Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images
By now, you may have heard about TikTok’s Bold Glamour filter, which manipulates selfie videos in real time, making it look like you’ve gotten brow micro-blading, cheek fillers, and jawline surgery; removed all your pores, spots, and lines; and put on a full face of makeup. Millions have tried the filter and posted the results, saying, “this is not good for our mental health,” and beauty filters “should be illegal.”
But how bad are they? There’s not a lot of research showing that photo filters negatively impact adults’ mental health, but there is cause for concern. And experts say we should take action — not by boycotting filters or pushing to make them illegal, but by developing mental-health tools that will fortify us against their potential effects.
What the research indicates at this point is that photo filters are more problematic for teen girls. “They’re already vulnerable when it comes to things like depression, anxiety, and body-image troubles,” says Renee Engeln, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Northwestern University and the author of Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession With Appearance Hurts Girls and Women. There’s also evidence that heavy use of social media during early adolescence may be correlated with lower life-satisfaction ratings one year later. For example, in one study of adolescent girls, exposure to manipulated photos on social media was linked to lower body image.
When adults turn on a photo filter, we can think critically about how it’s manipulating our appearance. But we’re still susceptible to self-objectification, says Tara Well, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University. “It’s the idea that you see yourself as a physical object that you’re trying to improve and make perfect,” she explains. “The more people engage in self-objectification, the less they’re able to feel their emotions and body sensations. Their attention span goes down, which has a numbing effect.” If you spend time using filters or editing videos of yourself, you may be familiar with that numbness. It doesn’t feel good.
Another issue: You can’t turn off the instinct to compare your face to its filtered counterpart. “Normally, we compare ourselves to other humans, but with filters, you’re comparing yourself to another version of you, which is almost more devastating because it carries the seed of suggestion that that could be you,” says Engeln. “That may get you thinking about whether you should spend more time or money trying to alter your appearance to meet a beauty standard that is literally inhuman.”
Board-certified dermatologist Julie Russak, MD, founder of Russak Dermatology Clinic, has seen this firsthand. “I already have patients who bring me images of their filtered faces and tell me that’s what they want to look like,” she says. For some patients, photo filters can exacerbate psychological conditions such as body dysmorphic disorder. But even those without pre-existing mental-health conditions may be negatively impacted by filters — especially the ones that incorporate passing beauty fads, as the Bold Glamour filter does. “High cheekbones may be all the rage now, but what happens when that changes and we’ve still got a bunch of cat ladies walking around?” she says. “People completely lose perspective of natural human faces when they look at themselves or other people with these filters on.”
If there’s an upside to the virality of Bold Glamour, it’s that most people posting with the filter are doing so to bring attention to its dehumanizing effects. They’re usually juxtaposing their filtered faces with videos of what they really look like, which could be considered a step in the right direction. “I think the fact that people are doing that, instead of just using the filter without commentary, shows that they want to be accepted for what they really look like,” says Well. And spending time with the unfiltered, IRL version of yourself can improve your mental health, adds Well, whose book, Mirror Meditation, lays out the positive effects of practicing mindfulness meditation in front of a mirror.
Listen, technology is evolving faster than medical experts and academic researchers can study it, so now is the time to think critically about how you want to engage with it. “If there’s a healthy way to use photo filters, it has to include stopping to ask yourself: Why am I doing this? What do I hope to gain from it? How might it affect me? How might it affect other people?” Engeln says. Remember, you control how and when you use social media and the filters that have quickly become a part of it.
You also have the power to fortify yourself against its harmful effects. I know that sounds hokey, but evidence suggests it’s true. For example, research shows that people with higher levels of self-compassion are less susceptible to the harms of social media. Practicing mindfulness meditation is one way to build self-compassion. Another is developing a ten-minute daily practice of self-mirroring, the technique Well teaches in her book. “If we want to use technology more skillfully, we need tools that aren’t based in technology to ground ourselves and ground into our own humanity,” she says. So, no, there’s not an app for that — nor should there be.
Jennifer Sullivan answers all your beauty-related questions with practical advice and zero judgment. Send your questions to [email protected]. (By emailing, you agree to the terms here.)