Beauty filters, such as TikTok’s new Bold Glamour, can dramatically alter people’s appearance, and the technology is becoming increasingly seamless. What research can tell us about the psychological effects?

When I first encountered a “beauty filter” – technology designed to “improve” your appearance and now popular on Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok – one of my first thoughts was that it levelled the playing field, and not necessarily in a negative way.

I used to put on make-up before going out before the pandemic. It made me feel more attractive, and the different reactions I got when I put on mascara only added to that impression. But then there was the lockdown, working from home, and having a child. Finding the time and motivation to put on lipstick felt like a distant memory. So, when I first saw a filter that did the work for me – or for my online presence – I was ecstatic. at least – I was amazed. And I had to wonder if there was really that much of a difference between spending 15 minutes in the morning applying make-up and slapping a filter on my online persona. Was the latter simply a clever way to save time?

As beauty filters become more sophisticated, articles decrying their potential impact on everything from our self-esteem to their ability to popularise one specific beauty standard become more common. The release of TikTok’s “Bold Glamour” filter this week, which has a strikingly seamless effect, prompted many users to wonder if technology has gone too far. It has the ability to transform anyone into an airbrushed top model. As one headline reads: “‘This is a problem’: A new hyper-realistic TikTok beauty filter is freaking people out”.

These concerns and criticisms are valid, but they frequently overlook an important factor. Beauty filters, like so much else in technology, were not invented in a vacuum, apart from society, to infect the rest of us. They reflect – and frequently exacerbate – We already have biases and problems. That, of course, is the issue.

Long before the Bold Glamour filter, our society idolised beauty. And it’s not just about physical attractiveness: conventionally attractive people are perceived to be more intelligent and earn a higher income. (However, for women, beauty can backfire in some situations.)

The truth is that we all represent ourselves in some way, whether it’s through our clothing, haircut, glasses, or makeup – and most of the time, it’s in accordance with current beauty standards. While we like to think that we make these decisions based on our personal preferences, we’ve known for a long time that those preferences are shaped by current fashion trends. While there is plenty of research to back this up, you can also just look around you: even a seemingly unchangeable feature like eyebrows has morphed from skinny in the 1990s to super-bold in the 2010s (and it’s already changing again).

Of course, there’s a distinction to be made between following real-life beauty trends and using online filters. Cosmetics can give the appearance of more chiselled cheekbones; a beauty filter chisels them (virtually). But in an era in which minimally invasive, highly effective cosmetic procedures like Botox are becoming more and more popular, too, it’s safe to say that more of the people you see in real life have had a bit more “help” than you might expect. As our ability to shave years off and recreate beauty standards in our own lives has grown exponentially in the real world, we can expect to see the same phenomenon online.

That doesn’t make it any less of a problem. In fact, it can be a vicious cycle: beauty filters aren’t just responding to existing beauty standards; they’re changing offline beauty standards as well. Adolescent girls who use filters, for example, are more likely to consider cosmetic surgery, and plastic surgeons have noticed an increase in clients requesting surgery to look more like their filters. This is especially troubling given that these filters are racially biassed, based on stereotypically “white” characteristics.

And these are just filters for your face. There are numerous ways to modify your body in social media apps, including video. Again, this is nothing new in some ways. Professional models and photographers have long known that certain poses and angles can elongate legs and tighten waists, and have used software to tweak images in post-production. As advocates like Dana Mercer Ricci have shown, today’s social media influencers frequently use these strategies as well. You could argue that by allowing anyone to nip their waist or plump their lips in an online video or photo, these filters are simply making industry tricks more accessible. While some may welcome the increased accessibility of the technology, it is also true that these filters are still too new to know how they affect self-perception and mental health in the long run.

According to the research so far, they may make users feel worse about themselves. Part of it stems from seeing so many heavily filtered and perfect images of other people. Even before the advent of beauty filters, people who spent time on social media sites focusing on others’ idealised lives were more likely to be depressed. However, this is also true when looking at a filter applied to our own image.

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Adolescent girls, who are particularly vulnerable to internalising images they see in the media, are particularly vulnerable. One study, for example, discovered that when girls aged 14 to 18 were shown either original or retouched selfies, they thought the retouched photos looked better – and those who had been shown retouched photos were less satisfied with their bodies afterwards than those who had not.

While TikTok’s Bold Glamour has received the most attention, there are other filters that are problematic in their own way. The TikTok filter “Teen,” which makes anyone look like an adolescent, is one of the most disturbing. Child safety experts have expressed reservations about the latest, most technologically advanced installment of our obsession with youth. It can be used by adults in sexually enticing poses or clothing, for example, leading viewers to think the person posing is a teen. It once again highlights – and exacerbates – a dangerous aspect of society: in this case, the normalisation of child sexualization.

Beauty filters could be just another step in our culture’s obsession with perfecting our appearance. However, based on the response thus far, they may be going too far.

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