In today’s digital age, it’s no secret that social media can have strong effects on our mental health. According to a recent study from York University, 120 undergraduate women who were asked to interact with a post of someone whom they perceived as more attractive than them, felt worse about themselves afterwards. The truth of the matter is, however, is that most of what we see on social media simply isn’t true. Filters on Snapchat and Instagram, in addition to the myriad photo editing apps available on all smartphones, are distorting the way society sees each other, and in turn, is causing users to want to change the way the look in real life.
It’s been referred to by doctors and scholars as both Snapchat Dysmorphia and Instagram Dysmorphia, but the two terms are referencing the same thing—social media users who turn to plastic surgery to look as good in real life as they do online.
“Instagram Dysmorphia is a real phenomenon that is affecting demand for plastic surgery, expectations, satisfaction, and overall happiness,” says Michael Newman, M.D., F.A.C.S, a board-certified plastic surgeon and member of the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. “Image editing started with print magazines where models have special lighting to look their best, then later by having their photos touched up electronically. Now, everyone has access to image editing software allowing them to change photos before they post to social media. I have watched people remove blemishes, make themselves taller, and make themselves skinnier with imaging software on their phones right before my eyes. This creates unrealistic goals. Consumers are now coming into plastic surgery offices like ours asking to look like the images they see online, not realizing that those images likely have been altered and do not reflect reality.”
The statistics support Newman’s claims. A quick search of the words “FaceTune” on the Apple App Store delivers results for “the original selfie editor” (that’s now available in version 2.0). The original Face Tune app, which runs users a one-time fee of $3.99, has a 4.9-star rating and has been reviewed 92,500 times. It’s also rated the number one app in the App Store’s photo and video category. The app’s description reads “every photo could use a touch up,” and lists a number of “fixes” the app can provide its users, including perfecting smiles, smoothing and rejuvenating the skin, emphasizing the eyes (including the changing of eye color), applying vivid makeup, and reshaping the facial structure, which includes refining jaw lines, heightening cheek and brow bones, reshaping the nose, enlarging or shrinking specific areas of the image, and “totally transforming your face.”
“Image manipulation has increased demand for plastic surgery since more people are seeing altered photos of others and comparing them to photos of themselves,” says Newman. “Although you would think that is good for business, it unfortunately creates unrealistic goals for patients leading them to be disappointed when their surgeon either informs them that the result is unrealistic or provides them with a surgical result that does not match the edited photo.”
Newman isn’t alone in his concerns. William H. Truswell, M.D., facial plastic surgeon and former president of the American Academy for Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, agrees with him. “We’re seeing more patients than ever before who are under thirty and want to start young with minor tweaks in order to forestall the need for larger procedures later,” says Truswell. “Patients should be careful to choose an experienced injector and a board-certified facial plastic surgeon who specializes in the face, head, and neck to ensure the most successful, natural-looking outcomes.”
Thankfully, Newman believes that the rise of video across social media will make it more difficult for users to manipulate their physical appearance. “It is much more difficult to make yourself look taller, skinnier, or blemish free on a video compared to a photo,” says Newman. “For those of you wondering about whether an image has been edited, check out a video of the same person to try and find a more accurate portrayal of how that person looks.”
But besides selecting qualified surgeons to provide clients with the best possible outcome, how can we combat social media dysmorphia? Newman says the answer is simple—transparency. “I would encourage everyone to label their photos as edited anytime editing software is used to be transparent,” says Newman. “That will ensure we know what is real and reduce Instagram Dysmorphia for all of us.”