The Facetune epidemic: who is to blame?

9 December 2021
By Isabelle Truman

We are all victims of society’s pressure to look a certain way — but we’re also perpetrators. When do we become culpable for propagating the very same standards we criticise? Isabelle Truman investigates.

Image: Gallery Stock.

Since downloading Facetune in 2014, Michelle* has used the photo editing app on almost every image she’s posted online. Within minutes, she can change her chin, jawline, and cleavage, and slim her waist, thighs, and arms. “I’d basically just make everything smaller,” she says. Though she’s since opted out of perfecting her acne-prone skin in a bid to be real with the young women who follow her, changes to her face still occur in almost every other area. Like most Facetune users who were on social media in its adolescent years, Michelle began using the app because it seemed as though everyone around her was. “I have surgical precision with my editing now but back then everyone was still figuring it out. You would see people using the wrong tool all the time. They would completely warp the background or over-edit their face until it looked like a blur. “I still tweak the same things, just not as much or as obviously now,” she explains. 

The hugely popular selfie-editing app is now so widely known that its name has become interchangeable with ‘editing’. Since its inception, Facetune has scored endorsements from celebrities and influencers including Khloé Kardashian, who once described it as “life-changing” and “the only way to live,” Chrissy Teigen, Busy Philipps, and James Charles. Millions of photos circulating the internet have been meticulously altered, most of which are done in a way that’s near impossible to pinpoint. Though conversations about the impact of photoshopping models on magazine covers are nothing new, with the rise of Facetune, women now not only compare themselves to billboards, but to idealised images of each other. They then feel pressured to create their own images in a never-ending cycle. It’s clear that by participating in this behaviour, we’re reinforcing unrealistic beauty standards, but it seems we’re too deep in the vortex to see any realistic way out. 

Facing reality

When you’re lying on the couch looking at a photo of yourself, knowing that within a few minutes you can erase the one feature you’re the most self-conscious about, the cost to the cause seems irrelevant—or at least, easy to ignore. I mean, everyone else is doing it. And besides, no one will even notice… right? 

In 2013, five Israeli men, four of whom were computer science PhD students, released an app that would let regular people edit photos of their faces. What used to require a Photoshop tutorial and expensive subscription could, with Facetune, now be done within minutes on your phone. The app’s release came at a time when Instagram, then less than three years old, was exploding in popularity. Within a year, Facetune was the top-ranked photo and video app across 120 countries. By 2016, its parent company, Lightricks, had launched Facetune2, a more advanced version that was also an instant hit, and by 2018, The Guardian estimates Facetune had been downloaded more than 20 million times with nearly half a million subscribers paying an average of $40 a year. That download number has now exceeded 160 million, according to Lightricks’ website, which reveals Facetune saw a 20 per cent increase in usage at the start of the pandemic. Now, there are 1-1.5 million retouched photos exported through Facetune every single day and four apps in the Facetune family. Facetune2 is joined by Filtertune—which allows users to create and save their own unique filters, Seen—an app with Instagram story-specific templates and filters, and last year, Facetune Video was launched, making it possible for users to film themselves with their carefully reconstructed faces and bodies intact. 

As Jia Tolentino wrote in an article examining ‘Instagram Face’ for The New Yorker, filters allow you “to become intimately familiar with what your face would look like if it were 10 per cent more conventionally attractive — if it were thinner, or had smoother skin, larger eyes, fuller lips”. Facetune goes one step further, allowing you to replicate those filters on any photo of yourself, taken at any time. Within minutes, you can change the width of your head, the size of your jaw, the texture and tone of your skin, the size and position of your eyes, nose, lips, and eyebrows. To help you get these Photoshop-worthy results, YouTube and TikTok are littered with Facetune tutorials demonstrating how to do everything from creating a ‘fox eye’ to shading on abs. Facetune is a slippery slope — you start changing minor things and then slowly find more and more faults to fix. 

