Mirror, Mirror on the Phone: How Social Media Beauty Filters Impact South Asian Women

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Beauty filters drastically impact young South Asian women's self-esteem. Illustration by Nadège

Beauty filters drastically impact young South Asian women's self-esteem. Illustration by Nadège

In September of last year, I discovered a facial filter on Snapchat called “Natural Gleam.” When I used it for the first time, the transformation felt reminiscent of Cinderella’s metamorphosis from the ashen-faced, unkempt-looking maid to the flawless princess who turned heads at the prince’s ball. “Natural Gleam” instantly made my skin tone lighter, something I had not been able to achieve despite years of rubbing lemon juice over my face on my mother’s insistence, anxiously counting the ten minutes as I crouched on the bathroom floor, resisting the urge to rip the stinging skin off my face. The filter also made my nose look slimmer, a necessary intervention, I thought; the size of my nose was too damaging to the aesthetics of my face, I had always been told. And in a final touch of meticulously manufactured perfection that was this Snapchat filter, it plumped my lips to conjure my ideal face for me.

After that, I never took a selfie without that filter, relishing the newfound confidence that accompanied the steady trickle of likes and comments on the Instagram posts featuring my new “filtered” face. A few months later, a Snapchat update made me lose that filter. I did not take a selfie again for weeks. The brown-skinned, big-nosed, thin-lipped woman had become too hideous in my eyes to resummon. When I finally did take a picture without the beloved filter, I understood, for the first time, what Virginia Woolf meant when she wrote, “It is far more difficult to murder a phantom than a reality."

“Natural Gleam” instantly made my skin tone lighter, something I had not been able to achieve despite years of rubbing lemon juice over my face on my mother’s insistence, anxiously counting the ten minutes as I crouched on the bathroom floor, resisting the urge to rip the stinging skin off my face.

In her book The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf reflects upon the mounting popularity of cosmetic surgery for women in the last few decades; “The cosmetic surgeon is the modern woman’s divine sex symbol, claiming for himself the worship that nineteenth-century women offered the man of God.” However, in the twenty-first century, the cosmetic surgeon has been dethroned by social media facial filters as the god of so-called beauty for women; a god who, unlike the predecessor, delivers within seconds and without painful procedures under the knife.

The proliferation of beauty filters on Instagram and Snapchat means it is easier for women to envision their “ideal” faces than it was in the past when only a set of individuals specialising in editing softwares could tamper with the appearances of supermodels for editorial photoshoots. Today, imagining the perfect self is as easy as clicking a selfie, and the vast accessibility of social media platforms means that more women are relying on an augmented facial reality than ever. The effortless curation of a flawless “digital” self creates discontent with the actual self that often manifests itself in the form of body dysmorphia, depression, and anxiety disorders; research findings by the Dove Self-Esteem Project demonstrate that 60% of girls feel upset when their real appearance doesn’t match the online version of themselves. However, the specific impact of these filters, which often emulate a Eurocentric beauty model, on women of colour belonging to former colonies is mostly left unexplored. For many South Asian women like myself, these filters serve to “remedy” our indigienous facial features, disparaged by almost a century of colonial rule and neocolonial manoeuvers that delineated the universal parameters of female beauty.

Yukti Pawar was 13 years old when she made her first Snapchat account and found herself being sucked into the dizzying vortex of many facial filters and many filtered faces. Before that, the saffron paste her mother made every Sunday in their house in Santragachi in Kolkata, India, was her only armor against her non-white skin. And it was not the most effective one either. Now 22 years old, she tells me, “It’s like, I would lather it over my arms, face, neck, and my calves, and sit in a really uncomfortable position, with my knees pulled up to my chest and arms stretched out, for nearly half an hour, twice a week, and there was never any difference. And then I got my first phone.” Since then, her struggles to look fair have taken a shift. She adds, “I had known of Snapchat through friends but I had never explored it myself personally. I felt like I had stumbled upon a treasure when I installed it. There was this filter which made my skin look so bright and my nose so tiny, I was taking no less than fifty selfies a day. It was like an obsession, choosing a filter and going click, click, click, capturing what I knew was my “perfect” face if only I was a tad bit lighter."

Pawar’s induction into the beguiling world of social media facial filters reminds me of my own initial experience with it, particularly the pleasant relief and overwhelming surprise I felt after discovering how easily and quickly I could “beautify” myself for digital platforms, how hours of stooping in front of the mirror to contour a bulbous tip of my nose or smear wads of foundation to mask the stubborn melanin of my skin could be evaded by a simple “click.” After years of being told explicitly and implicitly that I was not conventionally “pretty,” a perception I had internalised, I developed a deep-seated repulsion for taking pictures, especially selfies, which, in my opinion, accentuated my “unappealing” features more than pictures taken from the back camera. But with Snapchat, I too, like Pawar, was taking almost fifty selfies a day, mindlessly enchanted with the fair-skinned, tiny-nosed version of myself that no amount of homemade concoctions, fairness creams, hydroquinone solutions, and contouring kits could accomplish.

