Social Media and False Physical Perfection

Photography by Madi Watson

Thin nose, defined jawline, flawless skin and an hourglass figure. The combination of all of these features is currently what embodies “perfection,” at least in the eyes of today’s beauty standards.

Although beauty standards change constantly over time, one fact remains constant: these standards can take a heavy toll on one’s self-perceived body image. With the rise of social media influencers over the past decade, there's an increased use of various photo editing applications to further edit and retouch selfies online. These edited portraits create false and unrealistic physical appearances that can leave dangerous effects on a generation of social media users.

Normalization of Filters and Facetune

Almost any self-perceived physical flaw can be perfected through popular photo-editing apps like Facetune. From simple retouches to brighten under-eye circles, to image distortion to warp one’s body shape, photo-editing apps have a wide range of uses. While such apps don’t function much differently from other apps like Photoshop, the most prominent differences are increased accessibility and convenience for users of all ages and skill levels.

Similarly, beautifying filters on social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat can allow users to easily lighten or darken their skin tone in selfies, airbrush acne to exhibit clear skin or add defined features such as cheekbones.

Although extreme photo edits can be obvious, some edits can appear so subtle that viewers may not recognize that a photo was even altered. Particularly to a young and impressionable audience, such cases may slowly begin to cause a disconnect between one’s own body image and the perfected characteristics they regularly see on social media.

For Mackenzie Rhody, a third year Computer Science major, this issue is very personal.

“I suffered from a really bad eating disorder all throughout high school ... The beauty standards that I had in my head from looking at those photos were just completely impossible to attain, because those people didn’t even look like that,” she said.

"The beauty standards that I had in my head from looking at those photos were just completely impossible to attain”

Beauty Standards and Self-Perception

Photo-edited selfies on social media tend to make a habit of painting common physical features as flaws. Not only does this hinder the innate diversity and uniqueness of people, but it can also elicit symptoms similar to those of body dysmorphic disorder, in which individuals are unable to stop focusing on self-perceived flaws that appear minor or can’t be seen by others in reality.

Likewise, cosmetic doctors coined the term “Snapchat Dysmorphia” after the rise in desired plastic surgeries and fillers that corresponded with the often unrealistic features that Snapchat and Instagram filters help to achieve.

After posting a selfie Facetuned to make herself appear thinner, Rhody shared the guilt and resentment she felt as a result.

“I was really guilty, because people were complimenting me and saying I looked so good, and I knew that that’s not what I looked like, and that made me even more insecure,” she said.

For many years, modern standards of beauty have also implicitly revolved around Eurocentric features. The constant and sole use of these physical traits to define beauty can have a damaging effect, especially on people of color. As a result, a lack of ethnic representation on social media can further promote colorism and racism amongst online audiences as well.

Tomicka Wagstaff is the assistant vice president for Student Access and Success in the Division of Diversity and Inclusion, and led a self-esteem building bootcamp for young students called “Body Positivity; Reject Negative Marketing Images and Create Your Own Advertising.”

“You should be able to see and reflect and connect to the images you see on social media — not just because of the way they look or the way that they make you perceive that you should look, but because that’s really reality,” Wagstaff said.

Ways to Minimize Social Media’s Impact on Body Image

The significant impact that social media has on body image is right on the nose about the vast majority of self-worth that society places in appearance and specific definitions of beauty. Consequently, this leaves little to no room for crucial ideals like diversity and body positivity.

“Our genetics are all different, all of those things play a part in your body type and your body build, and so it’s really hard to look at someone else and say, ‘Well, that’s what I want to look like,’ or ‘That’s what I should look like,’ Wagstaff said. “[With] the young girls that I was working with in bootcamp, [the takeaways were] to focus more on yourself and being confident in the skin that you’re in, and knowing that regardless, you’re beautiful.”

As more and more photo-editing secrets come to light in regards to social media selfies, a variety of helpful resources have become dedicated to uncovering those truths to the general public.

One example of these resources is the Instagram account Beauty.false. This account aims to raise awareness to digitally altered selfies that may seem misleading to online followers. By comparing photos before and after they were edited, the account further demonstrates that not everything on social media can be taken at face value.

While in recovery from her eating disorder, Rhody shared how differently she now approaches social media, and underscored the importance of following body positive communities online.

“It just makes a world of difference if you, rather than seeing these people who you’re always comparing yourself to ... have your feed be filled with people who have very realistic bodies,” she said.

Although many media campaigns have progressed over time in terms of inclusivity and body positivity, Wagstaff explained that a healthy body image must come from within as well.

“I also think it’s just important for us to remember and to remind each other ... that it’s okay to be different,” she said.

The seemingly perfect images online may continue to distract from the truth at times.

"Always remember to bring it back and be able to look at yourself in the mirror and know, ‘I’m happy with this person,'" Wagstaff added.

"Always remember to bring it back and be able to look at yourself in the mirror and know, ‘I’m happy with this person.'"

Social media’s promise of unlimited accessibility can often bring with it a false sense of reality, and leave followers chasing after a distorted and impossible persona. But to look inwards and unconditionally love one’s own body and self — that is true perfection everyone can achieve.