Social Media Filters Are Harmful to Body Image

Gone are the days when filters created a sepia tone, added silly costumes, or brightened the photo up. We are in new territory, folks. We are in the days of image gaslighting. Between the viral TikTok on Kim Kardashian’s photoshopped images and Bethenny Frankel posting before and after filtered photos on Instagram, it’s become more obvious than ever just how deceptive images with social media filters can be.

In a viral TikTok, photographer Caroline (@caroline_in_thecity on TikTok) explained how Kim Kardashian—who’s no stranger to the world of filtering and Photoshopping photos on social media—removed an entire chunk of her neck and trapezius muscle to make her neck look longer and thinner.

Similarly, in a viral Instagram post, Bethenny Frankel showed how easy it is to post filtered images on the platform. Posting before and after photos, the former-Real-Housewife-turned business-mogul told followers, “This is NOT what I look like…and you know that bc I’m not vain and show you the real me.”

Going on, Frankel acknowledged how easy it would be to deceive followers and the public. “[I]f I posted a version of this every day you might start to believe that it might be. This is just how distorted this has all gotten.”

In a recent viral Instagram post, podcaster Emily Clarkson showed just how easy it is to alter your body with photo and video editing software and then exist online as if that were your real body. Knowing these editing capabilities exist is one thing, but seeing them used right before your eyes is absolutely mind-blowing.

With a click of a button, we can remove entire sections of our bodies, and anyone can be a photo editor from their couch. This has gotten way out of hand. To echo Frankel’s words: “Filtering is lying: it is deceptive.”

We are being gaslit every day on social media, and the damage this deception causes is staggering. Even when we know that these photos aren’t real, we are harmed. Even when we know that they are touched up and altered, the message still seeps into our soul. It damages us. It tells us we aren’t good enough. 

Social media filters have altered our perception of reality

Gaslighting, lying and dishonesty on social media has gotten so pervasive that we barely notice it anymore—except to notice that we don’t look that way. Altering our image has become so mainstream that Botox is a regular beauty treatment for many women. Foreheads that don’t move have become the ideal, if not the norm.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not criticizing anyone for doing what they need to do to feel their best, whether this means wearing short skirts, using a nightly face serum, or getting collagen injected into your face. You do you. Truly. 

What I am suggesting is that we need to take a closer look at why so many women feel the need to do this in the first place. Why do so many of us feel inadequate if we don’t look a certain way (i.e. thin and young)? Why do we feel so captivated by traditional beauty standards? Why are we afraid to look our age? Why are we embarrassed to show our stretch marks? Why are we reluctant to show the world that we are human, that we are a woman who has lived?

Social media filters and editing apps are causing serious harm to teens

We aren’t just causing harm to our own body image either; these editing apps are causing serious harm to our children too. In 2021, Facebook came under fire after a leak revealed that the company knew that Instagram was harmful to teen, especially teen girls. “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” Facebook researchers admitted in internal documents in 2019, as seen and reported by the Wall Street Journal. In a subsequent internal presentation in March 2020, researchers reported, “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”

Boys weren’t immune from the effects of Instagram either, with 14% reporting that it made them feel worse about themselves. 

Not surprisingly, parents were outraged. Some said they would delay allowing their teens and pre-teens to access social media. But other than a whole lot of hand-wringing, not much has changed. In fact, filters are easier than ever to use, making it easier than ever for us to be gaslit by inaccurate and distorted images. 

Even when we know images are altered, we are impacted

I am a 40-something-year-old mom who knows that much (most?) of social media is tweaked in some way. Some of it is more than tweaked. I am (relatively) confident in who I am and I comfortable in my skin. But even though I know what I’m seeing isn’t reality, it still confuses me. I see these images and my gut reaction is to compare myself, to find all the ways I don’t measure up. Just imagine what this image gaslighting is doing to teens. It’s terrifying and heartbreaking.   

As Frankel wrote in her post, “It makes women feel badly about themselves. It makes young girls insecure and obsessed with an unattainable perfection. It makes middle aged women and mothers feel insecure about themselves. This creates a false ideal for men.”

Related: Cameron Diaz says she rejects ‘toxic’ beauty standards now that she’s a mom 

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer. I’m just a mom out here struggling to navigate this brave new world like everyone else. What I do know is that we each play a part. We can make the decision to not share heavily filtered images on social media. We can talk to our children about image alteration. We can call out deception when we see it. We can celebrate women and bodies who don’t fit the traditional beauty ideals. We can work on loving ourselves and teaching our children how to love themselves. 

There isn’t a magic wand we can wave that will make the problem go away, but we aren’t helpless either. 

Viral Instagram posts and TikToks show how toxic photo editing apps can be