Social media can be a positive place. It’s a great way to connect with others, learn about the world and share your thoughts. But perhaps you notice something as you scroll along. Maybe it’s a bit too positive. Not that positivity is a bad thing, but one can’t help but notice how people’s social media profiles are often curated to show the best, and not necessarily the most realistic, side of themselves.
Open up LinkedIn and you’re flooded with announcements about new jobs and promotions. We’ve all seen it: “I’m thrilled to announce I’m starting a new job at Amazing Company and I’ll be earning a billion dollars a month.” On Facebook, your wall is likely full of posts about you friends’ life achievements and their exciting social lives, and on Instagram you see constant reminders of how everyone else is perfect.
But things are changing. Many social media users understand that social media can often be a sharp distortion of reality. For example, while online discussions can quickly deteriorate into a toxic and combative hurling of insults, talking to people in person tends to incorporate a greater degree of moderation and empathy. And the same goes for the perfection we see on Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. It isn’t necessarily an accurate depiction of reality.
Various campaigns and movements such as #NoMakeUpSelfie and #FilterDrop have emphasised the importance of being comfortable with who you are and rejected the idea that one has to be dependent on a filter to post a photo. In the United Kingdom, the Advertising Standards Agency has warned against the use of filters by beauty influencers that could exaggerate the efficacy of a product and mislead consumers. So where does this leave us in light of research that suggests social media is harmful to the mental health of young women and The Facebook Files, a Wall Street Journal investigation that suggests Meta has known about the harmful effects of Instagram but not done enough about it?
For some people, the imposition of regulation is long overdue. Anything designed to encourage transparency among online sellers is a positive step. However others feel banning filters will do little to prevent misleading behaviour. An influencer selling an anti-wrinkle cream could take a ‘before’ photo, and then pursue a range of activities to make their skin healthier such as exercising and improving their diet. They could then take an ‘after’ photo, attributing the improvement to the cream when in fact the cream wasn’t applied at all. This kind of influencer promotion is an extension of the Taboola-style clickbait ads that show an individual who has taken weight loss pills. In the ‘before’ photo the individual is looking downcast as he slouches and protrudes his belly. The ‘after’ photo shows him smiling and trying a bit too hard to suck in his gut. These ads have been plaguing the internet for years despite the United States Federal Trade Commission warning about false promises and encouraging the reporting of false advertising.
Another concern is that for far too long, Instagram and other social media platforms have encouraged the ‘pressure to be perfect’. When such a culture is an embedded part of social media activity, banning filters on the sale of beauty products or perhaps removing filters altogether – something that almost certainly would have been discussed among the leadership of Meta, Snap and ByteDance – may not have the desired effect.
If certain filters are removed in an environment where there’s such pressure to be perfect, what’s the next step? For some people, the next step will be resorting to cosmetic surgery; a ‘real life filter’. It’s unsurprising that some researchers have found social media use to be associated with an increased desire for cosmetic surgery. And this is why it is essential that people signing up to social media for the first time are educated beforehand about the disparity between the perfect photos they see and reality. Unlike the first generation of social media users, who eventually learned that the perfection they saw was a combination of lighting, filters, angles and Photoshop, the newer generation can be made aware sooner, avoiding a ticking time bomb of mental health issues.
Despite the ongoing pressures and mental health issues associated with social media, it is relieving to see the popularity of movements such as #FilterDrop and a widespread understanding that images posted on social media aren’t always reflective of reality. As a movement of body positivity grows, people are becoming more comfortable showing their authentic selves, not needing to be ‘protected’ by filters, excessive makeup and flattering lighting. Even celebrities and influencers such as Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez who have been caught Photoshopping their images have been reassured by their fans that there’s no need to do so. You’re human. There’s no such thing as ‘perfect’. It’s fine to be yourself.
And while social media may have inadvertently pushed forward a set of unrealistic beauty standards, more and more people are coming to terms that beauty is subjective and much more than just a specific measurement or clothes one wears. As Min Jin Lee, the author of best-selling book Pachinko, said in an interview: “I have been surrounded by all kinds of women who work in menial and middle-class jobs, who lack the resources to join gyms, color their hair, buy cosmetics and skincare, go to dermatologists and plastic surgeons, polish their nails, eliminate unwanted hair, buy expensive clothing… I am interested in the physicality of women who live their daily struggles with integrity; their beauty captivates those who know them.”