Posted on January 10, 2022 in Technology

Auto-Beauty Filters are a Problem


People have been faking it since the era of portraitry – you’ll notice the royal or rich subjects of paintings rarely have any blemishes on their skin, even though acne, smallpox, and rashes have always been around. Even when certain features had to be depicted, they were often minimized or altered to make the subject happy. As an extreme example, look at Charles II of Spain – a member of the Habsburg line, which had become notorious for incrossing from family instead of marrying out, a common tactic used to retain power within the bloodline.

Unfortunately, genetic conditions resulted. Charles’s physical deformities made his face somewhat difficult to use as a face– the poor guy had what’s known as ‘The Hapsburg Chin’, a genetic condition passed down from his parents. You can actually trace who in his family had it (and how severely they had it) via their portraits; the royal painters had to tread carefully between depicting their subject accurately and depicting them without insulting them. They had mirrors, of course he knew what he looked like – but, just like today, the subjects wanted to be remembered for more than their facial scars and the extensive mistakes of the royal family. The prince didn’t mind being depicted through the rose-tinted lenses of his artist. When paintings are an expensive luxury, the client wants what they want.

Our recordings of what he looked like and how he was described in writing differ somewhat – in theory, you could still recognize him from his portrait, and that was good enough. The same goes for any number of royals. Airbrushing has always existed!   


Painters weren’t the only ones who took liberties.

Film was also an expensive luxury. If people from the past seemed unusually clear-skinned, they might not have been – a combination of makeup and film retouching removes blemishes like acne scars and wrinkles from the image. Cystic acne can be genetic, syphilis was uncured, and smallpox survivors were still around, but you’d never guess the subjects of professional portraits suffered from those conditions too! Editing in black-and-white or sepia images isn’t witchcraft: it’s as simple as color-matching the person’s skin on the negative, and then painting over the flaw so it’s invisible on the developed image.

So retouching was definitely still a thing – it just wasn’t digital.

When color film hit the market, retouching could still be done, but the process was more difficult as photographers had to compensate for three colors, not just the one. A combination of special dyes and extremely fine brushes on an oversized negative, combined with better makeup, cameras, and specialty lenses (lenses designed to ‘soften’ the image, for example) allowed photographers to make their magazine cover photo flawless. This took time, and it was expensive, however, so retaking the image was often easier than editing out blemishes in post.  

Digital Smoothing

Beyond film, how did you retouch things in the early days of digital filming?

Doing digital work on a person’s face was reserved for magazines, professionals, and hobbyists – not just anyone could pop the SD card into a computer and start removing things. Ironically, the widespread availability of picture-taking items like digital cameras made the overall quality worse. When professionals took digital pictures, they never showed the client the blurry ones, and thumbs were never over critical parts of the lens during the picture-taking. Digital cameras also had lower stakes – you weren’t wasting film by taking three or four shots of the same thing to be sure you ‘had’ it.

Editing software relies on the strength or power of the computer that’s attempting to edit the image. More powerful computers can handle larger images, and gradually-improving computer strength lessened the reliance on film. As a result, businesses and major voices in the photo and film industries switched over when they could, so there is no exact ‘moment’ where editing surpassed painting – it happened in steps.

This also meant that film – which editors were familiar with and could process faster than the still-developing editing software – still held the upper hand for quite some time. Film can be endlessly upscaled; digital images cannot be. The strange grain you see on shows from the 2000s comes from being recorded digitally before the technology was fully mature. That’s just what they looked like, and fixing it would take some pretty intense AI or editing intervention. Meanwhile, films made during that time don’t look old – the clothing, speaking, and actors date the recording, not the visual grain. See the difference between a show like Lost and a show like Real Housewives. The decision to film Lost on real 30mm film has ensured it’s not as dated as it could be.

The iPhone, and Early Retouch Apps

The iPhone wasn’t the beginning of selfies – people took plenty when cameras (especially film cameras) were cheap. And the iPhone didn’t start the trend of editing, either, as you can see above. What the iPhone did was merge the two and allow them to come together in the hands of laymen. Now, with an ‘app’, anyone can take a pic and retouch it, send it to friends and family, print it, rotate it, crop it, etc. all without expert help.

This is no substitute for professional work (the first iPhone took better pics than many other mobile phones, but worse ones than professional or digital cameras) but it isn’t asked to be – we are far beyond the times when pictures were special occasions. You can track how expensive a picture was by the quality and quantity of selfies taken during the period. Did that person dress nicely for the occasion? Was it taken somewhere special? Are they posed in a way that suggests it wasn’t casual? Are they sitting for the photo, or do they just happen to be sitting when the photo was taken?

