It all started with a swimsuit. A woman’s first brush with insecurity often does, doesn’t it? Of course, on the day this all began, I was 23 years old. I had experienced more than my fair share of trysts with a warped image of myself. In fact, comparatively speaking, this one was pretty benign.
It was August 2015. The city: Los Angeles. I had just dropped a breezy $125 on my first piece of designer swimwear, and in search of an excuse to wear it in public, I decided to pay a rare visit to the beach.
I doused my pallid complexion in my favorite Hawaiian Tropic Sunscreen ($8), grabbed a woven hat, and summoned my live-in shutterbug (aka boyfriend). If this indoor cat was going oceanside for the day, in a ritzy two-piece no less, there had to be photographic proof.
Of course, as luck would have it, this particular stretch of coastline ended up being too rocky for sunbathing and too windy for the barely-there fabric in which I’d planned to spend the afternoon. But boy, was it pretty. And what does one do when they’re in a new outfit on a beautiful beach? One Instagrams it, of course.
Here’s the thing though: I hadn’t been to the beach in over a year, and I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a picture of myself in a swimsuit. It’s not that I didn’t like what I saw. Actually, I thought the photos looked great. However, I did spy a few teensy nips and tucks I could stand to make to my frame, digitally speaking. After all, this was going to be on the Internet.
So, as an experiment, I downloaded an app I always swore I’d never touch. It was the most expensive one I’d ever purchased, not to mention something I’d forever associated with phonies and narcissists. Despite all this, within two minutes, I was surfing the many features of Facetune ($4).
I wish I could say that I quickly decided the app wasn’t for me and permanently deleted it from my phone. But that is not at all what happened.
I first caught wind of Facetune after its release in 2013. At that time, the general attitude toward the app, at least in my circle, was “What has the world come to?” All I knew about Facetune was that it could be used to drastically alter your appearance to the point of looking like a Barbie-fied shell of your former self. It was the plastic surgery of photo editing apps—first a chin reduction, then a brow lift, and before you know it, your virtual visage has been revised into oblivion.
Over the next year, several news stories emerged surrounding celebrities using Photoshop and Facetune to edit their Instagram photos. This only solidified my suspicion. Photoshopping magazine covers, sure, but this? Who has time to put all that effort into Instagram?
In 2014, I wasn’t yet clicked into the culture of brand-building that exists so prevalently on Instagram today. Little did I know that a year later, I’d understand the power of Facetune.
Facetune is a pretty impressive app. Upon first scroll, it reminded me of a more user-friendly Photoshop, scaled down to the features you’d specifically want for editing selfies.
You’ve got your whitening tool for transforming your teeth (and eye whites) into that of a movie star. You’ve got your smooth and blur tools for airbrushing any frizz in your hair or unwanted texture in your skin. There’s a “details” tool to highlight your eyes, a “patch” tool for blemishes, a redeye corrector, a selection of filters and frames, and (the crowd favorite) a “reshaping” feature for helping you ever so subtly lose five pounds like *that.*
I eagerly uploaded my swimsuit photo into the app. I light-handedly smoothed over my hair and legs, pulled in my waist and thighs a smidge. The edits were restrained and took maybe three minutes. This was only my first foray into Facetune, after all.
I selected an Instagram filter, applied a slight tilt-shift, and posted it. In the end, I was satisfied with my work. Facetune didn’t have to be as soul-crushing as I once thought. A little light retouching never hurt anyone. What else can this thing do? I wondered.
When I got home from the beach, I did a quick YouTube search for photo editing tutorials. The results yielded were in the hundreds. Clearly, tons of people were interested in learning how to perfect their digital likeness. Instagram editing was more than a compulsion, I realized. It was a community.
I swiftly devoured Facetune how-tos from beauty vloggers Gigi Gorgeous, Lauren Elizabeth, and Claudia Sulewski—women with major Instagram followings and distinctive, highly curated aesthetics. I soon learned that their seemingly effortless, color-coordinated shots, complete with shiny hair and blemish-free skin, came with a price.
