Houston-based hairstylist Taylor Crowley, 36, has built a reputation as a social media influencer and has been using augmented reality (AR) filters for the past few years as a "confidence booster."
"I'm a low-maintenance person. I don't wear a ton of makeup because less is more," she explains. "I try to choose filters that aren't going to distort my face."
Crowley is also "big into photography" and views image filters like a filter on a camera that can be used to change tonal qualities. "I keep it realistic."
In one Instagram post of her posing with a large fish, Crowley used Adobe Lightroom to turn everything grayscale "because we live in Houston and fish in Galveston, and honestly, not everything is very pretty," she says. "I thought grayscale made the fish pop out."
Similarly, Crowley posted a picture of herself in a bathing suit on Cinco de Mayo and grayed out the background to accentuate the beer can she was drinking from—and her green bathing suit.
As someone who views content herself, "I think editing things that show a little more color or pop … grabs my attention a little bit more."
Crowley is quick to add that she does not use filters when she posts client-related content. "Because I'm a hair stylist, I feel that it's cheating" to use filters, she says. "It's not an honest reflection of my work. I also want people to have a reasonable expectation when they come to get their hair done."
The Instagram Influence
Ari Lightman, a digital media and marketing professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, says augmented reality filters have been around for several years and grew in popularity on the Instagram photo and video sharing social media app, which launched in 2010. They work by taking a video or image and transposing that on top of another video or image, says Lightman, adding that he has not used any so-called "beauty" filters. However, as a "huge Star Wars fan," Lightman says he has used an animated filter to put a Darth Vader helmet on his head when he wants to be funny.
Augmented reality (AR) is hot. ABI Research, a global tech market advisory firm, estimates the AR market in retail, commerce, and marketing will surpass US$12 billion in 2025. Facebook, for one, is accelerating its efforts in the space; nearly one-fifth of the social media platform's almost 10,000 employees are working on AR and Virtual Reality (VR) devices, according to a report in The Information.
Beauty filters are used by social media influencers trying to create a specific image. "They don't want people to see how they look out of bed with no makeup," Lightman says; they want to be perceived in a way that looks professional or creates a certain type of aesthetic.
Some filters allow people to "do things that are highly stylized" to their appearance in videos or still images, Lightman says, like fixing bags under their eyes, reducing extra skin in the chin area, chiseling cheekbones, or reducing the size of their nose. "It gives the perception that this isn't the real me, but a crafted view of how I want you to see me."
Yet there can be a dark side to using filters. Teens, and particularly girls who use Instagram, blame that social media site for increased anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, according to studies Facebook conducted, The Wall Street Journal reported in September. Facebook's internal research reportedly found many of the problems are unique to Instagram because it focuses heavily on body and lifestyle.
Millennials tend to focus on "the perfectly curated images and they launched Instagram," says Eric Dahan, CEO of Open Influence, a Los Angeles-based influencer marketing agency that claims to represent over 600,000 influencers and 1.2 million social media accounts.
Influencers generally use filters to enhance their appearance, he says. "We don't ask them to do it," Dahan says, but brands encourage it. If the agency is promoting a beauty brand, "we'll work with beauty influencers and many are using augmented reality filters … we see it all the time."
Dahan says he is starting to see a "countermovement" to the use of beauty filters, in which people will post a picture using a filter, then post the same image without the filter to compare them and promote a body-positive message. "That's a trend we're seeing more of … because of the pressure it puts on people" to put forth their best selves online.
Ellyn (a pseudonym), 22, was 14 when she downloaded her first beauty filter. While that is "still a very young and impressionable age," she says, "there are 8-year-olds with Snapchat," a phenomenon she finds disturbing. The social media messaging platform "catapulted the whole era of filters and changing your appearance," because users can apply filters to pictures that are meant to disappear after a few minutes, which was enticing, she says. "Now, there's a million filters for anything—you can turn yourself into whatever you want."
Some filters are designed to be used strictly for amusement. Snapchat allows people to put comical filters on top of their public personas, Lightman notes. "They are animated and cartoonish" and allow a user to create a digital avatar augmenting their actual image. Asked why people might turn to such animated filters, he says, "With everyone being on Zoom and the explosion of TikTok, people are hypersensitive about how they look."
Lightman believes the massive increase in Zoom calls during the pandemic led more people to use filters, to hide a background or to reduce shadows (or too much light) on some faces.
Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, says computer vision and deep learning networks can be combined to create "filters" that can dynamically change a video in real time. Bailenson thinks the most frequently used filter is the "Touch-up My Appearance" filter on Zoom, "which smooths out bags under eyes, covers up blemishes, and magically erases a bad night's sleep," he says. "Using features such as Animoji or Snap, one can take this to another level, for example, adding a mustache or a Unicorn horn."