This hierarchy of female desirability that values a certain skin tone or facial symmetry and exercises a stranglehold on the South Asian social conscience has been carefully engineered by the region’s colonial past that looms over it to this day. French political philosopher Frantz Fanon centred his understanding of colonisation around the concept of ‘epistemic violence.’ He argued that colonisation did not only occur in terms of spatiality and economics, but also epistemology as it destabilised the foundations of indigeonous knowledges and cultural perceptions. As a result, the colonised subject was alienated from the indigenous self and saw it through the eyes of the coloniser. To overcome this alienation, the colonised subject sought to redeem the inferior, “Other” self by adopting colonial values and knowledge. Reassessing contemporary South Asian female beauty standards in conflation with Fanon’s concept of ‘epistemic violence,’ we see how the obsession with white skin and Eurocentric facial features came to dominate the post-colony’s collective conscience. More importantly, the ‘epistemic violence’ continues to occur even today in the form of these facial filters which erase racial and ethnic facial diversity and perpetuate a uniform, Eurocentric beauty ideal of fair skin, small nose, slanted eyes, and high cheekbones. And once again, the female subject from the post-colony is alienated from her authentic, indigenous self.

Eshita Aadhev, a 23-year-old student from the University of Chittagong, Bangladesh, voices how debilitating that alienation can be; “In the first few weeks of using such filters, the high you get is almost insane and unprecedented. You look at your pictures and you feel, ‘Oh my God! I’ve never looked so beautiful!’ The confidence, the self-assurance, the ego, all reach the sky. And these levels are addictive, so you can’t help but keep clicking away like a maniac. But then gradually, the hatred, the disgust, the repulsion for your true self sets in, because you cannot avoid the true self.” Aadhev adds, “Maybe digitally you can avoid seeing your bare face without makeup and without filters, but lets say, when you’re brushing your teeth at night, and you look at your reflection in the mirror, you think, ‘Who is she? I hate her so much. She is so ugly.’ You can never look at yourself the same way again.” Even before her usage of social media facial filters, Aadhev did not grow up unscathed by a deep-rooted aversion to dark skin as she was perpetually subjected to derogatory remarks about her skin colour by friends and family alike. However, she believes that the access to facial filters compounded her anxiety about her appearance in an unprecedented manner. “Before, it was like this; people would say stuff like, ‘Oh her skin is so dirty, she’s never going to get a good groom,’ or ‘She should douse her face in lemon juice for a week to get some of that darkness off,’ and of course, it was hurtful, my self-esteem took a dip, but what the filters did to me was way, way worse. They showed me what my ‘perfect’ self could be like and now I cannot live with my real self,” she says.

Maybe digitally you can avoid seeing your bare face without makeup and without filters, but lets say, when you’re brushing your teeth at night, and you look at your reflection in the mirror, you think, ‘Who is she? I hate her so much. She is so ugly.’ You can never look at yourself the same way again.

In the days following the app update on my phone, I too felt repulsed by my real, unfiltered face like Aadhev. As a child, when I was not rubbing lemon juice on my face, I would incessantly scrub it with fairness soap, hoping I could scrub the darkness away. As an adult, my skin-lightening regimen got more sophisticated and expensive as I scoured for niacinamide serums and creams with mulberry extracts to whiten myself. The Snapchat filter “Natural Gleam” presented itself as a magical fix to my woes; I was elated to see myself in the flawless, fair skin I had always sought assiduously. When I lost the filter, I felt like I had lost a second skin. In its absence, I could not see myself without experiencing intense distaste for my face. All of a sudden, the aspects of my appearance that had caused modest discomfort to me in the past, became a source of paralysing self-hatred; the nose felt too big, the lips too thin, the skin too dark, the self too intolerable. When I finally recovered the filter, I felt like I had found the Holy Grail.

To this day, the gap between my digital face and real face stands as wide as ever, while I swing perilously between the two selves that determine my desirability as a woman. When the pandemic was at its peak, I felt like the gap expanded as much as it ever would. The shift from in-person interactions to virtual ones meant I could take absolute liberty with creating a perfect digital self as there was no real self in public view to measure and compare against it. The facial filters on Snapchat and Instagram or the “touch up my appearance” feature on Zoom made it easier to manufacture and sustain the illusion of the flawless face I wanted the world to see. But this performance of perfection came to a troubling halt as the axis of social interaction gradually rotated back into its pre-pandemic position, and I found myself shrinking before people in real time, imperfect face, imperfect woman. In splintering my face into two, I had also splintered myself.

Pawar too found herself combatting these challenges in the post-pandemic world where the cruel betrayals inflicted by the seemingly innocuous facial filters came into light for the first time; “During the quarantine, I started texting this guy I had met on a dating app. We were talking regularly, and exchanging God knows how many snaps in a day. He was really smitten with me, always asking me to send pictures, and I would search for the most unnaturally-beautifying filters to send him pictures. After three or four months of “online dating,” when we finally met, one of the first things he said to me was ‘You look nothing like you did in the pictures.’” She tells me, “I had become so used to seeing myself in those filters that I thought they were just tweaking my face a little, but in reality, the difference was too huge to even understand, and that is the saddest part. You forget what exactly your real face looks like until someone points it out to you."

For the longest time, I thought that women like myself relied so heavily on facial filters because we did not fully comprehend the long-term damage they caused to our sense of self and appearance. Now, however, I know that we voluntarily participate in the digital ‘disciplining’ of our faces despite being aware of the cost it comes at. For centuries, beauty, for women, has come at a cost. The occasional burns and rashes from waxing, the painful nipping of stray eyebrow hair during threading, the razor cuts from hours of shaving the arms and legs in the shower, or, for us brown women, the stinging bleaches meant to erase our melanin. Perhaps it is no surprise that once again, we are willing to be beautiful, and pay the price for it, staring at our chosen filtered face on our device; the cracked mirror that solemnly promises us we are the fairest of them all.

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