I'm no stranger to a photo filter. In fact, after learning from Jessica Alba that the "beauty" filter on Instagram Stories paired with a flash makes for the perfect selfie, I've become captive to its skin-smoothing and brightening prowess. I've also shamelessly gone into Photoshop to remove a blemish, smooth under-eye bags, and the like. But before this past April, I'd never used popular editing app FaceTune. I hadn't even downloaded it to my phone. Admittedly, with just surface-level knowledge of the app, I thought it was intended for reshaping and altering your looks in a pretty major way. I'd seen enough celebrity photo fail headlines where the vertical pattern in the wallpaper had gone wavy from cinching a body part, and given that I'm certainly not a photo expert, I was terrified I'd fall victim to obvious 'tuning. But more so than being afraid of being called out on account of poor photo editing, the act of digitally altering my body to look different than it is in real life didn't sit well with me. If I make a body part slimmer in a photo, even if it's just a tiny alteration, that's an inaccurate depiction of what I look like when I'm standing in front of you. Reshaping my thigh is not the same as smoothing a pimple. My thigh is my silhouette; it's part of my body that I walk around with every day. But a pimple? That's a temporary clogged pore that I'd rather exclude from my photo.
Here's the thing: The world of Instagram is competitive and crippling. There's the constant question of whether you're doing enough, posting enough, getting enough likes, looking pretty enough. Enough is enough. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't falling to the pressure, and on a recent trip to Cabo, I had a moment of weakness: My friends and I were snapping rapid swimsuit pictures like we were shooting a magazine spread, and I wasn't happy with the way my body was translating. "I can send it to my friend, Sarah, and have her work her magic," my friend Taylor tells me. "She can literally make you look 10 pounds thinner." This went against everything I stood for, but I was curious if she could touch me up just so that no one would be the wiser. She was a FaceTune savant, allegedly. I toyed with the idea for a few minutes before finally obliging. "Okay, send it over."
Within 10 minutes, she submitted her work. That was fast, I thought, but I was excited to be on the receiving end of a potentially flattering picture. But what was sent back made my stomach turn.
As you can see in the gif above, she made my arm and waist significantly smaller without me giving her any directive as to what to alter. Right there, on my phone, I was able to see what a stranger would change about my body, and it hurt. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't intrigued by the option of having a smaller arm for all of Instagram to see, but I'd been working out for months to get into better physical shape, and my untouched arm was evidence of the gains I've made, even if I thought it looked larger in that photo than I would've wanted. I took the original, unedited picture, brightened it, and posted it to Instagram. This is my beach body, period.
You know those few minutes of complete anxiety you feel after posting a vulnerable picture on Instagram? Yeah, I was panicking a bit. But when the likes and sweet comments rolled in, I felt confident in my decision to post the real me instead of a completely false body that I'll certainly never one day have. I'd be cat-fishing everyone who scrolled by it if I did.
Since then, though, things have taken a bit of a turn: For my and my boyfriend's anniversary, he wanted to post a picture of me, but I was self-conscious of his photo choice, so I decided to try my hand at cinching my body with FaceTune, a completely hypocritical move, to be sure. I spent a good 15 minutes pinching at my phone screen, but every time I was "done," I'd feel like I was lying to myself and start over again. Eventually, I threw in the towel and let him post the unedited picture. He wanted to post a picture of me, after all—not a doctored version of what I wished I looked like.
Listen, I'm certainly not against FaceTune—since April, it's actually earned permanent residency on my phone. I've learned that it's not just a body-altering app but that it has functions to make slight adjustments, like smoothing a blemish, lessening the look of dark circles, and brightening your complexion. I use it often, actually; apparently, 20 million other people use it, too. But I also understand that photo-editing apps can be problematic—they run the risk of directly contributing to or heightening body image issues. Says Vivian Diller, Ph.D., "When women believe they can achieve perfect physical features simply because photos can alter images to appear as if it's possible, they feel badly about their bodies." Adds Kelsey Latimer, Ph.D., LP, assistant director of the East Coast at Outpatient Programs at Center for Discovery, "No one thing causes an eating disorder. However, social and cultural factors (such as photoshopping) can influence a person's belief that they need to attain a certain image to be accepted by culture." While keenly aware of the downward spiral drastic FaceTuning can take me down, I'm comfortable with my decision to lightly retouch. I use brightening and skin-smoothing skincare products and "edit" hyperpigmentation and blemishes with foundation and concealer, so why can't I do the same with an app? It's digital makeup, if you will, but if ever my pictures start to look like a blurred mirage of my actual face or once again I get the itch to reshape a body part, I'm tapping out.