?" puts it, "Are we living in a more imaginary world now?" Unfortunately, this goes deeper than selling products. A society where the bases of our social interactions are superficial is a fragile one and can lead to a mental health epidemic. So, what do we do?
One way to combat poor mental health is by building up your self-esteem. This may seem like a big challenge, but once we understand what makes our self-worth so reliant on our environment in the first place, we can start to create healthier and more decisive defence mechanisms to combat the triggering things we see on social media. In the process, we can finally live the fulfilling lives we've always wanted. Before we try to understand why we are so drawn to face-deforming applications, we should understand the effect filters are having on us.
"From a sharper jawline to fuller lips, I've seen trend after trend pass as people asked for cat-eyed features, enhanced freckles, and more unattainable standards of beauty." — Dr Esho
Self-esteem has important real-world consequences because it affects our psychological well-being. A 2019 study about social media use proved it to be true that when we post to social media, we do so looking for validation. Our constant self-inflicted comparison of likes and looks and need for engagement means our self-esteem is being impacted negatively all the time. Filters are a bandage for the major damage being done but won't work in the long run when we finally have to take the filters off.
Dr Tijion Esho, founder of the Esho Clinic and coiner of the term "Snapchat Dysmorphia," told me that the people coming into his clinic were no longer bringing in photos of celebrities they aspired to look like. Now they used their selfies, many of which were edited on the popular airbrushing app Facetune, and asked for specific features to look the way they did in the photos. He noticed that they want their "eyes to appear bigger or skin to be flawless."
Dr Esho made it clear to these clients that these requests are "not something any surgeon or aesthetic practitioner can achieve, as these photos didn't even look human anymore," he said. "From a sharper jawline to fuller lips, I've seen trend after trend pass as people asked for cat-eyed features, enhanced freckles, and more unattainable standards of beauty." When we eventually take these filters off, we're left with low self-esteem because we don't actually look like these "inhuman" levels of perfection. Feelings of inadequacy can make us vulnerable to developing depressive symptoms, especially in adolescence.
So why are we so desperate to be something we aren't? Because we judge each other. Judging people helps us to cope with the uncertainty of our environment while making decisions about our lives. In order to make these decisions, we have to make rash judgments about our environment and the people we come across. Sometimes, these judgments are based on our own shortcomings that are projected onto others. On social media, we open ourselves to a potential wounding of self-esteem when we meet those harsh judgements in such a confronting way.
Filters provide a safe space from those judgments . . . They allow us to blend in with everyone else's perception of beauty.
By posting online, we expose ourselves to the constant, critical projections of people who feel comfortable doing so because they are getting the same scrutiny back. In order to ease the anxiety that comes from an attack on our self-esteem, we use filters. Filters provide a safe space from those judgments relatively quickly and easily. They allow us to blend in with everyone else's perception of beauty, providing a shield against harsh criticism as it pertains to our looks. The problem is we don't actually look like the filters we use, and although filters are providing us with validation, it's short-term. The more we get used to using filters on our images, the more we are persuaded to change our appearance to match them.
Jerry Suls and Ladd Wheeler best explain social-comparison theory in a quote from "Handbook of Social Comparison: Theory and Research": "A house may be large or small. As long as the surrounding houses are equally small, it satisfies all social demands for a dwelling. But let a palace reside beside a little house, and it shrinks from a little house to a hut." Social-comparison theory explains why social media is so dangerous for self-esteem because we are no longer limited to comparisons within our physical surroundings or with the people in our real lives. To make matters worse, we are not even comparing our reality to the actual reality of others, and unfortunately, we also have a natural inclination to compare ourselves.
A 1940 study by Max Hertzman and Leon Festinger confirmed that we are programmed to compare ourselves because we get two very important things through the use of social comparison. The first is that we gauge our aspirations by comparing ourselves to others. Hence, if we feel we don't look as good as someone else and we see that person doing well, we aspire to change our appearance in order to look more like them. The second is that, through informal social communication (literally social media), we discover support for our thoughts and opinions. From this, we develop a sense of whether or not we can achieve things based on whether lots of people agree with us.
Filters create a vicious cycle which causes more people to rely on them to feel good about who they are and what they can achieve.
Research by Gordon Patzer found that physical attractiveness, in this case amplified by filters, plays a dramatic role in a person's interpersonal and professional relationships. It's called the physical-attractiveness phenomena and indicates that by the use of filters, we are essentially gaining more support for our thoughts and opinions because we are living up to the unreasonable ideal of beauty created by others. Filters create a vicious cycle which causes more people to rely on them to feel good about who they are and what they can achieve.
"Loving yourself" is usually the mantra that is associated with high self-esteem, but this doesn't fully represent how we can lay a healthy foundation for our confidence. The reason? If you don't work on figuring out who you are and what you want, "loving yourself" can instead create narcissistic personality traits, not genuine self-esteem. How do we raise self-esteem without the side effects of narcissism? An article from 2020 that talks about raising children's self-esteem may help us figure this out. The techniques discussed suggest being realistic, focusing on growth, and practising unconditional regard. Practising these techniques can create a supportive and compassionate environment without the false sense of superiority that can crumble away easily.
Practising these techniques to build self-esteem means figuring out what triggers your low self-esteem and being honest about it. Do you often come across selfies of other people that make you feel less attractive? Then think about what the root cause is. Can you remember a time when someone else made you feel inadequate because of your looks? Next, it's time to practise self-compassion (or unconditional regard for yourself). An easy way to do this is to take the view of a loving best friend. If you could trust one person explicitly, what would you tell them about your struggles, and what do you think they'd say to you? By doing this, you can relate to yourself in a kind way, even if you perceive something as "less than." Forgive yourself for feeling badly by practicing compassion and remember that it is OK to feel the way you do, but you also have the power to change that thought process.