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How Facetune made me see myself through a darker lens

In Native American legend, it was believed that a photograph could steal a person’s soul, which was why many of the people refused to have their picture taken. 

I often think of this as I scroll through my never-ending phone gallery of failed selfies and full-lengths which I force my long-suffering boyfriend to take of me before a night out. I examine my painstakingly edited snaps – all plastered smiles, hands-on-hips and a dead-behind-the eyes desperation for the winning pose – and I pick the best shot to upload. Perhaps those wise, spiritual people of generations past could sense what was coming. 

I remember when I first began dabbling in photo-editing apps for Instagram back in 2013. After searching around for a quick-fix way to perfect my selfies, I downloaded the free MoreBeaute app. It was amateurish, with four heavily standardised features for ‘brightness’ ‘details’ ‘tone’ and ‘smoothness’ which filtered the whole picture rather than targeting specific areas. I cringe now at my unnaturally smoothed-over, waxen complexion in younger photos. My face was bright and white, shining like a moon – and so obviously edited – but I didn’t care then. Those days seemed so naive and innocent, as I raved about this technology and showed all my friends how they could look ‘better’ in an instant. 

But the following year, as I became more selfie-savvy, I binned this humble app after discovering the sleeker, more advanced Facetune, which boasted a wider range of beauty powers – now the biggest open secret of the Instagram cognoscenti. 

Needless to say, I was hooked. It started off small. I would erase blemishes, whiten my eyeballs and boost my limp hair. As bikini season approached, I delved deeper – a slight tweak to my waist, subtly fleshing out my bust and rounding out my hips. 

This little app was like cosmetic surgery at your fingertips – a way to remedy my shrinking confidence and present the idealised ‘me’ to the world without multiple photo retakes – but it magnified my own insecurities in an unprecedented way. I quickly began pin-pointing things about my appearance that never bothered me before with forensic scrutiny. My bulbous, shiny nose; the nasolabial folds that creased too deeply, casting shadows on my face; my uneven hairline; the way my top lip receded with a broad smile – which, disappointingly, didn’t stop after I got lip fillers. 

This hatred of my face had become so pathological that I began avoiding getting my photo taken by someone else as I had no ‘control’ over the end result. What should have been a fun snapshot with friends at a party became an agonising exercise in self-hate. The girls would roll their eyes at my protests at what I considered an “ugly” photo, telling me I looked “fine” – but deep down I could barely concede that this was what I truly looked like. Basically, this hyper-critique of my own body created a monster. 

Stupidly, I also lived in fear that people would spot the difference between myself and my doctored Instagram selfies. The true extent of my guilty secret was once exposed in the early hours of the morning at a house party, where we were all looking slightly worse for wear. A girl sitting next to me spied me checking my Facebook on my phone and shrieked, ‘Oh my God! Let me see your profile photo!’ My stomach plunged with dread. As expected, she couldn’t believe how unrecognisably good I looked in picture, with my shiny hair and reshaped bone structure, compared to how I looked there and then. I thanked her and joked that the hangover wouldn’t do my looks much justice, while willing myself not to curl up and die on the sofa. 

The likes and comments still came rolling in, but my endless pursuit of validation – to feel truly beautiful – was double-bound in needling self-consciousness and guilt. This was not how I truly looked. This wasn’t just a ‘good filter’ – I was hoodwinking my followers. I was feeding into the vicious cycle of unattainable perfection that I’d railed against for years as a feminist. But once you start, you can’t stop – and I still haven’t. 

Researcher Ana Sofia Elias has published the first research paper on how selfie-editing apps such as Facetune, Perfect 365 and Skinneepix affects women’s perception of themselves. She argues that this new technology has created a new regulatory ‘gaze’ upon women; we strive for beauty and constant reinvention, and improving our appearance has become an end goal in itself. A cognitive dissonance exists between the relief and pleasure you feel looking at the finished article – while an underlying sense of shame and failure bubble beneath the surface. 

Cultural theorist Angela McRobbie has described a sort of ‘double-entanglement’ of modern womanhood, in which we bargain our feminist politics in exchange for freedom, empowerment and agency. We want to please ourselves and feel confident, but at the same time we’re subconsciously shackled to ever-elusive beauty norms and an anonymous, ever-watching digital gaze – all through the neoliberal prism of choice. I take a photo of myself, I edit it; I choose what ‘self’ I show to the digital world. I am at once reclaiming my body and choosing how people should see it – empowerment – yet paradoxically continue to fuel the toxic, perpetual myth that a woman’s appearance isn’t good enough on its own. 

