Popping a beautifying filter on the TikTok video she was filming seemed harmless to Mia. It made it look as though she had done her makeup, took away the hint of a double chin that always bothered her, and gently altered her bone structure to make her just that bit closer to perfect.
After a while, using filters on videos became second nature – until she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror one day and realised, to her horror, she no longer recognised her own face.
“I just felt so ugly … It’s a very scary moment,” she says.
“When you’ve got that filter up all the time … you almost disassociate from that image in the mirror because you have this expectation that you should look like that. Then when you don’t, the self-destructive thoughts start. It’s quite vile the way that you then perceive yourself.”
Live, augmented reality filters on photo- and video-based social media platforms including TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat aren’t new but they have evolved from silly hats, puppy dog ears and comically enlarged features to more subtle beautifying effects that may not be immediately obvious to other users.
As well as adding makeup, many of the popular filters that have crept into app libraries also change the face’s proportions, generally to fit female, European beauty standards, with thinner faces, smaller noses and plump lips.
Mia, who asked for her real name to not be used, says she started using filters when one of her TikTok videos unexpectedly went viral and her audience suddenly skyrocketed.
“I’m a bigger girl,” she says. “At that point, I was around 100kg, so it was really scary for me to have people looking at me.”
As her video clocked up more than 1m views, abusive comments started pouring in. “I was getting a lot of hate,” she says, adding: “The filters on TikTok are so smooth and flawless – they don’t always look like a filter. So it felt so easier to use them, just to make me feel a little bit better … but honestly, it doesn’t even look like me.
“I was in bed crying some nights about how ugly and disgusting I felt. I’m almost 30! I shouldn’t feel that way … Imagine a 10-year-old using these filters. That’s scary to me.”
There isn’t yet a full body of research on the psychological effects of these filters but Dr Jasmine Fardouly, a body image expert from the University of New South Wales, says a study she conducted last year suggests the more unattainable the beauty standard that young people are exposed to online, the more harmful it can be …
“It’s promoting a beauty ideal that’s not attainable for you,” she says. “It’s not attainable for anyone, really, because nobody looks like that. Everybody’s faces are being made to look the exact same way.
“The fact that it’s harder to know that it’s a filter may potentially be worse for the promoting of those ideals.”
When filters are used through TikTok, Instagram or Snapchat’s in-app software, a small label with the filter name appears on the video. While the introduction of these disclaimers, both in traditional and social media, has been a key focus of policymakers, Fardouly says the research so far doesn’t suggest they work.
“The research suggests that unless you show people the actual real version of that person’s appearance, it doesn’t seem to make a difference.”
There’s a strong relationship between negative body image and the use of photo editing but Fardouly says it’s less clear which direction this correlation flows; whether people’s self-esteem is lower due to the constant augmentation of their images or if those with low body images are more likely to use these features in the first place.
“Body dissatisfaction is an important predictor for eating disorders, and is a predictor for depression and low self-esteem … There is also a link to increased interest in cosmetic surgery.”
This is something Amy Hall-Hanson has experienced first hand. The 29-year-old has struggled with body dysmorphia for many years but says she never fixated on her lips until she started using beautifying filters for every Snapchat and Instagram photo she took.
“There are a few filters that make my lips look really nice … and it actually made me want to get them done,” she says.
“I’ve even played around with overdrawing my lips, and then I’ve stopped myself and gone, ‘Why am I doing this? Like, I’ve never had a problem with my lips before in photos …
“I would look in the mirror and my lips would look so much thinner than they probably were in real life … I’ve had to take a little bit of a break from taking photos of myself just to put that buffer in place.”
Fardouly says there are no simple solutions – but there are things that social media platforms can do to mitigate potential harm.
“I think that the algorithms could be updated to make it so more diversity is being recommended and shown to people,” she says. “The ease [with] which people can use filters [is a problem]. Especially if they’re changing the structure of the face and promoting these unattainable beauty ideals, then it would be helpful to remove those filters from the platforms.”
Instagram and its parent company Meta, formerly known as Facebook, have made some moves to limit the use of what they call “face-altering” effects. While their open-source filter creation tool, Spark AR, does allow effects that alter face shape to be uploaded, they will not appear in the “Effects Gallery”, which displays the top effects on the app at that time. Filters that add makeup or smooth skin are discoverable there, and users are still able to use the search function to find face-altering effects.
“Effects that directly promote cosmetic surgery are not allowed on Instagram,” a Facebook spokesman says.
“We want AR effects to be a positive and safe experience for our community, and we have guidelines for creating and publishing effects using Spark AR. We recognise that creators predominantly use face alteration and feature augmentation to share artistic, playful and fantasy effects, and these effects are a creative way for our community to express themselves.”
Snapchat does not have specific restrictions on face altering or beautifying filters submitted by users through the platform’s “Lens Lab” but a spokesperson for the company says the app’s focus on private, rather than public, communication sets it apart from other social media.
“[Snapchat] was created at a time where everyone was curating a ‘perfect’ image of themselves online. Snapchat … is private by default to create an environment where people feel free to authentically be themselves.”
The spokesperson says Snapchat has “invested in an in-house sociologist who is tasked with thinking about the impact our product and features have on our community”.
“When someone sends a snap with a lens to someone else on Snapchat, the recipient is always shown which lens it is.”
TikTok doesn’t allowed users to submit their own augmented reality effects; they are created by the company. The ethics of a number of their beautifying filters, including “faux freckles” or “glow”, have been the subject of intense debate among users.
TikTok declined Guardian Australia’s request for comment.
Fardouly says social media companies should not be held solely responsible for the harm caused by unattainable beauty standards.
“It’s kind of human nature … A lot of the problems with the platforms come from people’s desires and motivations offline as well. People have always wanted to present themselves positively to others, that’s not new.
“It’s just that social media really gives us the tools to control how we appear, and to really spend a lot of time investing in our self-presentation – and that’s where the harm can come from.”
For Mia, it came to a head when she was riding in the car with a friend and mentioned that she was considering fat-dissolving injections to try to get rid of her now practically invisible double chin.
“He looked at me like I was a crazy person,” she says. “He was like, ‘What are you talking about? You don’t have a double chin.’”
After staring at her eerily unfamiliar, imperfect face in the mirror, it occurred to Mia that she was no longer living up to the message she was using TikTok to send in the first place.
“Part of my content was about how we should really embrace who we are and what we look like,” she says. “But one day I kind of realised all of that content was a lie and was going to remain a lie as long as I was using filters.
“I just woke up one day and went, ‘No, if I’m posting content any more, I’m not posting with filters.’ And I haven’t.”