Instagram might be removing plastic surgery filters, but what about the skin lightening ones?
01 Nov 2019
Image by Niellah Arboine
Recently, it was announced that Instagram would be removing selfie filters that mimic plastic surgery. The platform, which has over one billion monthly users, has previously come under fire for its damaging impact on body image and mental health, particularly for young women. In fact, one psychological study found a direct link between the amount of time spent on social media and the desire for cosmetic surgery. As of 23 October, filters that create the image of fuller lips, high cheekbones and that alter the shape of the nose, essentially mimicking cosmetic procedures, were removed from the app. In a statement about their well-being policies, Spark AR – the company responsible for selfie filters – said “we want Spark AR effects to be a positive experience” and so are “removing all effects associated with plastic surgery”.
Of course, it’s encouraging that Facebook (the owners of Instagram) are not only recognising the harm their platforms are inflicting, but are also implementing changes to reduce it. But, while it’s a small step in the right direction, the removal of selfie filters associated with plastic surgery completely fails to address how many of the remaining available filters deliberately lighten the user’s skin. It is these filters whose effects are most profoundly seen on those with melanated skin, and perhaps for that reason, Instagram has overlooked these as part of their well-being policy.
“The removal of selfie filters associated with plastic surgery completely fails to address how many of the remaining available filters deliberately lighten the user’s skin”
In some communities, lighter skin is widely seen as more desirable than darker skin tones, resulting in a hierarchy system that determines your value based solely on skin colour. For centuries, Eurocentric ideas of beauty have perpetuated the harmful notion that proximity to whiteness is synonymous with proximity to beauty. Colourism is so rife that, in 2017, the global skin lightening industry was estimated to be worth £3.4 billion and projected to rise. Much like the banned selfie filters which mimic cosmetic surgery, filters that lighten the skin of black and brown people, do nothing but perpetuate toxic, harmful beauty standards that, in the worst cases, can create a disconnect between reality and fantasy, even triggering body dysmorphic disorder.
Whether we want them or not, it seems the number of filters that intentionally lighten dark skin is prevalent enough that their use is inevitable. And, it is the ease and frequency at which Instagram’s current filters do this that I find concerning. Cosmetic doctor Tijion Esho coined the term “Snapchat dysmorphia” to describe the increase in patients he saw coming in with photographs of filtered selfies as a reference for their desired cosmetic procedures. As one of the most widely used platforms, should Instagram do more to address the impact they’re having?
“Colourism is so rife that, in 2017, the global skin lightening industry was estimated to be worth £3.4 billion and projected to rise”
Selfie filters are meant to be a fun way of enhancing your look, whether they’re transforming your face into that of a puppy’s, giving you heart eyes or simply smoothing temporary blemishes. But for black and brown people, some selfie filters go beyond that when they apply Eurocentric features and characteristics. As demonstrated in the images, the clear and noticeable lightening of the skin shows how real the problem is and, unfortunately, Instagram is far from the only offender.
Fellow social media platform Snapchat also falls foul of this, with many of their filters not only lightening skin but also giving users blue eyes – yet another feature that widely fits the Eurocentric narrative of beauty. It remains to be seen whether Instagram will look at skin lightening filters more critically, but with “Snapchat dysmorphia” on the rise, the risk of users resorting to extreme methods to permanently achieve these manipulated looks in real life persists all the time they’re in use. Until they are removed, the self-esteem and body image of PoC who are most affected by them will continue to be neglected.