“Apparently, this filter shows your face, but 'perfect.'” You've probably heard some version of that line voiced over a slew of videos of users experimenting with beauty filters that warp face shapes or blur complexions. The filter seems ridiculous (the audio clip even ends in a disgruntled "what the heck?"), but knowing how dramatically filters can change one’s image doesn’t stop people from using them.
Yes, some filters are fun, like the ones that surround your head with a halo of butterflies. But the filters that warp facial features are known to have an impact on behavior. A 2019 study (which illustrates the connection between self esteem, use of social media and photo-altering devices, and the acceptance of plastic surgery) found those who've used Instagram photo filters showed increased consideration in cosmetic surgery. And while we're all for doing whatever you feel is right for your own body, it's paramount to identify why you're after such changes before going through with them. Are we chasing something that isn't real, and, thus, completely unattainable regardless of surgery? "Heavy filter use can result in social anxiety and damage self-esteem because we can never be 'good enough' if our standard is an artificially constructed 'perfect' version of ourselves," says media psychologist Pamela Rutledge, phD. “It not only impacts what people are willing to share online, but it undermines confidence when we look in the mirror."
In this story, we are referring to beauty filters that warp facial features, like slimming noses, blurring complexions, and more.
We’ve seen the research, poured over stories written by numerous outlets with psychologist input, and witnessed celebrities speak their truth about the phenomena—but what does this mean for our future? Are beauty filters a vice we’ll continue to lean on, regardless of our understanding of their detriment, or is there change on the horizon? We tapped readers and experts for their thoughts.
Meet the Expert
- Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, is a practicing licensed neuropsychologist in New York City. She is a member of Byrdie’s Medical Review Board.
- Pamela Rutledge, PhD, is a media psychologist and Director of the Media Psychology Research Center, an organization with a mission to study and promote positive development and use of media and technology. She is on the doctoral faculty of Media Psychology at Fielding Graduate University
- Dana Myers, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker based in Philadelphia who incorporates a holistic therapeutic style by using a biopsychosocial framework to gain a better understanding of her clients.
Why Do We Use Beauty Filters
Using beauty filters changes one's appearance. That’s obvious—what isn't so apparent is the physiological response behind the desire to use one. Neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, likens the effect of using beauty filters to addiction, like cigarettes and gambling. “Filters, like other positively-reinforcing things, can trigger the reward center in the brain,” she says. “Reward centers work by activating the dopamine pathway and encouraging behavior to keep getting the 'rewards,’ which in this case feed our need for aesthetic and social approval.” Dana Myers, LCSW echoes this, citing it as the reason why people continue to use the filters despite knowing that they can be unhealthy and unhelpful.
"Our brains weren’t designed for social media," adds Rutledge. "Frequency and social validation in the form of likes and comments makes things seem more important in terms of social norms." She goes on to explain that the doctored images you see on Instagram can trigger emotions before your brain allows you to process a reaction. It’s crucial for social media users to be aware of these emotions and take the time to process them.
What People Have to Say About Using Beauty Filters
With the information available on the effects of beauty filters on mental health, people remain split when it comes to their stance on using them. Many have moved toward posting more raw images of themselves—cutting down on or completely cutting off use of filters that alter their appearances. Byrdie's news director Madeline Hirsch is one of them. "I've definitely used the Paris filter on IG Stories, which makes your skin smoother and adds all that subtle Instagram glow stuff," she says. "I stopped using filters because I got exhausted and bored by the way Instagram used to look," she says. "I feel like we all reached peak ‘curated’ in 2018, and since then anything that is clearly doctored or posed looks old-fashioned."
Senior beauty editor Aimee Simeon, who was "obsessed" with a jawline-slimming, complexion-smoothing beauty filter, moved away from filters as well. "As time passed and I grew busier, I thankfully also grew less concerned with my appearance in selfies," she says. "I love the woman who looks back at me in the mirror—dark circles, full face, and all. While social media makes life more fun in many cases, I think excessive use of beauty filters contributes to the distorted reality that many [struggle] to achieve."
Others view filters as a means to feel more put-together (as a substitution for makeup), tweak small aspects of their appearance (deleting signs of puffiness), and even cope with full-blown insecurities. “Looking in the mirror at myself, I am content, but once I take a photo, I become totally fixated on the breakouts I often have along my jawline,” says 29-year-old Lena Kaur.* "I'll fixate and start going down a rabbit hole, nitpicking every little flaw, or blemish. I’ve been insecure about my acne since I was a teenager. Using filters makes me feel better about myself and makes me more comfortable sending selfies to friends."
Ahead, some feedback Byrdie collected from both editors and readers.