Image: Gallery Stock.

Not real life

Amber* says she used the app a few times after she noticed her friends were editing themselves immediately after photos were taken, even in social situations. “We’d be out for dinner and the conversation would have to pause so people could quickly change the way they looked.” She explains that to make sure no one was accidentally sharing an unedited photo of one of their friends, all group images went through an approval process, sent back and forwards through a group chat until everyone was happy with the end results.

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In a world where we’re increasingly digital and camera-facing—something heightened significantly by Covid-19—it makes sense people would turn to editing apps to touch up their appearance. In fact, it’s become such a habit for many women, sometimes it really does feel like the person we’re looking at on Instagram—the person we’ve carefully curated by reconstructing our looks, our taste and our interests—really is real life. “I’ll look at my photos on Instagram and begin to think that’s how I actually look,” Michelle explains. “Then I get a surprise when I look in the mirror.” Others I spoke to noted feeling nervous before meeting people face-to-face who they’ve already interacted with online, citing being worried about being dubbed a ‘catfish’ due to not looking the way they do in the photos they post.  

The celebrity effect

Instagram has accounts dedicated to being Facetune watchdogs. One of the most popular, @celebface, boasts over 1.5 million followers with a bio that reads simply, ‘WELCOME TO REALITY’. The account compares social media photos to unaltered paparazzi pictures, showing the differences in body proportions, facial features, and skin, or pointing out warped backgrounds. When I first scrolled through it, I was surprised to see the likes of Bella Hadid, Elsa Hosk, Winnie Harlow and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley featured. These are all women who not only fit into society’s strict beauty standards, but who literally model them. “When she already has the ‘ideal’ Insta body and still feels the need to make it even smaller, you know there is a huge issue,” one person commented on a post showing Hosk’s apparent Facetune editing to make her waist smaller. Summing up the situation perfectly, another wrote, “This is so sad”. Though a lot of people leave nasty comments on these accounts, this isn’t—or shouldn’t be—about shaming women for using photo editing apps or for getting cosmetic work done. It should be about evaluating the society we live in where these things are deemed necessary. If even these women don’t feel comfortable enough in their skin to share an unedited photo of themselves on the internet, who can blame other women for feeling the same?  

Everyone I spoke to pointed out their Facetuned photos consistently get more likes. It’s been proven that the instant gratification that comes from getting these ‘likes’ is addictive and that when these notifications pop up, it releases dopamine—a brain chemical that makes us feel good. Just like the response one might get from gambling or doing drugs, the dopamine we get when a photo is well responded to leaves us craving more. And when likes translate directly into monetary value on apps like Instagram, the pull to Facetune becomes even greater: suddenly, it’s not only tied to people’s sense of self-worth, but also to their income. 

Perhaps the greatest example of this predicament we’re in is the Kardashian family. The five sisters are some of society’s biggest reinforcements of unrealistic beauty standards—complete with tiny waists, flat stomachs and curves in all the right places—while at the same time being beholden to them. Recently, Khloé Kardashian, whose clothing brand Good American has a slogan reading, ‘Representing Body Acceptance,’ was embroiled in controversy when her team went into a frenzy to get an unretouched photo of her in a bikini taken off the internet. The debacle ended with Kardashian’s team threatening legal action and Kardashian herself filming a live video of her body to “show you all this isn’t photoshopped.” She wrote in a post that “the pressure, constant ridicule and judgment my entire life to be perfect and to meet others’ standards of how I should look has been too much to bear”. It’s easy to empathise with Kardashian. But at the same time, it’s frustrating how much she and her family perpetuate, and monetise off, making millions of other women feel that very same way.

