A lot goes into a carefully altered selfie. Striking a balance between softening and sharpening the edges of the face, blurring out every spot and "imperfection" to a point of believability and, of course, finding the right filter. It's almost an art; well, an art of deception.
But a new Instagram move stands to threaten that. In light of the highly publicized accusations against Facebook in amplifying the internet's favorite catchall term — "fake news," the company has now reportedly introduced new controls that limit the visibility of photoshopped images on Instagram.
This means the images that are digitally altered — for whatever purpose — can be flagged as "false information." And there are no definitive guidelines either, so everything from memes and artistic images to potentially photoshopped images of beauty is fair game.
But this isn't the first time the social media giant has introduced this type of ban. For over a year now, a number of users have found their engagement to be restricted for violating the company's undefined policies, also known as "shadow banning."
Of course, censorship on social media is by no means a new topic of debate. While on one hand, it threatens to infringe on artistic liberties and quite simply, the right to express yourself, on the other it could help potentially curb the influence of unrealistic images of beauty. This has also endangered images that Instagram has over time deemed "inappropriate" for being "sexually suggestive" which has extended into policing women's bodies.
So where do we draw the line? "As a free speech absolutist, I don't think [censorship] is a great idea," says Naomi Wolf, author of Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalzation of Love that investigates modern censorship and modern homophobic laws."On a platform that is so public, I think people should be free to use whatever tools they wish to express themselves. It's not journalism. "
"People should be free to use whatever tools they wish to express themselves. It's not journalism." —Naomi Wolf
She isn't isolated in her point of view.
"To be honest, I understand that the thought behind it is good, but Instagram won't get the results they're hoping for," agrees Jelena Cikoja, a fashion and lifestyle influencer whose feed is a mix between glossy travel images and outfit posts. "Since Photoshop is mainly used by professionals and very often for digital art there would be a lot of people suffering that are simply expressing themselves creatively."
Even so, it's no secret that advertising and media have for years affected the way young women see themselves. With the advent of social media and ubiquity of retouched images, no doubt that correlation has multiplied to the maximum.
A systematic review of 20 papers published in 2016 found that scrolling through photo-based platforms such as Instagram have a direct and damaging impact on body image and encourages an overall negative perspective of self. And — no points for guessing — also promotes eating disorders.
Wolf, whose 1990 classic The Beauty Myth became instrumental in highlighting how images of beauty are constantly used against women (spearheading the discourse into the mainstream) agrees the pressures from social media have dramatically amplified toxic beauty standards over the years.
"The ubiquity of porn has given young women very little sense of sexual privacy and autonomy," she says. "Same is true for men for that matter — and the focus on social media does make self-consciousness kind of constant." Of course, with self consciousness comes the debate around mental health, which isn't just contained to users exposed to the content online, but those creating them too.
In 2018 alone, Americans went under the knife for: 313,735 breast augmentations, 258,558 liposuction procedures and 213,780 nose reshaping surgeries.
A recent social media report from Norwegian global influencer marketing platform inzpire.me found that almost half of the surveyed influencers thought their jobs had an impact on their mental health, while 32 percent reported it had a negative impact on their own body image.
Just ask Caroline Calloway, whose tumultuous relationship with former friend and ghostwriter Natalie Beach became a hot topic of online discussion. The influencer knows a thing or two about dealing with social media pitfalls and believes the new guidelines are step in the right direction. (She is also reportedly working her experiences from the past year into an upcoming book, Scammer).
"As someone who struggled with mental health issues — many of them Instagram-specific mental health issues — in the past, I couldn't be more excited about any steps in the direction of protecting the apps user," Calloway tells PAPER. "If artists want to use Photoshop I think they should have to apply for the right to use it, making their case to a board of review why it is important to their creative practice. Posting a photoshopped body should be a right exercised by artists who have been reviewed and not an inalienable right of anyone signing up for the platform."
