Augmenting Reality, Diminishing Happiness
By Michelle Moubarak*
It all started when I saw news of a TV star back home organising an (online) launching event for her very own Instagram filter. People connected from all backgrounds to watch the reveal of this technology that would “endow” its users with all of the actress’s special features such as her strongly defined cheekbones, green eyes, and the mole next to her bottom lip. An event like this one is a drop in the ocean of the Augmented Reality trend that has been expanding for a while now. I belong to a generation who might not have grown up with social media from a very young age, but still use it quite often and even rely on it for information. Nonetheless, when it comes to certain aspects of these platforms and how they are being used, I realise it may be difficult to discuss them without sounding somewhat archaic, like historically rigid-minded individuals who resist change out of fear.
In the past couple of years, I started to take more interest in movements that promote a more inclusive perspective on beauty, such as the body positivity movement. Body positivity is “the assertion that all people deserve to have a positive body image, regardless of how society and popular culture view ideal shape, size, and appearance” (Cherry 2020). While beauty standards may have been socially constructed for as long as humans have existed, in recent years there has been a growing movement trying to break down barriers based on appearance to promote more inclusive societies. We are also becoming increasingly more aware of the psychological dangers of bullying based on appearance, especially for young adolescents. The body positivity movement has been held up by impressive individuals who have dedicated their lives’ work to destroying harmful stereotypes. People such as Ashley Graham, Amanda LaCount, and many others from different social, racial, and cultural backgrounds have been able to make their voices heard at the heart of industries that have been notorious in their discrimination. The mission of inclusive beauty is not an easy one. It often requires the reversal of conditioning that is deeply-rooted going back to a centuries-old collective unconscious. It is intriguing to notice how at a time when fighters like those are getting bigger and louder, the counter-current of creating fake digital personas to adhere to increasingly plastic and impossible beauty standards is also spreading like wildfire. Maybe it is human nature to push and pull simultaneously at any given moment in history, though in retrospect one current always seems to prevail more strongly. The importance of the body movement lies in its ability to connect, especially with young people, to offer a needed alternative and a possibility for acceptance and inclusion, whose importance is often no less than life-saving.
Social Media the Agent
For such people as Ashley or Amanda, social media has been an invaluable platform through which to reach people and spread messages. It has not just provided a means of disseminating messages but has also created the virtual space within which whole communities can be created around these issues, bringing together people in need of feeling heard and not alone. When it comes to the counter-current – the one pushing forward the idea that if you do not like the way you look you can easily change it to conform to fake beauty standards – the role of social media has gone beyond just the passive provision of a platform for message-dissemination and community-building. It has actively inspired the trend by providing the tools needed for it. It has encouraged the use of Augmented Reality (AR) filters, such as those provided by the now extremely popular phone application, Facetune. According to its website, Facetune “gives you full control over how you want to present yourself and you can effortlessly glam yourself up, contour your face, smooth out skin, correct bad lighting and enhance your gorgeous makeup. Some Facetuners go wild with an unforgettable statement look, while some go for an authentic natural-looking effect that still makes every photo a scroll-stopper”. Facetune may be the most popular app so far – with millions of paid subscribers and millions of dollars injected into it by big investors like Goldman Sachs and such (Loizos 2019) – but the trend has spurred the birth of many others, such as Bodytune, an app that allows to slim bellies, lengthen legs, and enhance body features. There seems to be a duality of feeling, however, even among users of these apps themselves. No one wants to be called a fake, so overly editing photos is also looked down upon, but at the same time, they are unhappy with their real appearance and want to adhere to plastic beauty standards. It seems whatever you do online, you won’t escape “the hate” (Solon 2018). Posting a perfectly edited and balanced photo online is the product of hours of obsessive work. Hundreds of photos need to be taken, with the most appropriate angle and the best lighting, and then the editing itself is time-consuming and complex. An operation that consumes so much time and energy is worth looking more closely into. This year, with the Coronavirus pandemic and the regulations that drove us to spend more time behind our screens, questions about the role of social media in our lives are ever more relevant. In the US, over 50% of adults reported using social media more since the beginning of the pandemic, with Instagram and Snapchat being the most popular apps (Samet 2020). Even Zoom has a “touch-up my appearance” feature. As we spend more time inside the screens, the dangers of living an illusion that is increasingly dissociated from real life are increasing.
What Is Really Happening?
The debate on photo editing and body image is an old one, since the time of Photoshop and airbrushing and even way before that. Proponents of AR filter applications argue that this newest trend is democratising beauty by putting the tools that were once only available to celebrities in the hands of the general public. But this democratisation of beauty has made everyone the legislator of the rules of beauty and the judge of whoever breaks them.
Apart from the repercussions on self-esteem and self-acceptance, there have also been physical consequences. Studies have proven a positive correlation between the use of Augmented Reality technology, and many, especially the young, seeking plastic surgery procedures in an attempt to reproduce permanently what they see in their edited photos in real life. According to the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS) 2018 survey, the percentage of interventions requested by patients under the age of 30 rose from 58% in 2013 to 72% in 2018, representing an increase of 24% (AAFPRS 2019). When seeking medical help to achieve the results they want, some millennials are even disappointed when told that some results achieved by AR filters cannot be reproduced in reality for a simple lack of an adequate surgical procedure, a clear inability to discern what is real from what is not. It has been given its own terminology by medical professionals: “Snapchat dysmorphia” (Belluz 2018).
