More than half of plastic surgeons report that patients want to look like their filtered selfies IRL — and it’s not a joke.
People are holding themselves up to unrealistic beauty standards: their own selfies.
Men and women have been working the camera to their advantage since the beginning of photography, pointing their faces at the most flattering angle and in the best lighting. But now that the same photo-editing software that has made supermodels picture-perfect is available on our phones, it’s skewing our perception of beauty to the point that some users don’t want to live life unfiltered anymore.
Dr. Neelam Vashi, director of the Ethnic Skin Center at Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine, warned that our selfie obsession is driving “Snapchat dysmorphia,” or subjects getting surgery to look like the filtered versions of themselves, in a recent JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery article. The name is drawn from the app that lets you digitally alter your headshot with animal ears — or to make your face flawless with beauty filters that erase blemishes or contour cheeks.
“Now patients can take thousands of pictures and pick the best one, and then they can filter it and make it even that much more beautiful,” Dr. Vashi told Moneyish. “And that’s very disturbing, because then when people look in the mirror or get a regular photo taken, they’re shocked and disappointed that that’s not what they really look like.”
Snapchat dysmorphia falls under body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), or a persistent, intrusive preoccupation with an imagined or slight defect in appearance that causes severe emotional distress and disrupts daily activities, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. About one in 50 people suffers from BDD, which usually develops in one’s teens, and affects men (about 2.5%) and women (about 2.2%) almost equally. It’s also associated with increased rates of suicide and depression.
More than half (55%) of plastic surgeons said their patients asked for procedures specifically to make them look better in selfies last year, Vashi said, a 13% increase from 2015, illustrating the pressure to look doctored photo-ready at all times. In fact, most Americans (62%) admitted to editing a photo before posting it online, according to a TruePic survey released last year. And many social media and photo-editing apps besides Snap can do these things; flattering Instagram filters smooth complexions, while Facetune actually alters pics to whiten teeth, change the shape of your face and clear pimples.
Vashi’s article notes that before selfies, the most common facial procedures came from those looking for nose jobs to nix humps on the dorsum, or bridge. Today, they’re complaining about nasal and facial asymmetry, so it’s no surprise the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, which reported $16 billion spent on cosmetic surgery in 2016, counted nose reshaping (218,924 procedures) and eyelid surgery (209,571 procedures) among its five most popular procedures last year. The ASPS has also seen a 200% increase since 2000 in services like Botox, chemical peels and fillers, which are key to smoothing those imperfect complexions.
But making our selfies look better is actually making ourselves feel worse. Girls who shared photos of themselves online revealed more body dissatisfaction in a 2015 study, while the photo-heavy Instagram has the most negative impact on young people’s health and well-being, according to a 2017 survey — although all platforms, including Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter, promoted feelings of “compare and despair.”
Not everyone who loves filters has Snapchat dysmorphia or BDD, however. It’s on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum, so someone with BDD may visit multiple plastic surgeons to “fix” the imperfections they’re seeing, explained Dr. Eda Gorbis from the ADAA. They look at themselves in the mirror six or seven times more than the average person, and will often camouflage themselves by only going out hidden behind sunglasses and a scarf.
“It is a very legitimate issue and a serious illness that affects about five million Americans, and it’s packaged with issues such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, social phobias, drug addiction, as well as clinical depression,” Gorbis told Moneyish. “And it often has nothing to do with their looks. Interestingly enough, anybody I have ever treated with BDD is above-average in their looks. But they’re feeling ugly on the inside, so they obsess over perceived anomalies in their appearance that may be very tiny or invisible to the naked eye.”
“Someone who has a normal level of dissatisfaction with their appearance might put on some makeup to feel better about themselves,” added Vashi. “The issue comes when it affects the social and occupational realm, like someone avoiding their college classes because they are upset about the way they look.”
While Snapchat or body dysmorphia is treatable with both medication — such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors that relieve obsessive and compulsive symptoms — and cognitive behavioral therapy to identify unhealthy ways of thinking and replace them with healthy ones, the hardest part is diagnosing the issue, period. The patient is often so delusional that they’re in denial that there is a problem beyond what they see wrong with their appearance, and 2017 study found that plastic surgeons could only identify only about 5% of patients with BDD.
But there are also signs that society could be swinging in a more realistic and accepting direction. For example, social media queens Kendall Jenner and Paris Jackson have been sharing their “acne selfies” this year to prove they’re not as perfect as they appear on camera. And companies like Dove, Target, CVS and Aerie are ditching digital alterations in their advertising to push for more authentic depictions of beauty.
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