Insidious “corrective” image filters allow app creators to dictate beauty standards

Portrait thought to be of Simonetta Carraneo Vespucci by Sandro Botticelli c.1480-1485.

In the 15th century, Florentine statesman and all-round bigwig Lorenzo d’Medici (also modestly known as “Lorenzo The Magnificent”) made some pretty outspoken comments on the looks and deportment of the ideal Italian Renaissance beauty. Despite himself being described as “quite strikingly ugly“, Lorenzo was rather specific on what should be considered desirable, basing his high standards on celebrated noblewoman Simonetta Carraneo Vespucci. He writes:

of an attractive and ideal height; the tone of her skin, white but not pale, fresh but not glowing; her demeanor was grave but not proud, sweet and pleasing, without frivolity or fear. Her eyes were lively and her gaze restrained, without trace of pride or meanness; her body was so well proportioned, that among other women she appeared dignified…in walking and dancing…and in all her movements she was elegant and attractive; her hands were the most beautiful that Nature could create. She dressed in those fashions which suited a noble and gentle lady…” (Commento del magnifico Lorenzo De’ Medici sopra alcuni de’ suoi sonetti)

Clearly beauty standards have evolved since Lorenzo’s time — and thankfully we’re probably less concerned about the restraint of our gaze and the beauty of our hands — but this notion of one common beauty ideal for women, dictated from without, unfortunately persists. And while Renaissance women agonized about achieving Simonetta’s bodily proportions and alabaster skin, their 21st century counterparts are turning to technological, and even surgical correction to emulate the new, algorithmically dictated standards for attention-worthy good looks.

Determining who is hottest

It has long been suggested that, intentionally or otherwise, Instagram’s algorithms are biased in favor of thin, white models. Reports like this one have also found that the reach of any given post is significantly bolstered if the subject is scantily clad (researchers found that “refusing to show body parts dramatically curtails one’s audience“). The inevitable upshot is that users of Instagram and other social platforms are often bombarded by homogenized images of beauty, characterized by slim caucasian and light-skinned women posing suggestively in glamorous locations.

Profile of popular Instagram influencer and modern day Simonetta, Hannah Godwin @Hannahg11

Though content creators who find a way to please the moderators and algorithmic curation gods can win big, there has been a demonstrable psychological impact on regular women who feel inadequate by comparison. Indeed, a recent study conducted by experts at the University of Surrey concluded that the more time women (aged 19-32) spend scrolling sexy images on Instagram, the more likely they are to want cosmetic surgery.

A tech solution

As with most things these days, it seems there is a tech-driven solution to poor self-image — social media’s corrective “beauty filters” are here to help us conform to algorithmic ideals. A recent TikTok trend saw users cranking the Face App “Hollywood” filter up to x10, but outside of this confessed tinkering many users employ filters to subtly beautify pics as part of efforts to catch a wave of recognition and amass more “likes.”

Explaining how these face filters work, the MIT Technology Review writes:

Beauty filters are essentially automated photo editing tools that use artificial intelligence and computer vision to detect facial features and change them.

They use computer vision to interpret the things the camera sees, and tweak them according to rules set by the filters’ creator.”

Many people (women and girls in particular) have become nothing short of obsessed with viewing and posting images that use “enhancing” filters, preferring to view themselves through the lens of these AI-enabled features. And while some beauty tools smooth and blend skin tone or brighten eye color, others allow for the actual distortion of physical features to create fuller lips, smaller noses, narrower jaws or higher brows.

Dangerous repercussions

In love with these bright and shiny images of themselves, many social media fanatics are now taking extreme measures to make life mimic AI. That’s right, surgeons are reporting that patients now want to undergo procedures to look more like their digitally altered selves. Speaking with the Daily Mail, UK-based cosmetic surgeon Tijion Esho explained:

People used to bring in pictures of celebrities they wanted to look like. Now they send me digitally manipulated images of their own faces – pictures they’ve altered themselves.

At least ten patients a week are asking for this. I don’t recognise them when they come in because they look so different to the edited pictures they’ve sent previously by email. These images are hyper-exaggerated, very sculpted and completely unrealistic. People are chasing impossible, unachievable looks.

As if this wasn’t evidence enough of the real world power and impact the creators of these beauty filters wield, just this week the MIT Technology Review reported how such tools may also be promoting colorism, with many darker skinned individuals using them to lighten skin tone in pursuit of broader social media approval. Amira Adawe, the founder of nonprofit Beautywell, which is aimed at combatting colorism and skin-lightening practices, told the publication: “It’s really bad, and contributing to this notion that you’re not beautiful enough.”

What now?

So powerful is the social media-issued diktat on how we should aspire to look, the public resistance is currently galvanizing in response. Reading the room, the personal care brand Dove has launched a campaign called The Selfie Talk to help parents navigate this delicate issue with their tweens and teens, and in the UK politicians have joined forces with mental health nonprofits and the Royal College of Psychiatrists to demand that digitally altered pictures are clearly labelled (Note: this is something Facebook and Snapchat already do, though it’s easy to circumvent by editing outside of the app).

“Reverse the selfie” image from The Selfie Talk Campaign by personal care brand Dove.

However, some are skeptical about the impact of such measures, arguing that once these distorted images are in the ether the damage has already been done, label or no label. They cannot be unseen, and those working with young people claim that typically they still aspire to the retouched look, even when they’re aware of image enhancements.

And so, almost entirely unchecked, social media, with its integrated apps and AI technology that enforces an unknown creator’s preferences, holds a considerable sway over not only the self-esteem of users but the narrowing beauty standards of an entire generation.

It is to the 21st century what Lorenzo was to the 15th, an ugly and unofficial ruler with ideals that ultimately diminish the happiness of many within its dominion.

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