Dating coach Eric Resnick recently had a client send him photos she wanted to use for her dating app profile. The pictures were labeled “FaceApp 1,” “FaceApp 2” and “FaceApp 3,” revealing the client treated them with a photo-editing app that lets you smooth out your wrinkles, fill in your hairline or chisel your cheekbones.
Beauty filters are a scourge of online dating, Resnick said. They’re also very popular.
Beauty filters are a scourge of online dating, Resnick said. They’re also very popular. Everyone uses them: women, men, 20-somethings who don’t remember a world without Instagram and 50-year-olds who’d prefer to hide signs of aging. Yet, Resnick advised his client to lose the edits, which visibly smudged the skin around her eyes, neck and mouth. “If you want to have a real connection, you don’t lie,” he told me.
On a practical level, that reasoning makes sense. A visibly filtered face or retouched body could turn potential matches off. Looking different than your photo is not the best way to start an in-person date. But it’s also hard to fault people for trying to conform to today’s pervasive social-media-driven beauty standards, especially on apps that treat us like merchandise in an online catalog. In our increasingly visual culture, there are powerful impulses, both societal and technological, that push people into digital self-enhancement.
Philosopher Heather Widdows argued in her book “Perfect Me” that because striving to become beautiful has become an ethical endeavor, wrapped in moral language (“You let yourself go,” “You deserve it”), it’s actually becoming harder to resist. The beauty standard for women, she said, is both more predominant and specific than ever before: With few exceptions, women are supposed to aspire to appear firm, smooth, young and thin.
Beauty filters are designed to make you look closer to that standard — but they also narrow it. The filters make eyes look bigger, noses smaller, lips fuller (think: the Kardashian-Jenner clan). Although the filtered ideal is somewhat racially ambiguous, many filters lighten and brighten the skin, exacerbating existing colorism, the MIT Technology Review reported. "Instagram Face" is instantly identifiable and coveted by social media users from a young age.
Retouching, once the purview of celebrity images in glossy magazines, has become democratized. It’s easy, it’s available and it’s being pushed down our throats. Instagram’s filters have smoothed our faces for years. Even Snapchat’s uber-popular, ostensibly playful puppy filter widened eyes, thinned faces and airbrushed skin. Anyone can download FaceApp or Facetune. Huawei phones come with a “beauty mode” that automatically puts a filter on your face.
Research is still unclear on the impact of beauty filters on our mental health, but it’s undeniable that in a world where we are constantly staring at ourselves — whether via selfies, FaceTime or Zoom — it’s easy to feel inadequate. When you turn off a filter and look at yourself in the mirror, and appear nothing like that enhanced image, “there is a huge dislocation between the real self and the imagined self,” Widdows told me. “As the gap between them widens, the potential for anxiety and dissatisfaction and unhappiness grows.” It’s why people keep asking plastic surgeons to sculpt their faces to resemble filtered versions of themselves.
"I feel naked without a filter, but I really never think about it, my phone suggests the beauty one automatically," one dating app user, a 29-year-old woman, told Johanna Degen, Andrea Kleeberg-Niepage and Jo Reichertz, psychology researchers at the University of Flensburg in Germany. "The look seems natural," she said. "I look sick if not using a filter."
Filters have the power to influence how you think of and present yourself on their own. But the design of many dating apps encourages us to make those idealized versions of ourselves public.
Swiping through profiles, “liking” and matching on apps like Tinder is like scoring points. You rack up a tally that you can use — consciously or not — to measure the response to your profile and optimize how you present yourself. It’s like A/B testing versions of a product. And the product is you, whether you go on an app looking for love, validation or just entertainment.
Because swipe apps are highly visual and rely on photos instead of text, adding a beauty filter to your picture is one way of optimizing yourself. The University of Flensburg’s Degen has found in her research that people on apps like Tinder seem to pick dating profile photos that make them easy to categorize (men holding fish, anyone?) and typically attractive. To compete in the fast-paced, looks-based app, whose algorithm for years matched users according to their desirability, most people want to make themselves appear conventionally hot.
Trying to appeal to a homogenized ideal means taking fewer risks — and that includes being candid. Although it would likely result in better relationships, putting your true self out there for public consumption makes you more vulnerable. It’s natural to want to conform.
“A filter is literally putting a protective surface between you and the other, so you show less of yourself,” Degen said.
Hanna, 23, who requested that I don’t use her full name, posted screenshots of her profile on Reddit, asking people for feedback. She used several photos where her face was glowing after being visibly, but lightly, airbrushed, explaining that she used a Snapchat filter because she doesn’t wear a lot of makeup and the filter mimics its effect, giving her bigger lashes and a smoother skin.
Yet, Reddit commenters criticized her filter use, which was mild as far as filters go. “The filtered pictures look too fake,” one said. “Guys hate filters in general tbh,” another added.
Concern over filters is understandable in the online dating world. The dating app Plenty of Fish banned face filters in 2019, after it said a survey showed that 84 percent of its users wanted more “authenticity” in dating both online and in-person and 70 percent considered face filters to be deceptive.
Many people expect a baseline of retouching. They reject it when a certain unspoken, subjective boundary gets crossed, and the artifice stops being acceptable.
At the same time, filters have become normalized. The Plenty of Fish survey showed that Gen Z is less judgmental of filter use than older daters. “It is socially accepted to optimize the self a little bit,” Degen said. Many people expect a baseline of retouching. They reject it when a certain unspoken, subjective boundary gets crossed, and the artifice stops being acceptable. Defining that line can very easily get confusing.
Hanna said she expected other Redditors to dislike the filter — but that doesn’t mean they dislike the results. “I do think that they are somewhat hypocritical because most men still go for the filter and/or makeup look,” she said.
The contradiction between expecting a certain look and then complaining when that look is artificially achieved is an example of what Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor at Cornell University who studies digital culture, calls the “authenticity bind.”
Women are particularly vulnerable to accusations of fakery — which is nothing new. In the Victorian era, makeup was associated with sex workers, who were disparagingly called “painted women.” “It was this idea that if you wore too much makeup, you were morally corrupt and trying to conceal your true self,” Duffy said.
As much of our lives move online, the question of what is your “true self” gets complicated. It’s entirely possible, for instance, that beauty filters will become as commonplace and accepted as makeup. Today, however, many of us are set up to fail. These widely accessible tools will make you look more like the widely admired beauty ideal — but if you use them, you could be disappointing everyone, including yourself. Or get called a catfish.