Lightman has no data on the use of filters, but believes they tend to be more popular with girls. Speaking from personal experience, he says both his daughters began using Instagram when they were approximately 14.
Regardless of gender, says Bailenson, "Once someone discovers the touch-up appearance filter on Zoom, it is hard to go back."
Ellyn most frequently uses the Face-tune app to whiten her teeth or soften dark circles under her eyes; nothing drastic, she says. It also lets her fix lighting. "It's not so much a filter, as opposed to an adjuster."
She also uses VSCO, a photo-sharing app with preset filters that allows users to enhance their images and videos, and Adobe Lightroom. "I use them to enhance what's already there," Ellyn says. "I don't drastically change anything. If I'm looking at a photo and wish the backdrop looked little lighter, I can fix that and feel better about the photo."
"The escalation in procedures based on people looking at themselves on Zoom and trying to achieve some perfection, if you will, is a little problematic."
If she does not apply a filter, Ellyn says she sometimes feels "the picture is incomplete." If a friend posts a picture she is in, Ellyn says regrets that they didn't let her edit it first. "I'm so used to changing certain aspects of photos I don't like, so when I see a picture of me completely unedited, I find myself wishing I could have," she says. "But it's a battle, because part of me says 'that's actually how I look and I should be happy with that and be confident'."
Crowley likes an app called Retro Dust, "which gives everything a vintage feel," she says.
Pros and Cons
Beauty filters set an unrealistic expectation of what people look like, observers say. Call it the Kardashian effect: the family that built a billion-dollar empire promoting brands and often changing their appearances on social media.
"Their bodies and faces are so Photoshopped and cosmetically designed and a lot of them are seen as the beauty standard," Ellyn says. "Young girls will look at that and say, 'That's what I should aspire to be.' But that's not a real version of that person, so I think people will aspire to be an edited version of themselves instead of embracing who they really are."
Echoing Crowley, Ellyn says filters give people confidence. "I saw a video on Twitter the other day about a woman who had bunch of birthmarks, and filters and makeup allowed her to hide them and it makes her feel more comfortable," she says. "In some ways, it does people a lot of good, but overall, it can be damaging to always see an edited version of someone."
Some people use filters because they aspire to look like someone else and to get people to pay attention to what they post, Lightman says. The downside, of course, is that if they don't look like the filters they've applied, "there's a sense of authenticity that is diminished…We're suffering from so much misinformation and so many deep fakes where people are literally putting other people's images in situations they weren't in or augmenting their voices."
"There's a fine line between photo editing and curated content, and being inauthentic with yourself and your followers," Crowley says. "I have run into people I've followed for years and … and they don't look anything like what I thought. They're not unattractive, but they have a whole different face."
Plastic surgeon Simone Matousek in Sydney, Australia, says she often discusses the impact of filtered images in creating unrealistic expectations and driving greater demand for plastic surgery. "Image filtering has led to people having a distorted sense of how they should look, what is achievable, and has largely driven the increase in cosmetic injectables," she says. "A single picture on Instagram is very different to how that face may appear in reality."
A "selfie" photo often distorts facial features, which is why most people do not look good in a close-range photo, Matousek says. "Even people considered some of the most attractive people in the world, such as models and celebrities, will rarely now upload an image without filtering, leading to unattainable beauty standards."
Lightman says increasing numbers of women are coming out both for and against beauty filters. Cosmetics company websites will allow a user to apply a filter to see what they would look like without dark spots or blemishes, for example, which is helpful.
Like Matousek, Lightman says, "But when it gets into perverting self-image and unrealistic constraints and escalation of plastic surgery, I think that becomes a little unhealthy for society. Granted, there will always be people who see imperfections in themselves that want to fix them … but the escalation in procedures based on people looking at themselves on Zoom and trying to achieve some perfection, if you will, is a little problematic. It's an unrealistic expectation of beauty."
The Future of Filters
Trends come and go. Lightman thinks despite the pushback, beauty filters will always be used. However, with more people going back to offices and other places of business, there will be fewer videoconferencing calls, which will "right-size" the use of filters, he says.
"I think those beauty filters are not going to diminish completely, but they will become less sort of necessary," Lightman says.
Bailenson sees that happening as well. "People engage in what psychologists call 'self-presentation' constantly in the real world, putting out the best version of themselves for a given context," he says. "Clearly, self-presentation is amplified online. As the system evolves, we will find a balance for what type of filters are appropriate for work, play, dating, and other contexts."
Dahan sees a transition happening, from a focus on beauty and cosmetics to one of self-care. Instead of striving for perfection, more frequently, the message is to be comfortable being yourself, he says.
"I think that's been reflected within the influencer market," and savvy brands are leading the way, Dahan says. "That's what people are responding to. The beauty industry has been very toxic for so long and in some ways it still is, but if they want to continue to appeal to people, this is what they have to do."
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