Can beauty filters change the user's self-perception?

Published June 4, 2023

If our self-image can be improved by changing the reflection,  couldn’t this be considered a net-positive?

Lacan's mirror theory tells us that our reflection is the basis upon which we model our internal self-image, which is essential to the construction of our identity. Lacan initially attributed this as a stage that occurs in early childhood from 6-18 months, where the child first begins to recognize their own reflection, building a differentiation between the self and others, between the self and their surroundings. He later contended that this was in fact a primary, constant component in the formation of our subjectivity and self-image. The picture of how we look is permanently held in our minds, framing all of our behaviours, a picture that contains how we come across to others as we move about the world.

The issue here is the disconnection between those two selves. They can never be married—we cannot leave our bodies to observe ourselves through a different perspective. This creates an anxiety of our self-image, a dissatisfaction with this disconnect. We hyperfixate on both our image and our inner selves, harbouring a need to take hold of them, to manipulate them, to curate them. This impulse bores the “self-image issue” of which many of us deal with, in varying degrees. 

If we have a self-image issue, then why not change the image rather than the self?

When polling a survey of 40 people, female users aged 15-22 reported that they feel more at ease about their self-image when using some sort of filter. Participants said they felt less critical about their appearance with some kind of filter attached to it, and felt this presentation helped them feel more accepted. However, many users expressed a sense of guilt or disingenuousness by manipulating their appearance. These same users felt more reluctant to post filtered images on platforms where the people who knew them IRL were likely to see, but more willing to post filtered images of themselves on public platforms where the viewers couldn’t directly compare the projected image to their physical appearance.

This is the mask that we put on to conceal our true identity to those who know us—to add a barrier between our idea of ourselves and our true, objective, natural selves that others encounter. 

When TikTok introduced the “Bold Glamour” AI filter earlier in 2023, it prompted wide usage and heavy criticism. User @rosaura_alvrz writes in a TikTok caption: “This is a problem, you can’t even tell it’s a filter anymore.”
"As someone who experienced body dysmorphia growing up this makes me sick to my stomach; Tiktok u can't be enabling this… it's sickening for our youth.”

The users are indulging themselves in the curation of their alter virtual persona. This results in a virtual confidence, but the maniputlated digital-self-image stops short when they are confronted by their IRL self— a glimpse in a mirror, a friend posting a badly-angled photo on Instagram. There is a disconnect between what we can create, and what we already are. Our physical bodies limit our virtual selves.

This is a Sartrean idea— an innate, constant battle that tries to obtain an objective picture of yourself, versus the actual self that is within the world. When we are seen by another person, our entire being is wrenched into a public display. We focus on how that image might look, and whether it matches with our own idea of ourself, the one we try our best to put forth. Ultimately, we cannot know how effective this charade is, though we still try. We grasp at opinions and comments made about us by our peers, meditate on them, and try to situate the comments within the overall structure of our identity.

It’s certainly no peculiar occurrence that we have taken so kindly to a public curation of ourselves. In fact, it’s entirely expected based on the natural anxiety we carry concerning how we are perceived. At the end of it, we know that the image is an illusion, but we accept the illusion as something we can manipulate. We upload filtered pictures, we scroll through our tweets trying to read them as though we were another person. We try to escape or forget our own intimate knowledge of ourselves, try to block out all the ugly details or private thoughts that we hide from the world.

We see our digital selves and think— this is me!

The credence of the curated image relies on how much we recognize IRL as reality. After all, your digital self is in fact a version of you. The filtered image is a part of you, although can never become more than just a part. To believe that the digital self is a total being that allows you to perfectly pick and choose what you put forth, would be to bask oneself in bad faith.

This is palpable. Our sensitivity to this bad faith is why we carry visceral reactions to the narcissism with which we pore into our digital selves. It’s why we discount social media as “fake,” filters as “dangerous.” We indulge this bad faith just as much we condemn it; still caught in the battle between our self-image and our objective selves. 

A common argument is that this is bad for the children, those who don’t yet have a firm self-identity, who didn’t get the chance to grow accustomed to their natural selves existing in the natural world. It is indeed true that our current digital landscape exacerbates this anxiety, but that does not mean it was never there to begin with.

What this condemnation fails to acknowledge is how essential our fakeness is to our human nature— how we need to curate our image in order to exist. There is no way out of the circle between subject/object, it is simply a condition of existence.


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USURPATOR is an online magazine sharing essays and interviews about the user experience of our current virtual landscape

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