- “I use them for subtle changes, but nothing too dramatic. I slim my face when I look a little puffy and blur out blemishes. I know it’s okay to be puffy and have blemishes, but it makes me feel better when I put what I think is my best face forward.” - Jana C., 36
- "Damned if you do or don’t, filters may perpetuate the idea that you, in your purest form, aren’t 'perfect' or 'desirable,' which further feeds into the unhealthy expectations put on women daily. I don’t knock anyone who uses beauty filters, but there’s enough pressure in life already. The work feels more valuable when I actively try to love myself versus changing myself." - Aimee S., 28
- “I’ve stopped using them as frequently—and have since learned to love myself more—but I tend to use a filter here and there. On no-makeup days when my skin doesn’t look it’s best, I’ll add a subtle filter that will even out those dark spots and under eyes. It creates the effect my concealer would have, and I feel more put-together." - Ashley A., 26
- “I only use them to sometimes whiten my teeth or delete a pimple. I don’t actually change my facial features because it seems like too much effort and time and I want my photos to look like the real me." - Emily C., 23
- “Using filters isn’t an everyday thing for me, and I would prefer it never be. As a beauty editor, I think all of our goals are to make readers feel confident in who they are, not how a filter makes them feel. After all, that feeling is temporary." - Angela T., 26
- “I like using them for fun on IGS sometimes, but I don’t think it’s good for your mental health when it alters your appearance." - Nikita C., 30
- “I feel like the ones that pinch my nose and inflate my lips make me look ridiculous, but I dabble in them because they look funny. I don't use filters seriously—only for fun." - Marianne M., 33
- “I love me. I don’t need them—I’ve learned to embrace my age." - Dawn B., 50
- “I don’t like that most of them make me look Caucasian with light colored eyes. I now try to post raw photos for selfies, as I’m learning to appreciate my natural features." - Gloria Y., 32
If nothing changes, professionals predict more strain on mental health. Myers says she observed a spike in social media-related anxiety disorders in her work as a therapist. “We will continue to see increased body dysmorphia and body image issues as a result of beauty filters due to the unrealistic or unattainable standards of beauty that exist,” she says. “Due to the prevalence of cancel culture in society today, I can also imagine that persons who continue using filters without declaring such may be called out, which may lead to increased bullying, labeling, or name-calling on the internet, which can also be unhealthy or toxic."
Hafeez adds that there is an uptick in plastic surgery related to beauty filters, which can create additional issues down the line. "The problem with this interest in plastic surgery—apart from the invasive surgery, cost, and complication—is the never-ending quest to achieve an unrealistic image of self,” she says. “It’s a tricky, slippery slope, and will lead to a global decline in a healthy self-image. There are social-emotional, psychological, and relationship factors associated with this."
The phenomena has, however, triggered the following actions.
Brands Are Taking a Stand
Brands are encouraging their followers to love their natural features. In 2021, CVS Beauty kicked off its #CVSFilterDetox Challenge—a ten day initiative motivating Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok users to stop using beauty filters. "The goal was to take a step back and analyze the impact that all this filtering is having on our mental health," says Erin Condon, Vice President, of Front Store and Omnichannel Marketing at CVS Health. The challenge yielded 400K uses of the brand’s filter (which features an overlay of the brand’s logo and hashtag and shows its user without face-altering effects) on Snapchat and 49 million video views across all three platforms of videos featuring the challenge’s graphic or hashtags.
In 2020, Tula Skincare launched its EmbraceYourSkin initiative, which enlisted influencers to encourage skin positivity. According to the brand, it directed its influencer partners to keep content unfiltered when using the initiative’s hashtag. In 2017, Dove pledged to only show real women with "zero digital distortion" in its ads and has since kept this promise. The list goes on.
Psychologists Use This Information to Inform Research
"I do believe with increased awareness around this topic, mental health professionals are taking into account its severity and making efforts to explore persons' history and current behaviors around social media usage," says Myers. When meeting with clients, she briefly explores their relationship with their social media and seeks to identify any anxiety related to it. "Phone and social media addiction, social anxiety, or anxiety related to media can be treated with tools that clinicians are trained like cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and more."
But there is still a lot of work to do. Myers wants to see more formal training options for mental health professionals surrounding these topics, explaining that she doesn’t see a filter-less world ahead of us.
Transparency Sanctions Are Being Put in Place
Earlier this year, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which regulates advertising in the U.K., has ruled against the use of filters on influencer or brand advertisements that can prove misleading. "The use of filters in ads is not inherently problematic but is likely to become an issue if a filter exaggerates the efficacy of the product being advertised, and it will be the advertiser's responsibility to demonstrate that is not the case," a statement released by the ASA says.
Myers says this is a positive step toward promoting awareness around the impact of beauty filters, but has one word of caution: "It does not solve the underlying issues. In order to understand the impact it is having on our own mental health, it is important to ask ourselves these important questions: Why are people using beauty filters in the first place? What are the benefits and or consequences of using beauty filters or not using such filters?"
Hafeez adds that younger, more impressionable people should receive some regulation, like limited social media usage.
What Can We Do?
Understand Filters Perpetuate Certain Beauty Standards
Many filters slim jawlines, noses, enlarge lips, and lighten complexions, which often reinforces a specific Euro-centric standard of beauty. Byrdie's commerce editor Angela Trakoshis cites lip enlarging filters as a particularly triggering trend. "Black people are often criticized for the fullness of their lips, and now these filters are giving injections without the needle,” she says. "It’s a racist concept, as the acceptance of larger lips is likely connected to the so-called 'Kylie Jenner effect,' which glorifies the feature on a Caucasian woman and has young, impressionable youths feeling like they have to live up to a certain standard of beauty."
"I believe beauty standards are heavily influenced by white supremacy and capitalism," says Myers. She believes more awareness, education, and honest discussion we can have as a society regarding the history of beauty standards—where we are learning this information and who is sharing it—is important.
Curate Your Feed
Myers says being mindful of the media you are consuming is key to protecting your self-esteem. She suggests taking a look at your feeds and asking yourself if you feel uplifted and inspired by the content or insecure. If you find that images with beauty filters are making you feel self-critical, you shouldn’t feel bad about unfollowing that account. If you do choose to continue following a certain account, ask yourself why you are choosing to follow it, Myers says.
Take Breaks From Social
Hafeez says short breaks can be invaluable when it comes to protecting your mental health. Her suggestion is to start by taking a few hours off from social media and gradually increasing that time to days.
*Some names have been changed.
Chen J, Ishii M, Bater KL, et al. Association between the use of social media and photograph editing applications, self-esteem, and cosmetic surgery acceptance. JAMA Facial Plast Surg. 2019;21(5):361-367. doi:10.1001/jamafacial.2019.0328