Doctors additionally fear that this may be aggravating the effects of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), “an excessive preoccupation with a perceived flaw in appearance, classified on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum” (Rajanala, Maymone, and Vashi 2018). According to Rajanala et al., studies have proven a clear relation between editing images on social media and body dissatisfaction, particularly among adolescent girls. Eating disorders have also been on the rise in recent years (Galmiche et al. 2019). Awareness is being raised among plastic surgeons and dermatologists to refer patients seeking cosmetic procedures to psychiatric treatment instead.
We Are Suffering, Physically and Emotionally
Whether data results are conclusive or not yet, it is enough to look around us, within our closest circles, to see that we are subjecting ourselves to emotional and physical suffering. When a trend is growing but our happiness is diminishing, it is worth asking why. While democratising beauty may sound like an honourable pursuit, doing it in the absence of some fundamental values has taken it in the wrong direction. Instead of democratising beauty towards spreading inclusion and kindness, we have spread dishonesty and mistrust of one another. We are clearly no longer able to be honest about ourselves even to the people closest to us. We do not trust each other with the truth. With the help of the Internet, our communities are constantly growing, but we also feel constantly and more easily judged. Is it possible to be honest and to rebuild trust within an ever-growing community?
Social media has its merits. Many people have reported, especially in COVID times, that social media has helped them feel less alone (Global Web Index (GWI) 2020). It has proven to be a powerful tool in creating communities. We just have to be more careful what the message is. Maybe in order to build trust, honesty and kindness what we need to democratise is love. I realise it is complicated for some of us to talk about love without cringing. Love is often treated as finite and conditional. Only a few people can be loved and only on certain conditions. Maybe if we liberated love a little and thought of it as abundant and unconditional, things could change. It is not easy. What does it really mean in the end? Should there really be no conditions for love? I can already hear myself arguing with myself in my head about all the cases in which it may be debated that some types of individuals may not deserve to be loved. But the truth is, we are all exhausted. This rat race is consuming us. What have we got to lose? Maybe it is worth gathering up the courage to talk about unconditional love and what it might mean for us. To be loved simply for who we are, in all that we are. Maybe on the basis of this we could rebuild fraternal trust and honesty in our communities, as large as they grow. There might in the end be no shame in admitting that we need more empathy, love and kindness in the world.
AAFPRS. 2019. ‘AAFPRS 2018 Annual Survey’. https://www.aafprs.org/.
Beard, Katherine. 2018. ‘The Fabulous Amanda LaCount Is Shattering the “Skinny-Dancer” Stereotype’. Dance Spirit. 16 March 2018. https://www.dancespirit.com/amanda-lacounts-cultivating-body-acceptance-2535461522.html.
Belluz, Julia. 2018. ‘“Snapchat Dysmorphia”: Why People Are Getting Plastic Surgery to Look like Edited Photos’. Vox, 10 August 2018. https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/8/10/17434088/plastic-surgery-face-lips-photo-snapchat-dysmorphia.
Cherry, Kendra. 2020. ‘What Is Body Positivity?’ Verywell Mind. 25 February 2020. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-body-positivity-4773402.
Galmiche, Marie, Pierre Déchelotte, Grégory Lambert, and Marie Pierre Tavolacci. 2019. ‘Prevalence of Eating Disorders over the 2000–2018 Period: A Systematic Literature Review’. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 109 (5): 1402–13. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqy342.
Global Web Index (GWI). 2020. ‘Social Media Trends 2020, Latest Trends & Statistics Report’. https://www.globalwebindex.com/reports/social.
Loizos, Connie. 2019. ‘The Maker of Popular Selfie App Facetune Just Landed $135 Million at a Unicorn Valuation | TechCrunch’, 31 July 2019. https://techcrunch.com/2019/07/31/the-maker-of-popular-selfie-app-facetune-just-landed-135-million-at-a-unicorn-valuation/.
Rajanala, Susruthi, Mayra B. C. Maymone, and Neelam A. Vashi. 2018. ‘Selfies—Living in the Era of Filtered Photographs’. JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery 20 (6): 443–44. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamafacial.2018.0486.
Samet, Alexandra. 2020. ‘How the Coronavirus Is Changing US Social Media Usage’. Insider Intelligence. 97/29 2020. https://www.emarketer.com/content/how-coronavirus-changing-us-social-media-usage.
Specter, Emma. 2019. ‘5 Things You Didn’t Know About Ashley Graham’. Vogue. 6 December 2019. https://www.vogue.com/article/ashley-graham-five-things-you-didnt-know.
Photo: Picture by Valentina Baicuianu, 2020
*Researcher in International development and political sciences.
 Ashley Graham is a curvy model who has used her success and her career to drive a movement of body positivity (Specter 2019).
 Amanda LaCount is an overweight dancer who was told she would never be able to dance professionally because of the way she looks. She too has been very successfully in driving her own movement to break the stereotype about body image (Beard 2018).