Opinion: Being able to physically alter oneself, erase flaws, improve features and manipulate body shapes raises many issues

By Jill Humby and Tara Rooney, TU Dublin

Have you ever taken a selfie and thought 'if only I could just make my eyes a little bigger?' We have all applied editing filters to photos, lighting filters to make the image brighter, sharper, darker, warmer. It has become routine to 'touch up' photos. Filter apps take this process further, allowing users to alter the image itself.

The social networking app TikTok is synonymous with filter use. It allows users to create and share 15 second videos clips with the world. One of its most loved features is the filter function which can be integrated with background music and lip-synching templates.

TikTok's predecessor Musical.ly was created by Chinese futurologists Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang. The story goes that while Alex noticed on a US train trip that young people were either watching videos or listening to music. The idea germinated to combine these activities, allowing users to link video and music in one application and so Musical.ly was born, reinventing the act of lip-syncing.

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From RTÉ News, how doctors are using TikTok to educate young people on medical issues

With over 2 billion downloads and availability in over 200 countries, TikTok is the app of choice for Generation Z. It can make a user an overnight star. Take Charlie D'Melio, a 17 year old who creates dance TikToks from her room. She became the first person to surpass 100 million followers on TikTok, after one unremarkable duet integrated with a TikTok dance account. Such is her success that in 2020 she was listed in the Forbes 40 under 40 alongside Beyonce.

Enhancing one's appearance is nothing new. In ancient Egypt, make-up was worn to appeal to the Gods. Unlike the Byzantines, who embraced cosmetics to their fullest, the Romans and Greeks regarded make up as a sign of vanity, preferring to use cosmetic products to accentuate natural beauty. In the bible, make-up was often deemed sinful, used to tempt and seduce, Queen Jezebel epitomising this association.

Across performance arts, cosmetics are used to dramatize features and combat the effects of stage lighting. With the introduction of TV and film, a make-up production industry flourished to perfect the appearances of its actors and actresses. Airbrushing images became the industry gold standard, subsequently distorting our expectations of how people should, rather than do look.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Louise McSharry show, veteran TikToker Fionnuala Jay on the music, language, and humor that have been created on the platform

TikTok and filter apps such as Facetune allow individuals to achieve similar levels of cosmetic enhancement to prefect, idealise and edit versions of themselves. Younger generations have grown up exposed to these hyper-edited images. For them, filter use has been normalised, accepted and embraced.

For those of us not using platforms like TikTok, filters are a bit of a mystery. Apps like TikTok allow users to edit their videos, add text or add an Augmented Reality (AR) filter to make the video more visually appealing. The filters allow the user to radically change their images using only a smartphone.

AR filters provide effects, animations or elements to add to videos. For instance, a user can distort their face, bling videos, apply make-up, adjust physical features or embed games. They make semi-professional cosmetic and editing capabilities available to everyone, elevating expectations. There are eight categories of effects in Tik Tok; "Trending", "New", "Interactive", "Editing", "Beauty", "Funny", "World" and "Animal" which provide users with more options to generate creative content and help fulfil the platform’s entertainment and social needs.

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From RTÉ One News, how a teenager's collection of thousands of tadpoles has turned her into a TikTok star

Of course, this means increased exposure to the idealistic, edited and perfected presentations of others. The pressure to mirror an equally 'flawless’ version of yourself becomes potent. Russell Belk's 1988 extended self-concept can shed light on this. In a digital world, it represents the ability to re-embody and co-construct a version of yourself through and with others; to become the self that you believe others want you to be.

This is amplified online where individuals can use technology to augment themselves, editing and re-editing images to prefect their desired self. We call this process 'self-presentation', where individuals curate personas to suit the environment they are in. Using filter features helps by allowing individuals to selectively self-present and strategically manage impressions.

Recent research at TU Dublin found that this pressure to be perfect increases levels of anxiety, with users falling into a ‘perpetual cycle’ of perfection attainment. Inside this cycle, insecurities can be amplified as users begin to apply filters to mask a perceived imperfection. When viewing the curated version of the user, followers reward them with positive reactions. These likes and comments release endorphins in the brain, a process that becomes so addictive they can no longer post without that particular filter.

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From Gloom, trying out the Best TikTok trend filters

This duality is not lost on TikToker's who often have two accounts; a spam account for their 'authentic self’ and an open account for their ‘public self’. Spam accounts are closed and typically have a small number of trusted friends. Users are often concerned about showing their ‘authentic’ self on their public account, preferring to use it for portraying aspects of themselves they believe followers want to see hoping to increase their popularity or go viral.

Filters are changing the rules of social interaction. Being able to physically alter oneself, erase flaws, improve features and manipulate body shapes raises ethical and moral questions. Beauty is no longer in the eye of the beholder and is no longer skin deep. Beauty is now high resolution, pixelated and whatever we want it to be - as long as we have a good filter app!

Jill Humby is a BSc Marketing Student at TU Dublin. Dr Tara Rooney is a lecturer in Strategic Marketing at the College of Business, School of Marketing at TU Dublin.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