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90% of Women Report Using a Filter on Their Photos

woman using photo filter on her selfie

Verywell / Alex Dos Diaz

Key Takeaways

  • In a new study, 90% of young women reported using filters or editing their photos to appear as if they had whiter teeth, weighed less, had a different nose, or other physical changes.
  • With social media acting as one of the main ways to see people during the pandemic, the unrealistic beauty standards presented can be even more detrimental to people's self-esteem.
  • Limiting social media use, unfollowing negative accounts, and checking in with yourself throughout use can help mitigate these issues.

Images on social media aren’t always a realistic look into another person’s world. In a recent report from the University of London's Gender and Sexualities Research Centre, 90% of young women reported using filters or editing their photos. They used this to do things such as reshape their nose, appear to weigh less, and whiten their teeth.

The study comprised 175 young women and nonbinary people from the U.K. to determine common social media habits and effects. When asked about the impact of social media, 90% of participants felt pressure to look attractive, 70% felt pressure to showcase a perfect life, and over 75% said they would “never live up to the images you see.”

"Posting on social media can produce the intense pleasure of ‘getting likes’ and appreciative attention, but it is also a source of huge anxiety for most young women. I was struck by young women saying to me again and again: ‘I feel judged,’” Professor Rosalind Gill, who published the report, said in a press release about the study. 

Gill adds that women of color, disabled people, and nonbinary people told her they rarely see anyone who looks like them online. 

“Once upon a time, it was fashion magazines that women would buy and study the images of these incredible looking models and actresses in designer gowns posing in exotic locations,” says Tess Brigham, MFT, a psychotherapist, certified life coach, and public speaker.

“What's different about social media is these aren't just celebrities and supermodels, these are people you know. The feeling of ‘why isn't that me’ becomes even stronger and more significant.”

Implications of the Study

Altering photos can create a negative cycle where one person over-edits, and then another person reacts by over-editing their post, perpetuating a culture of unattainable beauty standards.

“Using filters to touch up our appearance may not be harmful in and of itself,” says Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT, ATR-BC, owner and founder of Take Root Therapy. “However, the less we see realistic images—flawed skin, wrinkles—including realistic images of ourselves, the more difficult it could be to see those things reflected to us in the mirror.” 

Comparing yourself to other people is a normal part of human behavior. But, when done against an “enhanced” version of someone else, it can have a detrimental impact on your self-perception and love.

"When we compare ourselves to the idealized version of others, like those in edited photos, it can create an equal and opposite reaction of devaluation—a devaluation of the self,” says Jessica January Behr, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and founder and director of Behr Psychology. “Over time, continuous devaluation can lead to high self-criticism, body or facial dysmorphia, or chronic emotional abuse of the self.”

Tess Brigham, MFT

What's different about social media is these aren't just celebrities and supermodels, these are people you know. The feeling of ‘why isn't that me’ becomes even stronger and more significant.

— Tess Brigham, MFT

On average, almost 100 million photos are posted to Instagram daily. Spending time on an app like Instagram can feel like a mindless activity, but your brain absorbs all of these images and takes notes. “When the majority of faces we see are those that have been altered, we create an unrealistic mental concept of beauty and an expectation of ourselves to uphold that unrealistic standard,” says Behr.

Only posting highly edited or curated photos of yourself can also impact how you think others view you and why they like or follow you. When asked if social media representations reflected their life, 86% of the University of London study participants said no. 

“People can easily start to struggle with ‘people only like the ideal image of me, so I don’t ever want to show them that I’m less than perfect,’” says Brigham. “Trying to live up to that ideal all the time is impossible, and you’re saying to yourself ‘I don’t get to have a bad day or struggle’ or even worse ‘my mental health issues aren’t worth talking about or sharing with anyone.’”

Techniques for Mitigating These Issues

There are a few ways to mitigate the effects these highly edited images can have on your self-perception and mental health. 

Limit Time On Social Media

Though social media is a huge source of entertainment in quarantine, limiting your use may help with feelings of low self-esteem and poor mental health. Brigham recommends setting a 20-minute timer before going on social media to remind yourself to do something else at that time. Consider deleting social media apps off your phone to help enforce this and limit how easy it is to scroll mindlessly. 

Unfollow Accounts That Make You Feel Bad 

If you’re using social media for enjoyment and entertainment, why follow accounts that get in the way of that? “Prune your follow list to edit out any accounts that you know contribute to negatively affecting your self-esteem, -love, or -appreciation,” says Behr. “You can mute or unfollow the accounts that you find yourself most affected by and run an experiment to see if there is any improvement in your feelings towards yourself.”

Check In With Yourself 

Take time to see how you feel before, during, and after using social media. Did your mood worsen? Do you feel more anxious? “Pause. Reflect on your mood. Is scrolling negatively impacting you? If so, take a break, unfollow. If we follow the right people, we can feel inspired and motivated versus less than,” says Kelley Kitley, LCSW, a social worker with her own private practice.

Avoid Social Media When You Already Feel Low

Are you feeling lonely, isolated, or down on yourself? It can be tempting to turn to social media as a way to “connect” with others but, in reality, this may leave you feeling worse than before.

Jessica January Behr, PsyD

When we compare ourselves to the idealized version of others, like those in edited photos, it can create an equal and opposite reaction of devaluation—a devaluation of the self,

— Jessica January Behr, PsyD

In a 2019 study from the American Journal of Health Promotion, researchers looked at social media’s effects on students aged 18 to 30. Participants had a 13% increase in odds of feeling isolated for every 10% increase in negative experiences on social media. At the same time, a 10% increase in positive experiences on social media did nothing to mitigate feelings of isolation.

“If you're feeling lonely and need connection, text or call a friend or someone you care about and let them know you need to talk,” says Brigham. This one-on-one communication can make a much more positive impact on your well-being. 

Remind Yourself That Social Media Is Not Reality

It can be hard to distinguish social media from reality, with it being one of the few means of seeing other people right now. However, keeping this distinction in mind when you look at photos can make a big difference in your self-perception. 

“As you are scrolling and are bombarded with celebrities and friends with intense filters and perfect skin, remind yourself, consciously, that what you see on social media is not reality. It's often an idealized interpretation of reality,” says Behr. “If you can keep this in mind, you can help to gatekeep some of the automatic processing and take better control of the narrative your brain is being fed.” 

What This Means For You

While filtering photos is a perfectly normal way to post on social media, it's important to be aware of your motivation and how it makes you feel. If you feel awful every time you log off social media, try to limit your time on it and remember that it does not represent reality.


 

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Article Sources
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  1. Gill R. Changing the Perfect Picture: Smartphones, Social Media, and Appearance Pressures. University of London, Gender and Sexualities Research Centre. 2021.

  2. Primack BA, Karim SA, Shensa A, Bowman N, Knight J, Sidani JE. Positive and negative experiences on social media and perceived social isolation. Am J Health Promot. 2019;33(6):859-868. doi:10.1177/0890117118824196