We don't need to look real on social media

Why do we still operate under the assumption that Instagram is where we show our authentic selves?

by Rachel Charlene Lewis
17 December 2019, 8:00pm

Back in October, Instagram announced that it would be removing plastic surgery-esque filters from its app. Spark AR, the platform that allows people to create the filters, cited a survey from 2018 as the reason for the decision. Research found that the popular filters that smooth blemishes, widen eyes, and craft Kylie Jenner lips are bad for our sense of self and our confidence. But, despite the ban and Instagram's attempt to regulate how we present ourselves, the opportunities for us to alter our lives online will only increase. So why are we culturally still so against embracing our ever-growing connection with technology?

Somehow, almost in 2020, we still culturally function under the assumption that social media is supposed to be where we present our most natural selves, but that’s never been true. Even in the early days of 2012 Instagram where we used in-app filters (shudder) to yellow our lunch photos or add a grain to our low-quality shots of our favorite books, we’ve never sought reality on social media. It’s always been a platform of curation, and one where we present not necessarily our best selves, but a persona; ask anyone if they’re exactly who they are on Instagram, and you’ll probably get a sheepish shrug or an in-denial, “Definitely.” But the nature of Instagram, despite what its creators might have originally dreamed up, is such that you’re only ever going to present a small, small sense of yourself. And is that really bad? Do we actually owe our followings our authentic selves?

A question I have for those of us who regularly use social media, especially image-driven platforms like Instagram, is if we even know how to be our realest selves. Because presentation has always been a lie; it’s a performance. Even “no makeup makeup” is performative. As Jessica Teas wrote in The Cut in 2018, “When we say ‘no-makeup beauty,’ we’re no longer talking about leaving the house right after a shower. We’re talking about leaving the house after weeks of being massaged and lasered and filled and smoothed by a coterie of dermaroller-wielding experts.” Why not take it a step further and stop trying to play as if natural is really something we value or even that it can be achieved by simply taking the filter off?

In early 2019, Ashley Carman wrote in a piece about the rise of Instagram filters for The Verge, “Most of these filters don’t perpetuate Kardashian-esque beauty standards, like contoured faces and manicured eyebrows. Instead, they’re more experimental.” While it’s arguably unhealthy for us to pursue a “no makeup makeup” version of ourselves via Instagram filters, I’m interested in what the platform looks like if we all just stop trying to look human at all. On TikTok, teens of all genders dot their faces with glitter (often eco-friendly, as per their ethics), smear blush across the bridges of their noses, blur their eyebrows with concealer, and doodle on their cheeks and eyelids. They aren’t seeking to be pretty in a traditional sense like their older normcore counterparts on Instagram; they’re trying to be something else, something more.

The filters I turn to most are the ones that utterly warp my face. “Beauty 3000” by @johwska adds a thick gloss to your skin; “BOSS diana” from @ilovediany aggressively alters every part of you, enlarging your lips, sweeping blush across the middle of your face, and adding floating dollar signs; “CHERRY ON THE CAKE” by @barbaramalewicz places two large, smiling cherries on your cheeks, or all over the screen, depending on your selection. Yes, a lot of these do soften blemishes and give you Influencer Face, but they also allow me to play with my appearances in extreme ways I could never accomplish by wielding a makeup brush and a good palette.

I’m not at all saying that Instagram filters and social media editing can’t be problematic. The idea that people are taking their filtered selves to a plastic surgeon to recreate digitally imposed features is jarring at best, and dangerous at worst. But this issue predates the existence of Instagram filters, and social media as a whole. The cultural “preference” for Eurocentric features, or of Black features appropriated by white bodies, didn't begin with IG filters. But, it’s harder to get people to end our culture's unrealistic beauty standards than it is to ban a filter.

In the aforementioned piece in The Verge, Carman states, “Instagram’s filter future is still forming, but the first step to winning the filter market is clear: capture the creators.” But what would a world look like if we stopped holding onto our most visually human selves and let ourselves truly experiment? In many ways, we’re already morphing as a result of our endless connection with technology: our spines are literally shifting as we develop “Text Neck.” There are new sunscreens to help us avoid skin damage from the blue light of our phones and laptops. Our thumbs are exhausted and losing strength from doing different work than they would have done 50 years ago. Maybe it’s time for us to stop trying to act like we aren’t, ourselves, heading toward becoming technology. Maybe it’s time for us to stop trying to be so human.

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