Early retouch apps were clumsy and frequently difficult to use subtly. If images from Myspace and early Facebook are any indication, the line tool was about as good as it got for tweens – the phone camera couldn’t compare to the stuff magazines and TV shows were using. ‘Digital smoothing’ available to the average consumer was about as good as a blur filter today, which is not very good. MSPaint was a legitimate option for altering profile pics. It just… all looked sort of bad. But it was passable! It wasn’t ideal, but in an era where people are just beginning to learn about Photoshop, and only experts and hobbyists really have it, any editing done to a photo had to be really brazen to not pass as ‘makeup’ or ‘lighting’ to an inexperienced internet.

Of course, professional photos still look professional, and airbrushing celebrities has only gotten more intense, but the average user is not trapped by this yet. For every smoothed, poreless face on the cover of a magazine, there are programs on MTV and tabloids showing what they look like without the touch-ups. Celebrities are an other, and you and your friends still look normal.

SnapChat Filters

And here is where we begin to see issues. SnapChat filters became a thing, and started acting like mirrors. This is a bigger problem than it sounds, and you’ll know why – when you change your haircut, when you put on or take off glasses, or in pictures, you look a little alien to yourself, but eventually, the change settles in and your internal image adjusts to what your eyes are seeing in the mirror. What if you have two mirrors, and one isn’t telling the whole truth? Which image does your brain adapt to? According to research, it’s the one that exaggerates the features you like about yourself, not the honest one.

Snapchat’s filters almost universally slim the face and lighten it up a little, too, even under ‘goofy’ filters like the animal ear ones. Other versions don’t even bother with the pretense of animal ears, they just slap some butterflies on and call it a beauty filter. The end result is a face that may be perceived as more attractive than a plain selfie. This is a problem for a couple of reasons! Assuming a whiter, thinner person is always better than the default image has troubling implications, and while this could make the pictures more attractive to the user, it does so in a way that changes their idea of their own face so much that they can’t look at the regular mirror without feeling vague dysmorphia.

Because these apps aim at teens, tweens, and twenty-somethings, the issue is magnified by developmental steps. They’re right at the age where they begin to notice how they look (and how others may perceive them). Many people get acne as teens, for example, but the Snapchat filters reduce the appearance of red blotches and uneven spots, spots they will have to look at elsewhere. Like mirrors, school photos, photos taken in school clubs, family photos, etc. making special moments more difficult to capture without self-consciousness getting in the way.

Overuse of social media exacerbates the issue, and the baseline for what people really look like is lost. During this time, however, the tech was limited to a select number of apps. It’s still possible to avoid it, and the only people really being affected are people who were spending an unhealthy amount of time online anyway. Surely, simply curbing use and being aware of how filters change your face is good enough to combat it, right?

The Rest

It was… until this new generation of apps and phones came out, and all of the visual ones came with some sort of ‘enhancement’ feature. Some users on TikTok report blurring and re-coloring even when no filters are active. The iPhone and many Android devices now come with beauty filters on by default. The new cameras took in so much information that it seemed silly not to try and capitalize with AI. All of this on top of the social media apps, and magazines, and retouching already seen everywhere else.

If you want to use a social app, you will see other people (many of whom you may associate with IRL because it’s a social app) using filters, even if you decide not to. You will also find that adding cool effects without altering your face is difficult-to-impossible, because it all comes built in. Filters to change eye color? Filters to add fire or ice effects? Filters that make the image black and white, or sepia? All of them come with facial smoothing.

If looking up to absurdly skinny and unrealistically ripped folks causes body issues, imagine what auto-smoothing is doing. “You could look like this,” these auto-apps say, “but you don’t really. So keep using us because we’re the only place you look right.” It is a difficult world to navigate. The worst part is that many of them know this, but their solutions or damage-control attempts can’t come with advice to stop using the platform. The best TikTok does is recommend breaks, and Snapchat, with it’s Streaks deal, doesn’t encourage you to stop at all. Instagram is not better either.

Hidden and unremovable beauty filters are posing a bigger threat than their users realize – once you see yourself in the black mirror, the silver one seems inadequate.

Sources: ( the gif at the top of the screen shows how even filters not marketed for ‘smoothing’ or ‘beauty’ smooth features.)