Instagram's anti-plastic surgery rules are stifling young filter artists

Filter creators are speaking out after changes to the app has resulted in their work being banned and deleted.

by Hatti Rex
04 December 2019, 5:00pm

While most of the online world seemed to welcome Instagram's recent policy changes -- which included removing visible post likes and any augmented reality filters which resembled plastic surgery -- not everyone was happy. In the Spark AR community, an online network of young filter creators and artists, in fact, the changes which were supposed to promote well-being amongst users were already having a negative effect.

Because when it came to actual application of the guidelines, Instagram, while removing filters which depicted lip-fillers, rhinoplasty and botox, was also taking down filters which had nothing to do with plastic surgery at all. The creepy clown filter, one of the earliest and most used community made filters uploaded to the site, temporarily disappeared for unstated reasons before making a return after the augmented reality designer posted it in the Spark AR group. Its creator, Marc Wakefield, put the fiasco down to a glitch.

But whether it was a glitch or not, there’s certainly a lot of strange activity surrounding the new rules. VR and AR creator Spencer Burnham tells i-D that he has been struggling to get one of his lens’ approved because Instagram have deemed a pepper emoji with fire emoji surrounding it as "hate speech". Steven Budovski had filters taken down even before the new guidelines were announced.

Perhaps the most disappointing instance of the new rule effects happened to Howie Kim, a visual artist who makes work primarily about the stereotypes surrounding millennials. Shockingly, Kim had his entire collection of ten filters disabled. “My filters are generally created with the use of my original illustrations,” Kim tells us. “Together with the Face Distortion feature to expand the sizes of eyes a little while also distorting the noses and faces of its users to make them very slightly slimmer.” He agrees that this would be an instance of beautifying the users “but to say that they promote plastic surgery might be taking it too far,". He adds: "And for the record, it was never my intention to make anyone feel insecure about themselves.”

“I use Face Distortion as a tool to exaggerate the users’ faces to mimic the idea of an insect’s face: overly large eyes and a tiny warped face. In such a particular case, I am completely unconvinced that it promotes -- or even relates -- to any form of plastic surgery.”

On the opposite end of that spectrum is Florencia Solari. She's the creator of the popular "vedete++ effec"t, which gives the user’s face an intensely over the top cosmetic surgery inspired look with an added neon glow, which she says is inspired by her love of science fiction. It’s reached a massive 19.6M impressions within the two and a half weeks since its launch. While her filter is still available for use, Florencia has penned a scathing Medium post which attacks the photo sharing platform for eliminating the last vestiges of creative freedom on the internet.

“Instagram is full of FaceTuned and photoshopped pictures, most of the biggest influencers do this and lots of them also had plastic surgery. It’s nonsense to target filter creators,” Florencia says. With sisters Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner being two of the four most followed women on the app (both surpassing 150 million followers last month), lovers of both cosmetic surgery and filters, it's certainly a valid point. “Plastic surgery filters became popular because they represent what mainstream culture is about these days," the artist adds. "After all, art imitates life. And for many people they’re just curious about how they’d look with a different face, roleplaying and explore a different online personas from time to time. It’s a fantasy.”

“Procedures existed long before filters. Even before social media. Instead of helping vulnerable users build strength by giving them the tools to make choices and take responsibility — which is proven to positively impact confidence and self-esteem — they’re victimising them, while at the same time shaming everyone else who wants to use filters for fun.”

Creator Jeferson Araujo had his Bratz inspired filter deleted, though he agrees there was always a sense of idealistic beauty standards with the popular y2k dolls. “Because they had big lips, thin nose and big eyes. But you know, it was all about a character. Nothing realistic.”

Some of the creators we spoke to noted that the selfie camera automatically distorts what your face looks like anyway, depending on your perspective and proximity to the lens. Selfie cameras have a lens between 18-28MM so the closer you get, the more warped your face seems. It’s often been the case that AR designers use their masks to try and correct this. AR designer Paige Piskin, who self identifies as a digital cosplayer and is an active member of the Spark AR community, made her own filter that fixes this issue. “I've read many articles that said plastic surgery has boomed in recent years due to people wanting to look better in their selfies,” her caption reads. “When you open your phone, your not seeing what you truly look like” -- even without a filter!

Instagram, for their part, seem to at least be taking on board some of the issues with their new guidelines. When we reached out to the platform a spokesperson told i-D that although they haven’t released their final policy and that they’re still in the process of re-evaluating. "We want effects to be a positive experience for people," Instagram said in a statement to i-D. "While we’re re-evaluating, we will: 1) remove all effects associated with plastic surgery from the Instagram Effect Gallery; 2) stop further approval of new effects like this; 3) and remove current effects if they’re reported to us. Once the new policy is in place, we’ll re-evaluate effects that are pending or have been disabled.”

Despite this reassurance, the new Instagram guidelines on plastic surgery effects have already seemingly caused mass disruption amongst creators. Nobody denies that more needs to be done to protect vulnerable user’s wellness but there’s an overall sense that this definitely isn’t the way to go about making those improvements. But when uber-curated, filtered and augmented influencers are ruling over our Instagram TL, perhaps it’d be more beneficial for the site to investigate the reasons people would go under the knife in the first place, rather than blaming Instagram filters that could temporarily turn you into anything from Shrek to a Bratz Doll.

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