Gigi demonstrated how she used the whiten and detail tools to make her highlight more highlighted and her false lashes crisper and more defined. Claudia revealed a method for color-correcting the backgrounds of her photos using the “tones” feature so that there wouldn’t be a single ill-fitting hue amid her account’s cool-toned theme.
The techniques they used were creative yet simple and produced stunning results. Suddenly I started questioning why I’d stuck up my nose at Facetune for so long. I wondered if everyone I knew had been using the app all along, and if not, why weren’t they?
Now that I had been exposed to the wizardry of Facetune, I couldn’t wait to explore its limits. I used the reshaping tool to lengthen my eyelashes and raise the arch of my brows. I moved freckles around on my face just for the hell of it. I employed Claudia’s technique to alter the color of background elements, like flowers, so they’d better suit my bright blue scheme.
After editing a photo, my heart would leap with giddiness as I tapped Facetune’s “before” and “after” button. I marveled at how the right series of minor changes could add up to this heightened, high-def version of myself.
In my defense, this newfound affinity for the app wasn’t motivated by pure vanity. I had a sincere appreciation for the technology. The app was sleek, and the things it could do were very cool. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also love that I could use it to doctor my flaws. A few weeks after downloading Facetune, I couldn’t imagine posting a photo of myself without running it through the app first. I’d become one of those people who carve out a 10-minute chunk of her day to edit an Instagram. I would never have predicted how slippery that slope could be.
I could feel my Facetune habit becoming extreme. But it didn’t occur to me to stop. That is, not until I experienced a mini Facetune scandal of my own.
About a month after I started ’tuning, I took a trip to Portland, where I met up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. “We have to get a selfie together!” we agreed. Before leaving to catch my flight back to L.A., we snapped a few rushed photos of ourselves in front of my hotel. “I hope they look okay,” she said. “It doesn’t matter,” I replied. “I’ll Facetune them until they do!
I spent the car ride to the airport furiously smoothing our skin, slimming our faces, and brightening our eyes. I was a mad scientist at work. I was both Frankenstein and his monster. After I finished, I proudly texted my friend the “after” shots. “Whoa,” she replied. “These are Facetuned." I ignored her remark and posted one anyway. My work was understated. Just a little tweak here and there. I was doing us a favor!
When I landed in L.A., I checked my notifications to see that I’d received a comment on the photo from my boss at work. In so many words, she said she could tell the photo was clearly Facetuned. In a panic, I glanced back at the original. This is what I think they call rock bottom. Right there, sitting on the LAX tarmac, I heatedly scrolled through my Instagrams from the past month. Under the plane’s harsh fluorescent lights, I noticed plastic skin and buckled shapes in the background from where I’d slimmed down my arms and waist. My eyes looked cartoonish.
I felt embarrassed. I’m sure my boss wasn’t the only one who could tell what I was up to. This phony, self-conscious person wasn’t who I wanted to be, online or off.
After this sobering realization, I scaled way back on the ’tuning. Over the next several months, I continued using it to color-correct the backgrounds of my photos and to lightly smooth my hair and skin. But every now and then, I’d slip back into my old ways. I’d slim myself down beyond what was reasonable for people to believe. I’d augment my eyelashes like that of a Disney princess. I couldn’t help it.
Because the weird thing about Facetune is that once you start, it isn’t a choice anymore. You never get the chance to instantly shape your ideal self in real life; the app makes that possible. You get addicted to the fantasy—to the person you could be with just a few little tweaks. But just like any other addiction, altering your appearance, even digitally, can quickly snowball. And until you have some sort of “aha” moment that shakes you awake, you forget what a photo of yourself is even supposed to look like.
But here’s what I’ve learned: My “ideal self” isn’t someone with model-thin arms and skin like a glass doll. Instead, the version of myself that I want people to see, on Instagram and IRL, is someone who is relaxed in her own shape. Proud even. There’s room for artistic curation in the photos you post online. But for me, Facetune isn’t helping me share a life that, in reality, I already think is pretty fantastic.
So I’m quitting. For real this time. I’ll find another way to change the flowers in the background of my shots from red to blue. Or maybe from now on, I won’t. Maybe, for a change, I’ll simply let the flowers be red.