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Perfection runs rampant on social media. Here’s why it hurts us.

Photo by Taan Huyn on Unsplash

A sex educator for teens talks about why being critical of “perfection” matters in our everyday social media lives.

You pull out your phone to snap a selfie. You’re probably going to use a filter, right?

Maybe your go-to filter is something simple that erases blemishes and brightens your eyes. We’ve all seen the wide range of filters, from subtle and glowy to instant plastic surgery that morphs your face with huge puffed-up lips, a tiny pointed nose, and dramatic eyelashes.

Photography can be creative, filters can be fun, and you have the right to make choices that make you feel beautiful. But if filtered has become the norm, how does that change our view of ourselves?

The more our eyes see the same repeated pattern, the more our brain expects that pattern to continue. If you use a filter every time you send a Snap or post an Instagram story, you get used to seeing your face edited. Then you might start to prefer the filtered version over the one in the mirror.

With a social media feed full of filtered faces, it’s easy to assume everyone is polished and brightened all the time — even if, intellectually anyway, you know they aren’t.

It’s not just filters that trick us.

To edit and morph an image of someone’s body, you used to need Photoshop software (which is super complicated) and a lot of skill. Now anyone can download apps like FaceTune that allow them to quickly edit their photos and videos to drastically change body parts. In a few clicks, you can swap your eye color, shrink your waist, lengthen your legs, or add sophisticated virtual makeup.

Some apps are so good that you’d never be able to tell the photo was changed.

We’ve gotten used to the glamour.

A photo of Gigi Hadid lounging casually next to an infinity pool looks like a snapshot of a moment. Actually, hours of hair and makeup, professional styling, posing, and even a professional photographer made that image happen. And then it was Photoshopped (by another professional.)

Those glossy and contoured images start to look really ordinary when you scroll through endless posts of perfect-looking women all over Instagram, TikTok, and other social media channels.

No wonder it makes someone want to use FaceTune on their own summer beach pics!

How do you spot what’s FaceTuned and what’s natural?

Sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes it’s not. For every photo or video that is undeniably enhanced, there are hundreds that trick us into thinking those images are unedited and effortless.

It might be obvious that Kim Kardashian has a whole team (not to mention some cosmetic surgery) behind her look. But how can you tell what’s real when regular girls are using editing tools on their photos?

Trick question: you probably can’t.

Photos aren’t always “real”: Why is that bad?

Good question. If you’re on Instagram, you’re probably seeing images like this one from Kendall Jenner regularly:

Look familiar? Try asking yourself about some specifics:

  • How do I feel when I look at this video?
  • Do I feel lighter, heavier, or neutral?
  • Do I notice emotions coming up?
  • Do I notice any thoughts comparing my face to her face?
  • Am I assuming anything about what was natural or enhanced here?
  • What does it make me want to do, or not do, or buy? (Or what do I think they want me to do, not do, or buy?)

Sometimes we get so accustomed to seeing curated perfection, we forget to notice how we’re responding to it. And we may be reacting without realizing it.

So, seeing perfect image after perfect image makes us feel bad about ourselves?

Yes, according to all the research studies, but that isn’t where it ends. What happens when you decide you must look like that to be beautiful, or valued, or worthy?

Maybe you’ve thought about changing your own appearance — you wouldn’t be the only one if you did. Cosmetic procedures are on the rise, with teen patients requesting alterations like cheek filler and lip injections to resemble their finished, filtered look. The cost of these procedures is always super high, and they pose real risks to our health.

Facebook even knows it’s hurting teen girls with Instagram (which it owns). More than 40% of Instagram users are younger than 22 years old. The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook has internal studies showing teens attribute increased rates of anxiety and depression to their Instagram use.

According to the same data, 32% of girls reported that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse. Facebook also found that 6% of American teens experiencing suicidal thoughts reported feeling that way because of Instagram.

Yikes! Even the employee who leaked the documents to the press, Frances Haugen, said that Facebook was putting profits over the safety of their users.

Adults aren’t immune, either.

No surprise: adults have this challenge too. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with thoughts of body comparison. And sometimes, I’m tempted to reach for those editing apps before I post a photo of myself.

When I’m having one of those days, I like to remind myself of these three things:

  1. It’s normal and human to feel insecure sometimes. We live in a world that constantly tells us we’re not good enough and need to be fixed. Especially as women and girls.
  2. Media is designed to be persuasive, and even media-literate folks can fall for the messaging and the endorphin rush. I have many adult friends who struggle with it, too.
  3. The big one: I would much rather spend my energy having experiences and engaging with the world than worrying about how my body or face looks.

And sometimes, just stepping away from the screen and going for a walk around my neighborhood or meeting up with a friend IRL is how I snap myself out of it.

Get educated, not duped.

Media literacy invites us to think more critically. That doesn’t mean boycotting editing apps or never using filters. It means learning to question what you see on the internet. Consider the missing information, and examine how you feel about what you see — and how it may be affecting your view of yourself.

A way I keep myself reality-checked is by following accounts that promote body positivity. And – importantly – unfollowing the ones that don’t.

Specifically, I like following people who expose the tricks and manipulations influencers use to get that “perfect” photo. A favorite of mine is journalist Danae Mercer. Danae makes it her mission to reveal the ways “fitspo” (fitness inspiration) influencers pose, arrange their clothes, and angle their cameras to make their bodies look like the “after” shot for a diet tea ad.

She posts her own unposed selfies, stretch marks and cellulite included, side by side with posed versions so you can see the contrast. It’s a relief to see someone being so real on the internet.

Practicing your critical thinking can help rewire the narrative that everyone else looks Instagram-ready all the time and that you should, too.

Photo by About-Face

So when you’re out there scrolling and comparing yourself to what you see, remember you are real, and being real is better than being “perfect.” I’m with you.

Katie Reeder is a writer, educator, and facilitator based in Oakland, California. She is particularly passionate about gathering women and girls together in healing spaces to support and learn from each other.

* About-Face welcomes and includes gender-expansive youth. To us, “girls” means self-identified girls, trans girls, gender-expansive youth, gender non-conforming, and non-binary youth.

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