Everyone has them: pimples, pores, skin impurities. These so-called flaws are the most normal thing in the world. But not on social media, where virtually every influencer seems to smile back at users with perfect hair, smooth skin and gleaming white teeth.
The market for face filter programs is booming, and what they can do has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years. Everything is possible, from minor corrections such as smoother skin and thicker eyebrows to completely changing a person's facial structure.
Artificial intelligence for artificial beauty
The FaceTune app by Israeli company Lightricks has more than 200 million downloads, and competitors like YouCam Makeup from Taiwan and BeautyPlus from Singapore have each seen more than 100 million downloads.
Just a few years ago, only photographs could be enhanced. But now people can change their appearance in videos in such a sophisticated and comprehensive way that the image processing is hardly detectable.
Two new filters on TikTok caused quite a stir in early March. With the help of artificial intelligence, the "Teenage Look" filter makes people look younger, and the Bold Glamour filter transforms the face according to idealized beauty standards — giving it fuller lips, brighter eyes, a slimmer nose and flawless skin.
With earlier versions of these filters, changes were revealed by the glitches that occurred when subjects moved their heads quickly or waved a hand in front of their face. But the latest new filters seem to be glitch-proof.
These filters also enforce a uniform beauty ideal in which black skin is generally lightened, white skin appears rosier and prominent noses are narrowed. "This aesthetic appeal is definitely problematic to see, because many stereotypes are condensed in the filters," said Katja Gunkel, a cultural studies professor at the Goethe University in Frankfurt who specializes in digital culture and consumer aesthetics.
The technology is brand new, she added, but the cliches about various roles that it serves are outdated. "There are many highly problematic filters available for everyone and, of course, there's also an enormous pressure to conform that goes along with this," she said.
Depression and dysmorphia
These apps can have serious psychological consequences for users. Two-thirds of young people feel pressured by beauty standards on social networks, according to a study by the British YMCA. Another survey by the British youth organization Girlguiding reported that around a third of all girls between the ages of 11 and 21 would no longer post an unedited photo of themselves.
"It's a game with the devil," said German YouTuber Silvi Carlsson, who speaks out against beauty filters in her videos. "As soon as we appear publicly with the filters, we get positive feedback in the form of hearts and likes. We feel accepted and the dopamine flows."
But what happens when people then go out among their fellow human beings without filters, revealing their pimples, pigmentation spots or dark under-eye circles, she asked. "We're trained by social media to present a perfect self to the outside world," Carlsson said. "It breaks us down."
The resulting medical condition now has its own name: Selfie or Snapchat dysmorphia. The more filtered selfies become the norm, the more many people's self-esteem is affected. The feeling of failing to embody the demands of these beauty ideals can even trigger depression, according to the scientific journal JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery.
In response, several countries have undertaken legislative measures to regulate filter usage. In Norway and Israel, photos that have been manipulated by filters must now be labeled as soon as they are used for advertising on social networks. A draft law in France also aims to enact similar regulations for photo and video recordings, with influencers facing fines of up to €300,000 ($325,000) or six months in prison for violations. Such regulations are also already being discussed in the United Kingdom.
In Germany, there is no such legal requirement so far. Last year, YouTuber Carlsson started a petition to change that, and the Conference of Ministers for Gender Equality and Women's Issues, chaired by Green Party Senator Katharina Fegebank, has also called for mandatory labeling of enhanced images in advertising and on social networks. But no legislation has been proposed at the federal level yet.
Goethe University professor Katja Gunkel said she would be in favor of such regulation, but made a clear distinction between public and private use. "We're only talking about the commercial sector here. You couldn't use it for selfies in the private sphere. How is that supposed to work, who is supposed to control that? I would call that censorship then," she said.
Instead, children and young people need to be educated early to strengthen their media skills, she added. "We live under capitalism, and it simply works incredibly well to give people the feeling that they have to keep optimizing themselves, and to tie this to the consumption of certain products or services such as medical interventions.
"After all, this whole machinery thrives on a sense of lack that is best never satisfied so that consumption continues," said Gunkel. "Therefore, the task can only be: How can users gain a certain resilience and confidence in dealing with these images?"