Animated: Filtering faces as filtering reality
There was a time when I wouldn’t post or show others a picture of myself without adding a filter of some sort. Sometimes those social media filters were cute and funny, like me as a digitally rendered strawberry or as a puppy. Mostly, though, those filters were intended to present an alternate, often extreme version of myself: someone with lighter skin, bigger eyes and less blemished skin. In my world where colorism and flawed beauty standards reigned supreme, I needed to make myself conform to those standards through the digital arts.
I became addicted to such filters, to the point where seeing myself in the mirror without them became a shock. I’m not sure if my consistent use of filters contributed to my omnipresent insecurities or if my omnipresent insecurities were what led me to keep using filters, but regardless of the root cause, my social media life was dependent upon these photo filters.
Looking back, I don’t think I realized how unreal my filtered photos were. No one (except for anime characters) had eyes that big, and the use of all these different artistic effects meant that my face as a whole didn’t even look like my face anymore. Still, I was blissfully unaware and continued sharing these photos, convinced that people would see me the way I represented myself online rather than my actual face in real life.
According to Tate Ryan-Mosely of the MIT Technology Review, many young girls feel the same pressure when it comes to filters. Such augmented reality filters, Ryan-Mosely writes, enable social media users to “sift through different identities” and represent themselves in ways that aren’t reflective of who they actually are.
Genesis Rivas at InStyle echoes this argument about the misrepresentative implications of filters. She writes that such aesthetic-centered effects are based upon “highlighting Euro-centric beauty features, like lighter eyes,” and overall have incredibly detrimental impacts on mental health.
Rivas also cites medical studies that show the correlation between digital filters and people getting plastic surgery to appear more like the filtered versions of themselves. Social media filters geared towards perpetuating unattainable beauty standards are also linked to an increase in cases of body dysmorphia, anxiety and isolation.
Besides the societal beauty standards and inequities that such filters are often associated with, there’s also evidence to show that some filters are a product of racialized perceptions. Back in 2016, Snapchat came under fire for its filter that perpetuated racist stereotypes of Asians as excessively squinty-eyed. Many called the filter a form of “yellowface.”
Even before that, Snapchat’s Bob Marley filter, which allowed users to insert their face into Bob Marley’s, incited widespread rage. It was labeled as racist and a means of “digital blackface.”
Caitlin Dewey at the Washington Post argues that many digital filters do perpetuate negative racial attitudes in how these filters perceive and illustrate racial identities. There’s a particular pattern of blackface through platforms such as Face Swap, where users can swap their faces with Barack Obama’s, or Face Swap Booth, where users can visually take on the face of Nicki Minaj.
I know that I’m meant to write about animation and the digital arts. Still, at this point, I wouldn’t even consider such filters “art.” If anything, these examples show how the positive ability to creatively render visuals in an artistic fashion — what I consider a brilliant form of what the “digital arts” should mean — have no longer become creative. Filters have been warped in a negative manner. Under that problematic definition of digital filters, people just try on the face of any real person they want.
Although it’s clear that filters have become a complicated phenomenon, I want to stress that I still love using filters at most times. They’re a really powerful creative tool, especially for the artists and creators who dream them up. For others, filters allow a degree of creative agency, even if that agency is often overshadowed by the blurring between art and life.
Filters have opened up a range of possibilities to become who — or what — I could literally only dream of becoming. I’m not opposed to becoming a strawberry or a puppy again; I still like seeing myself as a different, hilarious version of myself. I also have to admit that I’d probably still use filters to lessen a particularly large pimple on my face.
I’m not so sure that I’d start using beauty filters to the extreme extent that I did before, though. I think it’s important to recognize that many filters do have implicit meanings beyond their surface-level visuals. More than just images, filters represent a form of reality that may occasionally feel inviting. That reality just isn’t ours.
Valerie Wu is a senior writing about animation and digital arts from a contemporary perspective. Her column “Animated” runs every other Tuesday.