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Women are rejecting surgery in favour of filters – but why?

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Emily Reynolds
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New research from the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons suggests that the number of women having face lifts has dramatically fallen – and it’s partly to do with selfie-editing software, it says. 

It’s a self evident truth that we all like to look our best – especially online, where it’s easier than ever to manage how we present ourselves to the world. And, given how quick and easy it is to filter and crop our way to social media perfection, it’s not surprising that many of us have partaken in the practice at one point or another.

But sometimes a bit of light cropping and some flattering filtering isn’t where we stop with our photo editing – to the extent that, for some of us, it’s actually replacing plastic surgery. 

According to the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons’ (BAAPS) Annual Audit, demand for face lifts fell 44% in 2017 – as did demand for brow lifts, which fell by 31%. Breast augmentation increased by 7%, maintaining its top spot as the most popular cosmetic procedure. 

And the reason for this change? According to former BAAPS president Rajiv Grover, it’s all down to filters and photo-editing apps. 

“Society unfortunately has a history of being more forgiving towards men’s physiques than women’s,” he says. “The advent of myriad filters in social media platforms allows for the ubiquitous enhancing and facial feminising of ‘selfies’”. 

The continued popularity of breast augmentation, he argues, is because it’s harder to “reach online fitspiration when it comes to body goals” compared to facial softening, filtering and enhancement. 

This isn’t surprising news. A 2015 study from Australian beauty website BeautyHaven found that 57% of women “regularly edited their own social media pictures to enhance their appearance”. In the same year, research from Dr Pippa Hugo, a consultant at the Priory hospital, found that as many as nine out of 10 girls now digitally enhance their own pictures. 

“Cyber scrutiny and bullying is not an unusual experience in our patients and it presents a dilemma for them, as many feel they need to use Facebook and other social media channels to feel part of their peer group,” she said.

And photographer Isabelle Whiteley, who works with teenage girls, told The Guardian that it would be “more unusual for [teenage girls] to upload a completely undoctored picture to Instagram”. 

A more recent survey, commissioned by the US edition of Glamour in 2017, resulted in similar findings. Some 60% felt it was okay for a woman to edit her personal pictures: 23% of women aged between 25 to 29 said they do it, and that number rose to 41% in those aged from 18 to 24. It’s clear that we’re keen to perfect the way we look online. But why?

A post shared by Kylie (@kyliejenner) on

“It’s a self esteem thing,” Kathryn, 27, tells stylist.co.uk. “I want to look the best I can, and if that requires my eyes to be a bit brighter or the lighting to be made a bit more flattering, then that’s what I’ll do. Sometimes I play around with proportions – I’ve tried making my nose and jaw a bit smaller to see what that would look like”. 

Kathryn says she “does prefer” how she looks when she edits her face more dramatically, but that she’d never post them: “I don’t want to put up a picture that doesn’t accurately represent my face”.  

It’s not always clear when someone’s edited a photo, either – Kathryn says that “if someone asked” she’d tell them her photos were doctored, but that she doesn’t “put up a disclaimer saying they’re edited”. 

“I don’t think I change enough to warrant that,” she adds. 

This can be difficult for observers. We’re all aware of how ubiquitous Photoshop is in advertising – so although images of ‘perfect’ women in magazines and on billboards can indubitably impact the way we feel about ourselves, as well as reinforcing damaging ideas of how women ‘should’ look, we are at least aware that some level of editing has taken place. 

On social media, however, this isn’t as easy. Is that perfect selfie you’ve just scrolled past how someone really looks, or has it been doctored? For those who have no idea which photos on social media have been edited, or how, it can be uncomfortable – when everyone else looks perfect, it’s hard not to compare yourself. 

It can also be difficult to form a stable self-image when you start editing your photos, as Megan, 26, explains.

“When I first heard of editing apps, I have to admit I was initially intrigued,” she says. “I enjoyed playing around with my photos and quite quickly became seduced by the idea that I could make adjustments to my photos. Plus, this seemed to be whole-heartedly approved by Instagram followers, who were liking and commenting galore on my better-lit/smoother/more tanned face.”

But later, Megan says, she found her view of herself was becoming “distorted”.  

“I was becoming dissatisfied from the off with a ‘normal’ picture of myself,” she says – and it was then that she realised “how damaging it was”. 

“Pictures are supposed to be capturing memories, and the idea that I’m creating a fantastical version of a real moment is way too Black Mirror for me,” she adds. 

It’s not just women engaging in photo editing either, as Daragh tells stylist.co.uk. Daragh edits “all” of his selfies, removing what he refers to as “obvious blemishes” such as bad skin. He also “ups the light and saturation” and “gives people’s skin more colour”. A photo-editing app for men, Manly, has recently launched, too. Promising to give men their “dream body with perfect muscles”, it’s clear that online body image insecurities aren’t just limited to women. 

A promo image from FaceTune, one of the App Store’s most popular photo-editing apps

Kathryn believes the phenomenon is “all part of presenting our ideal selves online”.

“We all want to be seen at our best,” she says.

She also believes that, for her, photo editing has something to do with control. “There’s so much about our lives that we don’t have a handle on,” she explains. “So if we can make ourselves look how we wish we did, and have people believe that’s truly us, then that’s one element we do have control over. It provides a sense of stability”. 

Kathryn even says that she can “completely understand” why women might be tempted to have plastic surgery to change their faces after seeing how different they might look on a photo editing app.  Instagram has been found to be the worst platform for mental health – and when you consider how many of us feel we need to edit our selfies before we post them, it’s not hard to see why.

Images: Pexels / Instagram / FaceTune