I click the ‘before’ picture and scrutinise my uneven skin, my bulbous nose and flat hair, seeing an ugly, distorted version of myself. I click ‘after’ and view my idealised self, fine-tuned and retouched; this warped reality becomes more ‘me’ than the original photo. This could be me, I tell myself – if only I spent more hours in front of the mirror, contouring my cheekbones and hair-spraying my roots to get closer to the finished work. Then all I’d need is the money for a nose job, hair extensions and Botox to be that woman. I am trapped in a body which doesn’t ‘fit’ me – so I’m just ‘reclaiming’ the beauty I feel I deserve. I want to view myself the way everyone else online sees me – but that comes at a price. 
Christina O’NeillAs the philosopher Jean Baudrillard theorised, this ‘hyper-real’ simulation of myself has become more recognisable to me than the one looking back at me in the mirror. In his words, this denial of my original self – as I fruitlessly snap away, trying to take the perfect photo before admitting defeat and running it through Facetune – “conceals the truth that there is none.”  
Elias also refers to the Facetouchup app, which allows the user to try out various cosmetic surgery procedures. The paper reports that the app boasts direct links to surgeons and practices with the app ensuring them that they can “attract new patients, elevate your practice and increase patient acceptance, satisfaction and word of mouth” – and it seems like they could be reaping what they sow. In a 2014 survey by the American Academy Of Facial Plastic And Reconstructive Surgery, one in three surgeons in the US saw a surge in patients citing photograph sharing on social media as their primary reason for wanting to go under the knife. AAFPRS also reported that two thirds of member surgeons were treating more and more patients aged under 30. Over 51,000 Britons went under the knife in 2015, which is a 13% increase on 2014, according to the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons.
Leading Beverly Hills cosmetic surgeon Dr Mani, whose client list includes a number of celebrities, says patients come in more and more with pictures taken of other people from Instagram – or filtered pictures of themselves. 

“Instagram has made people more attentive to their looks and beauty, which is good to a certain extent, but I think preoccupation wit anything that involves the self to an extreme degree is unhealthy,” he said. 

“In the old days, you had your time to look in the mirror to build up your confidence and then you were done. Now it's all about, ‘Oh, I look fat from this angle or that angle.’ I know celebrities who can get preoccupied with that, but that's their job.  

He added: “They get sent photos where people are asking, ‘Why is your cheek like that? Or ‘Why does your lip look bigger?’ Other people actually do notice those flaws, but now the general population have become like that – and they don't make money from how they look! 
If someone does bring in a ridiculously Facetuned photo, I’ll tell them I can't make them look like that – nor would I want to. I'm telling them to back off and think about who they're trying to be.”  

He cautions: “Remember that it's serious surgery. It's a medical procedure. it's not like going to the nail salon. There are risks involved and people need to understand that – and life is not all about how you appear on social media.” 

In this digital age where women have been given a powerful platform to express themselves, to be seen and heard, Elias argues that selfie-modification apps serve to ‘put us back in our place’ by capitalising on our insecurities and turning our bodies into a “site for crisis and commodification” – all while ensuring our lips are firmly sealed. “No one needs to know. It’s our little secret,” slimming app Skinneepix reassuringly coos to its user. After all, is there a greater selfie sin than admitting how much effort you really put in? 

Australian psychologist Dr Vivienne Lewis wrote the book No Body’s Perfect, a helper’s guide for parents and teachers to promote positive body image in girls and young women. She says she treats young patients at her private clinic every day with body dysmorphia, who spend “hours and hours” editing their selfies before posting them online – and it’s becoming a worrying trend. 

She said: “People present these particular images of themselves online and they know that’s not what they really look like and it becomes an obsession. Girls tell me, ‘People can’t see me as I really am anymore, as I’ve already put this perfect picture of myself up. Now what do I do?’ They then have to make sure they pay lots of attention to their appearance, around friends and at school. It can really mess with people’s mental health.” 

Lewis added: “For school photos and things, it’s quite common to edit and get rid of the odd pimple and that’s fairly harmless. But completely changing the structure of your face, your skin tone, your hair and all that? You aren’t the person in that picture, at the end of the day. 

“If you’re feeling depressed, anxious or stressed from this, you need time out from social media. The more things you do that aren’t about appearance, the healthier and happier you’ll be.” 

Could my feelings of guilt, failure and self-hatred really go away if I just deleted Facetune, once and for all? 

I tap and hold the Facetune icon on the screen. The ‘x’ appears and I watch it tremble as it awaits my decision, the heat burning against my hovering thumb. All this beauty and power in such a tiny little app. I sigh in withered defeat, click the lock button on my phone and my screen plunges into darkness. This app might be a selfie lifesaver – but perhaps it could just steal your soul.