Keeping up appearances

Everyone wants to looks their best. The creation of self and the effort to capture it in some form of self-portrait is nothing new. But the rise of selfie culture does seem to have taken us further than before. Smartphones give us the ability to take photos anywhere at any time and easily share them online. And in a society where high importance can be placed on looks, the selfie culture can drive obsession with appearance.

Seeing repeated presentation of others can lead us to unhelpful comparisons and can distort our perceptions of body image. This has long been recognised in print advertising, with various magazines and companies promising to do away with air-brushing of models, whilst editorial and advertising standards provide some guidance on the matter. For the most-part though, retouching is standard practice in publishing. We accept that magazines will hire professional photographers to light and shoot models, then edit the photos afterwards. We can appreciate that the images they create are false or exaggerated.

We’re less likely to treat the personal images we encounter online with the same level of scepticism. The adverts in the sidebar may be exaggerations of reality, but your friends’ Facebook posts are surely genuine?

Yet, whilst the photos may be real, there’s inevitable bias to the images and presentation. We may be looking at someone’s life, but we’re seeing only what they choose to share and how they choose to present it. In an interview with The Guardian, beauty blogger Dina Torkia described social media showing “just the best bits of everyone’s day”. Torkia tries to balance the images she shares:

“I also make sure that if I post a photo of myself looking amazing, I also do some Instagram stories of myself with no makeup on, looking terrible. I want my audience to see a realistic representation of me, especially as a lot of them are quite young.”

The ‘perfect’ selfie

A selfie of someone shows a literal snapshot: it’s taken from a certain angle, may have filters applied, and may have been altered. Perhaps we’ve tried to assist what the camera sees: YouTube hosts various tutorials for the perfect selfie makeup: triumphs of contouring that viewed from the right perspective can slim some features whilst emphasising others. In practice, these contouring styles can look odd when seen in person. But then they’re not designed to be seen in person; they’re to be viewed as a photograph from a specific angle. Even the touted “no make-up selfie” will usually be carefully constructed to flatter the subject – how many rejected photos languish on their camera reel? There’s also the careful choice of what else should appear in shot: the intellectual book; the quirky poster…?

Then there’s the photo editing. Some photography tricks are barely tricks at all: cropping for better composition and carefully selecting the angle (no-one posts pictures of themselves from an unflattering angle, and that holiday shot looks much better without those unwanted people on that apparently deserted beach, or that eyesore on the skyline).

Some editing is more obvious - flower crowns and puppy noses are easily spotted additions, but a great deal is more insidious. Digital photo editing was once a specialist skill but can now be done to some level on most phones in apps such as Facetune. Evening out skin tone, removing wisps of hair, altering jaw lines, re-sizing eyes and mouth – all can be done on your phone.

‘Snapchat dysmorphia’

This editing can warp perception of self-image: the adjusted image being seen as correct; the unfiltered, unedited image becoming a source of dissatisfaction. Doctors at Boston University School of Medicine have termed this ‘snapchat dysmorphia’.

This emphasis on the edited self-image is now so widespread that plastic surgeons have reported a new trend in the types of images prospective patients bring in: photographs of celebrities whose features they want to emulate have given way to adjusted photographs of themselves. A 2018 survey by The American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery found that one of the biggest patient motivations is the desire to look better in selfies. People are undergoing elective surgery to look like the edited online image they’ve created. Physical reality is being altered to match an edited online ideal.

So is our future in the uncanny valley, as we transform our physical bodies into digitally edited versions of ourselves? We’re not quite there, but the blurring of the real and edited image seems here to stay. A picture might paint a thousand words, but a lot of them might be made up…

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This article is from the free online course:

Digital Wellbeing

University of York