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Instagram’s removal of AR filters is a step in the right direction

Last week, Instagram announced that any augmented reality filters depicting or promoting the use of plastic surgery were to be removed from the social media platform, amid concerns that they would affect the mental wellbeing of its users. Research conducted as recently as this year has shown that women and girls who spend more time on social media are likelier to go for cosmetic procedures, accompanying a trend in a steady rise in the number of these procedures over the last five years. The cosmetic surgeon Tijion Esho has attributed this to what he calls ‘Snapchat dysmorphia’, where filters have worsened people’s body image and driven them to look for ways to improve their relationship with their bodies. 

It seems unusual that Instagram even allowed these filters onto the platform in the first place, especially given all the media attention around the influence of social media on how we view the way we look. Although we haven’t always been tapping our way towards sleek, sophisticated photos of ourselves in an effort to garner little bursts of validation online, these filters represent a problem that has been around for far longer than Instagram itself.

Once, the discussion was on airbrushing in magazines affecting the body image of women and girls in particular, and these filters do exactly the same thing. The images of unrealistically beautiful people that have made many of us feel inadequate are living right there in our smartphones, waiting for us to hook up to the WiFi for our daily reminder that we are not enough just as we are. The impact of this is not to be underestimated – I can definitely remember feeling just a little uglier after scrolling through these overly polished photos. 

We create a narrow mould of ideal beauty that chips away at their self esteem and then conveniently offer procedures to remove their supposed imperfections.

There’s something insidious about it all, and not just on Instagram. Even an ordinary, fun Snapchat filter considerably alters how you look. It is almost like the app is whispering in your ear, ‘Something’s wrong with you. You ought to fix that before anyone else sees that photo’. And, what with the current of body positivity that has been pushing into the mainstream this year, the existence of plastic surgery filters seem even more out of place and in poor taste. 

Furthermore, it can certainly be said that having these filters in the first place was irresponsible, especially to younger, more impressionable girls growing up in an era where plastic surgery is becoming increasingly normalised. You might have seen Superdrug offering cheap Botox and fillers at their flagship store in London on the news. It’s marketed as ‘empowering’ – a chance to take control of your appearance. Yet, the messages we are giving these girls, especially through social media, seem mixed: we create a narrow mould of ideal beauty that chips away at their self esteem and then conveniently offer procedures to remove their supposed imperfections. It cannot sit well with anyone, knowing that somewhere people are profiting off people’s low self esteem. 

These filters are essentially marketing cosmetic surgery to girls, potentially opening the door to a lifetime of routine procedures.

Equally, those who choose to go under the knife are exposed to risks that they would never encounter if the body positivity movement stifled any subliminal messages that say you’re just not enough as you are. It is not empowering to post warped, unreal photos of yourself online and continue the falsity of what we see on our phones every day. It is also not feminist – women are much more likely than men to go through these procedures. However, the number of men also having cosmetic surgery is rising. It feels like these filters are essentially marketing cosmetic surgery to girls, potentially opening the door to a lifetime of routine procedures and possibly even addiction. 

Advocating for the ban of certain Instagram filters doesn’t mean the Fun Police are out to prosecute anything that doesn’t fit into the perimeters of wokeness. In spite of the poor taste of implementing them, Instagram should be applauded for finally taking more responsibility for the body image and mental wellbeing of its users.

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