Which social media companies tell us what “beautiful” is?

Most people who saw Snow White as a child will remember the immortal phrase delivered to the title character by the evil stepmother: “Mirror, mirror on the wall: who is the fairest of them all?”

Now move on to the present and consider what would happen if the stepmother didn’t eventually lose to Snow White, but instead the mirror could use a filter to ‘enhance’ her appearance?

That would be a dystopian way of rewriting the fairy tale to fit modernity. Part of this stems from the fact that women (or rather the stepmother) feel that their looks are the most important thing. Instead of offering solidarity to the younger, fairer woman, the stepmother never stops competing with her.

This modern day dystopia is already with us. Filters have popped up on social media and video calling apps that claim to make people look their best. But who decides what “beautiful” really means? In the case of apps, it’s probably whoever creates the algorithms who becomes the arbiter of beauty standards.

Today’s take on the mean fairytale mirror is the “Bold Glamor” filter that has popped up on TikTok. It uses artificial intelligence to sharpen facial features as if users had plastic surgery or cosmetic makeover. It’s so realistic you can’t even tell it’s an improvement.

But there is no such thing as “objective” beauty. If you look at cultures and history, the beauty ideals are very different. Queen Elizabeth I introduced red hair as a beauty ideal, although hair color had different meanings before her. 1960s British model Twiggy was notoriously thin and petite, unlike her US predecessor, Marilyn Monroe, who was famous for her curves.

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Instilling a voice in someone at a young age that makes them think they’re not good enough sparks lifelong doubts in girls

The devil’s advocate might argue that harmful beauty standards are simply a fact of life – they are set by someone else or by society at large and are unfortunately meant to keep some women in the loop.

Self-doubt in women and the loss of their self-esteem start at a young age. In today’s world of social media filters, that’s a different matter altogether. Your voice – through pictures of you displayed on social media – can tell you that you’re not good enough. Escaping this inner negativity is not easy.

I am aware that I run the risk of sounding like a quirky old lady if I prevent young people from having creative fun. But given the alarming prevalence of mental illness and even self-harm among girls, it’s no joke.

Instilling a voice in someone from a young age that makes them believe they don’t look good enough and uses camera filters to suggest what they think they should look like sparks lifelong doubts in girls.

This noise is difficult for young women to escape from, and implanted in developing brains can permanently anchor doubts about body image in the mind.

There’s a little experiment I do with kids – they probably played it for fun too. You will see four circles of different colors with a cross in the middle. You stare at the cross for 30 seconds. Then swap the four colored circles for white circles. The extraordinary thing is that you can still see the color. Your brain has adapted – and in just 30 seconds. Now imagine a lifetime of seeing images tuned to a “perfect” ideal that is unattainable in real life. Add to that the fact that your face has changed. You find it difficult to look at yourself without constantly thinking that you need to be changed.

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Plastic surgery is growing in popularity because people don’t take pictures of celebrities, but rather filtered versions of themselves for surgeons to turn into them.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to wonder if this will lead to existential meltdowns among youngsters who can only allow themselves to exist online and not be in the real world because that’s not their “prettiest” selves. Even if they undergo surgery to catch up with an avatar, a “beauty” filter is a moving target – even after the procedure, the filters will suggest further changes.

It’s no fun – it’s an accelerated form of dangerous ideals of beauty.

And for men who expect women to look like models, these filters will exacerbate that and make it even harder to form and maintain healthy relationships.

As a mother of two and as someone who has struggled with critical voices around me telling me I’m too dark, too ugly, not good enough, I worry about this a lot. It’s hard enough uncovering the damage that outside voices are doing to your self-esteem, but when you’re competing with yourself, how do you get back from it?

Updated May 26, 2023 7:00 am