Secrets and lies

In 2015, after years of explaining away her noticeably bigger pout as being a result of her Kylie Cosmetics Lip Kits, Kylie Jenner revealed she had been getting lip filler since age 17. Jenner’s honesty was a driving force for a shift in the way cosmetic enhancements are discussed by women. While Generation X and boomers were used to keeping any cosmetic treatments completely secret, millennials began speaking freely about theirs. Some even started sharing nurses and doctors, booking consultations together as they used to book nail appointments. But while the shift in tone surrounding cosmetic enhancements is moving in the right direction, for a lot of women it feels as though their friends are being honest about one thing while lying about another: people might openly say they’ve had Botox once to get rid of a frown line, but won’t admit to Facetuning photos or to having filler in their jawline. 

“It’s like they’ll tell you they get a procedure that’s normalised, or deemed less intense, to distract people while secretly getting a million other things done,” says Kate*. Speaking specifically about photo editing, another Facetune user, Lauren*, says women “gaslight” each other. “Everyone does it but no one will say they do. Back in the day, you could tell, but now it’s really hard to pinpoint.” A recent study found that 71 per cent of people edit their selfies before posting them on social media, but I could only find two close friends who would openly own up to it, one of whom said she hides the app in her phone’s utility folder, just in case someone accidentally spies it on her home screen. 

Facetune is like plastic surgery on your phone, so it only makes sense that the routine use of it would result in women looking to replicate the results they see on screen in real life. Cosmetic clinics routinely reference patients coming in for consultations holding up Facetuned photos of themselves and asking what procedures they’d need to get to make Instagram a reality. “Using Facetune definitely contributed to my decision to get a nose job,” another friend, who had her first consultation with a plastic surgeon last week, tells me. “It made me realise how much better I could look. I would stare at the edited image, fixating on it for hours.” Though a nose job on Facetune can be done with a pinch of your thumb, unfortunately replicating those results in real life isn’t that simple. “I’ve had patients come in requesting non-surgical nose jobs and showing me pictures that could only be achieved with rhinoplasty surgery,” says Dr Catherine Stone of The Face Place. “Others have obliterated every smile line, pore, and blemish from their skin—which is almost impossible to achieve—shrunk their cheekbones, or made their eyes horizontally bigger, which is probably not achievable even with surgery.”

The changing face

There is a direct correlation between the proliferation of digitally manipulated images and body dysmorphic disorder, an underdiagnosed mental health condition causing sufferers to obsess over minor or imagined defects in their appearance. Researchers at Boston University warned Facetune and similar apps “are making us lose touch with reality because we expect to look perfectly primped and filtered in real life as well,” which can cause serious psychological harm. Plus, because of how good the technology is, people only recognise manipulated images 60-65 per cent of the time. Dr Sarah Hart, a cosmetic medicine doctor based in Auckland, constantly has patients unknowingly attending consultations bringing in images of people who look the way they do because of Facetune. “It’s best to assume every photo on social media is filtered in some way,” she says.  “What used to take a whole art department is now just a few taps away. This creates a look that just isn’t achievable in real life.”

Many people are calling for transparency in a bid to minimise the damage caused, believing women would feel far less desperate to look perfect if they knew which photos in their feeds had been altered. France enacted a law in 2017 stipulating digitally manipulated commercial images of models must be labelled as ‘retouchée’, and lawmakers in the UK are now considering a similar bill. In June, Norway passed a law requiring influencers and advertisements to disclose when a photo has been retouched, amidst a continued public debate in the country surrounding ‘kroppspress’ (body pressure). If changes have been made to a body or face shape, size or skin it must be declared. No such law yet exists in the US, Australia or New Zealand. 

While researching for this story, I felt a familiar pang most women will recognise. On YouTube, a young woman was discussing the process of getting a nose job to look more like her Facetuned self. While she zoomed in to the small bump she wanted to eradicate, holding her phone up to the screen, I stared at her thin frame, huge doll eyes and pout, thinking, ‘if only I looked like that’. Instead of reaching for Facetune, however, I shut my laptop, knowing the face in the mirror later—complete with freckles, hormonal acne and under-eye bags—would appreciate the gesture.

*Names have been changed. 

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