Facetune And The Self
Are social media filters creating impossible standards or helping us see our true selves?
Courtesy Devan Diaz
I don’t know what I look like, and the mirror isn’t helpful.
Still, the mirror is where it starts. I direct myself: point the chin down, turn to the left, adjust the eyebrows and mouth according to my mood. I lift my phone and open the camera, steadily clicking the shutter, shifting between poses which have become muscle memory. When I’m done, I’ll choose one photo—always the one that resembles me least.
Before posting, I open the FaceTune app (I’ve filed it in the utilities folder between my notes and my calendar). FaceTune is editing software; it beautifies, like Photoshop, but with the ease of a candy swipe. I begin my work: nostrils shrink, jaw rounds out, the head shortens. I purposefully leave my eyes unedited, giving the people who know me IRL a point of reference. This new girl I’ve created takes my place online. She knows my interests, wears my clothes, and espouses my ideas. Her smile is white, her jokes are quick, she posts the best memes. She’s sweet, and uninterested; private, but in a public way. When I look at the mirror and don’t see her, it’s disappointing. Do I accept my reflection as true, or malleable? Being perceived is often a burden, and accepting the latter offers relief—I often do. And yet the internet seeks to render itself in flesh.
Once you’ve seen a face, even just online, you can never see it again without some level of familiarity—like those jumbled word passages, where it does not matter the order letters appear, as long as the first and last are the same. This puts FaceTune users at an advantage, because the mind will provide answers for any discrepancies between an online face and an IRL face. I’ve met people from the internet who treat IRL me like a secretary, leaving messages for her to reply to later. I don’t mind. We laugh and have a good time, as I flip through a soundboard of her anecdotes and phrases. Hours after our interaction, they’ll get a heart emoji in their DMs. It’s about desire, not reality.
Recently, I posted a photo of Selena Gomez on my finsta with the caption: “What my FaceTune served in 2015.” I had been in New York for five years and still didn’t know anyone in the city. I was desperate to get out of the house, but regretted it each time I did. Sometimes it felt like I wasn’t here, so I posted online to prove that I was. Since unpacking the cow-printed Gateway computer box in the 5th grade, the internet has been how I socialize. Myspace and Tumblr led me to meet people with shared interests. I cultivated friendships scattered across time zones; three-way phone conversations replaced sleep. It was the year everyone started saying “brand,” finally giving a name to our preoccupation with becoming. Potential subsumed the actual. Of all the celebrated IG baddies, looking like Selena was most available to me. We’re both Latinas with dark hair; it wasn’t difficult to mold my angular face into a version of her small circular one. A friend who I’d met online during this time commented on the post, saying “Omg wait. I was always like, how did she master this pose to get her face so short and tiny?”
Once, while I was waiting in line for the bathroom at a party, a group of women ahead of me crowded around a single iPhone, editing a selfie of the woman holding it. She was adamant about the importance of being “snatched, but natural,” and in the same breath, she likened edited photos to having good hygiene. As she strolled towards an open stall she said, “however much makeup you’d wear, that is how much you should edit.” I took a note of it on my phone. On YouTube, some influencers have even posted FaceTune tutorials (James Charles’ offering has nearly two million views). The results, I’ve found, can be both motivating and demeaning.
Do I accept my reflection as true, or malleable?
My online persona wasn’t only for decoration: it was always a way out. I needed a face that could get me the things I wanted (friends, work, attention), and it wasn’t happening with the face I was born with. Being beautiful—in a photo, or physically—is a truth which most are willing to accept. But when your face is in flux, things do get blurry. Is the real me, the one I see in fluorescent, or natural lighting? In person, or online? Edited, or unedited? I’m not unaware of the level of delusion that I am indulging in. A google search for FaceTune brings up articles detailing how my self-esteem has been disrupted. They’re not wrong. The final image is still some sort of relief, even if it’s small and unsustainable. Every day I scroll past altered faces, ranging from famous influencers to unknown e-girls. I’m not alone. I posed a question to other FaceTune users via Instagram story: have we split ourselves in two?
Angel Erdia, a girl I followed on Tumblr, answered me. Her blog is a mood board of images, text, and audio, sprinkled with questions from a devoted audience seeking guidance on life, boys, and sex. The photos she posted of herself were striking, clearly edited to the point of being surreal. Her high-gloss distortions resembled and predated those of Cindy Sherman’s Instagram. Angel drew boundaries: you can watch, but from a distance. At the time, I used Tumblr in a similar way; it satisfied my lonely need of having an audience for every thought and experience.
“I have several thousand followers on Instagram. Only a very small group of my reach will ever encounter me or meet me.” Angel told me when we met in person, pausing to sip her drink. “All they are witnessing are the images that I choose to present them with.” When Angel was 13, she worked as a photographer’s assistant. “We retouched wedding photos of socialites and wealthy people in our hometown,” she remembers. "I thought, I'm learning all this stuff, why not just tidy this selfie of mine?”
With a new set of skills, Angel began creating who she would become. She describes this period of her life as solitary. “I was by myself, isolated from creative communities, and by myself. What I did have was a small medium like the internet, and I was defining myself with images I was creating.” As the likes and follows accumulated, Angel’s perception of herself became fractured. Her editing shifted into the sublime, molding her face into impossible proportions of symmetry and shape. “Some people thought I was another Lil Miquela,” she said, referring to the infamous CGI influencer, the face of a social media experiment, and not an actual living human being.
“That's when I started finding this aesthetic,” says Angel. “I was super insecure, no resources, confused about what I looked like, or what I wanted to look like, and I was teaching myself how to exist as a woman.” I become very conscious of myself as her words start to touch on my experience. Trans girls often contend with their presentation in the world, and the internet can be one of the first places to test the waters. Early images of ourselves can be difficult to accept, and it’s a relief to realize they are subject to change. We breed avatars without our perceived flaws. A beautiful photo can be a reminder that our bodies exist—or can exist—as we wish they did, even if just online.
“When I started getting a little prettier,” Angel says, “my images became more about what I could look like. They were still robotic and artificial, but they were approaching a kind of realism. I became more human.” Sitting before her, I can say that she has been successful. Three years into her time in New York and she has become her avatar, radiating beauty and a smile that is ready to move and sell product. “If I look hot in my stories, I know that casting directors will be contacting me more. I think that makes it hard to not let myself do a layer of retouching. Even if it's beautiful, it needs to be branded with my image.” She adds, “Money is tied to that.”
“I was super insecure, no resources, confused about what I looked like, or what I wanted to look like, and I was teaching myself how to exist as a woman.”
Before I told the people in my life that I was a girl, I catfished as one in chat rooms. To practice flirting, I tested out my charms with strangers on Chatroulette. Until I could afford laser hair removal on my face, the blur tool made looking at myself bearable. If it happens first online, then it has the possibility to happen offline.
Most nights before sleep, I complete a final lap of scrolling, settling into the days stream: meme, Donald Trump, sunset picture, sponsored ad. If it’s been a busy 24 hours, I’ll tap through my own story, perhaps to confirm that the day happened. Last night I was at a party which doubled as an impromptu celebration: earlier in the week, I received a call from my doctor to inform me that a gender-affirming procedure—one which had formerly been dismissed as cosmetic—had been approved by my insurance. For years, I’ve been editing myself to appear as though I’d already had this surgery. My friends, who are no longer just online, surrounded me with congratulations and care. Hours later, I see myself in their stories, dancing with a pronounced double chin, mouth wide open in laughter. Visualizing the imminent changes to my body, I stare at myself. And myself stares back.