While getting yourself pre-approved as an artist might take away from the liberties that social media has entailed, Calloway's concerns aren't without merit.
Jameela Jamil, who has famously championed against celebrities and influencers alike for promoting products and images that encourage unrealistic beauty ideals, also expects that Facebook's move is ultimately a step towards us "accepting ourselves and each other."
"It affects me to see a perfectly edited photo of myself. It hurts how I see myself in the mirror. I can't help but compare. And this is the case for everyone," she explains. "No longer using it over the past three years has completely transformed my expectations of my appearance. It is also important to note that there is definitely a repercussion when it comes to dating. Our standards are becoming stupidly high and we are becoming hyper-normalized to digital beauty, which makes it harder to appreciate potential partners as they are. Much like how consuming an excess of porn makes it harder to enjoy regular sex."
Despite her reservations around censorship, Wolf echoes similar sentiments. "Women (and men) generally are aware that beauty ideals are socially constructed and there is a lot more diversity in role models now," she says. "But the figures for eating disorders have stayed the same, and pressures on young women from social media and from porn are more intense."
"It affects me to see a perfectly edited photo of myself. It hurts how I see myself in the mirror. I can't help but compare. And this is the case for everyone." —Jameela Jamil
But beyond eating disorders and glaring mental health issues, there's also the disturbing studies that indicate a massive uptick in elective and invasive plastic surgery procedures stemming out of airbrushed images and feeds full of pouty lips, big butts and flat tummies.
And it's not just users posting photos of their newly constructed features, but also plastic surgeons using it to promote their own businesses, which unsurprisingly is not a small number. About 70 percent of board-certified surgeons have social media profiles with before and after images of their patients that generates substantial interest. That area of influence is even bigger if it's a celebrity approved surgeon, reflected within the shocking number of Americans opting for elective plastics.
A new report by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons found that Americans spent close to $16.5 billion on plastic surgeries and other invasive procedures in 2018 alone, a four percent increase from 2017.
The most popular surgical procedures among these were breast augmentation (313,735 procedures), liposuction (258,558 procedures) and nose reshaping (213,780 procedures). Facelifts and eyelid surgeries came in close after.
"I despise airbrushing, photoshop, or Facetune," Jamil says. "They are the reason behind the rise of cosmetic surgery in teens. They are the reason behind dysmorphia and self loathing in so many. They are why we are more afraid of aging than we have ever been, which is so sexist since we still celebrate men who are aging 'gracefully' as we put it. We love their greys and wrinkles but detest our own. There is so much to unpack, and hopefully this push back against photo editing will stop that in its tracks."
Still, who do we hold accountable?
According to Jamil, it's up to the corporations and media to take responsibility. "It's a deliberate ploy to set the bar too high for a normal person to meet. This in turn makes them feel unhappy with their appearance, due to the natural comparison they might make to the image they're being shown," she says. "And you know who buys more stuff? Unhappy people. If they constantly disrupt our ability to be content then they can continue to manipulate us into submission. It honestly astounds me that it is even legal to use any editing in advertising, especially for beauty and hair campaigns. The reason I haven't yet shot one is because I'm waiting for a company with morals and the guts to promote their products with no digital enhancement. It speaks to incompetence and a lack of faith in your product to need to lie by airbrushing your marketing."
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There's no winning here. Censorship undoubtedly infringes on creative freedom and ultimately raises questions about free speech. Isn't the ability to be able to share your work, thoughts, or art from wherever you are with the click of a button what gives social media its power?
As long as capitalist models are in place, corporations will continue to use the freedom to exploit the insecurities of women, ethical or not. And it won't just stop at social media. Traditional carriers of toxic beauty ideals — namely, TV, advertisements and physical billboards — are still in place. Have we reached a point where we can counteract or at least mitigate the impact of such images through actively spreading awareness and speaking out? There are too many questions to unpack but ultimately it comes down to what we're willing to sacrifice: creative liberties or decades of social conditioning.
Photo via Instagram