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Snapchat Dysmorphia

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I’m not really one for social media (the only social media I use is Twitter and this blog) and so I don’t keep up with the new types of social media that continuously pop up. Snapchat has been around since 2011. It’s a type of social media where users can share pictures before they are then unavailable to the user they sent it to. I don’t understand the utility of media like this but maybe that’s because I’m not the target demographic.

In any case, I’m not going to talk about Snapchat in that way today, because that’s not what this blog is about. What I will talk about today, though, is the rise of “Snapchat dysmorphia.” “Dysmorphia” is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as “characterized by malformation.” “Dysphoria”, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, is defined as “a state of feeling very unhappy, uneasy, or dissatisfied.” This is a type of body dysmorphia. The two terms—dysphoria and dysmorphia—are similar, in any case.

So where does Snapchat come into play here? Well, there are certain functions that one can do with their pictures—and I’m sure they can do the same with other applications as well. There are what I would term “picture editors” which can change how a person looks. From changing the background you’re in, to changing your facial features, there are a wide range of things these kinds of filters can generate onto photographs/videos.

Well, of course, with the rise of social media and people constantly being glued to their phones day in and day out—along with pretty much living their entire lives on social media—people get sucked into the digital world they make for themselves. People constantly send pictures to others about what they’re doing on that day—they don’t have a chance to live in the moment because they’re always trying to get the “best picture” of the moment they’re in, since they’re trying to get the best picture for their followers on social media. In any case, this is where the problem with these kinds of filters come in—and how Snapchat is driving these problems.

So people use these filters on their pictures. They then get used to seeing themselves as they see themselves in the filtered pictures. Since they spend so much time on social media, constantly filtering their pictures, they—and their social media followers—get used to seeing their filtered photos and not how they really like. This, right here, is the problem.

People then become dysphoric—they become unsatisfied with their appearance due to how they look in their filtered photos. This has lead numerous people to do what I believe is insane—they go and get plastic surgery to look like their Snapchat selves. This is, in part, what the meteoric rise of social media has done to the minds of the youth. They give them unrealistic expectations—through their filters—and then, since they spend so much time Snapchatting and whatever else they do, seeing their filtered pictures, they then get sad that they do not look like they do in their filtered pictures in their digital world, which causes them to become dysphoric about their facial features since they do not look like their Snapchat selves.

One Snapchat user said to Vice:

We’d rather have a digitally obscured version of ourselves than our actual selves out there. It’s honestly sad, but it’s a bitter reality. I try to avoid using them as much as I can because they seriously cause an unhealthy dysphoria.

Therein lies the problem: people become used to what I would say are “idealized versions” of themselves. Some of these filters completely change how one’s facial structure is; some of them give bigger or smaller eyes; others change the shape of the jawline and cheekbones; others give fuller lips. So now, instead of people bringing photographs of celebrities to plastic surgeons and saying to them “This is what I want to look like”, they’re bringing their edited Snapchat pictures to plastic surgeons and telling them that they want that look.

So it’s no wonder that people become dysphoric about their facial features when they pretty much live on social media. They constantly play around with this filter and that filter, and they become used to what then becomes an idealized version of themselves. These types of picture filters have been argued to be bad for self-esteem, and it’s no wonder why they are, given the types of things these filters can do to radically change the appearances of the users who use them.

There has been a rise in individuals bringing in their filtered photos to plastic surgeons, telling them that they want to look like the filtered picture. Indeed, some of the before and afters I have seen bear striking similarities to the filtered photo.

The term “Snapchat dysmorphia” has even made it into the journal JAMA in an article titled Selfies—living in the era of filtered photographs (Rajanala, Maymobe, and Vashi, 2018). They write that:

Previously, patients would bring images of celebrities to their consultations to emulate their attractive features. A new phenomenon, dubbed “Snapchat dysmorphia,” has patients seeking out cosmetic surgery to look like filtered versions of themselves instead, with fuller lips, bigger eyes, or a thinner nose.

Ramphus and Mejias (2018) state that while it may be too early to employ the term “Snapchat dysmorphia”, it is imperative to realize the reasons why many young people are thinking and getting plastic surgery. Indeed, a few plastic surgeons have stated that the type of alterations that patients describe to them, indeed, are what are found with Snapchat facial edits.

Ramphul and Mejias (2018) also write:

There are already some ongoing legal issues about the use of Snapchat in the operating room by some plastic surgeons but none currently involving any patients accusing Snapchat of giving them a false perception of themselves yet. The proper code of ethics among plastic surgeons should be respected and an early detection of associated symptoms in such patients might help provide them with the appropriate counseling and help they need.

Clearly, this issue is now becoming large enough that medical journals are now employing the term in their articles.

McLean et al’s (2015) results “showed that girls who regularly shared self-images on social media, relative to those who did not, reported significantly higher overvaluation of shape and weight, body dissatisfaction, dietary restraint, and internalization of the thin ideal. In addition, among girls who shared photos of themselves on social media, higher engagement in manipulation of and investment in these photos, but not higher media exposure, were associated with greater body-related and eating concerns, including after accounting for media use and internalization of the thin ideal.” This seems intuitive: the more time one spends on social media, sharing images, overvalues certain things. And putting this into context in regard to Snapchat dysmorphia, girls spending too much time on these types of applications that can change their appearance, may also develop eating disorders.

Ward et al (2018) report that in 2014, about 93 million selfies were taken per day. With the way selfies are taken—up close—this then distorts the nasal dimensions, increasing them (Ward et al, 2018). Although this is only tangentially related to the issue of Snapchat dysmorphia, it will also increase the chance of people seeking plastic surgery, since a lot of people spend so much time on social media, taking selfies and eventually idealizing their selves with the angles they take the pictures in.

Although there are only 2 pages on Google scholar when you search “Snapchat dysmorphia”, we can expect the number of journal articles and references to the term to increase in the coming years due to people basically living most of their lives on social media. This is troubling: that young people are spending so much time on social media, editing their photos and acquiring dysmorphia due to the types of edits that are possible with these applications is an issue that we will need to soon address. Quite obviously, getting plastic surgery to look more like the idealized Snapchat photo is not the solution to the problem—something more like counseling or therapy would seem to address the issue. Not pretty much telling people “If you have the money and the time to get this surgery done then you should, to look like how you idealize yourself.”

Should people get plastic surgery to fix their selves, or should they get counseling? People who look to, or get, survey to fix dysmorphic issues they have with themselves will never be satisfied. They will always see a blemish, an imperfection to fix. For this reason, getting surgery in an attempt “fix” yourself if addicted to your looks while using these picture filters won’t work, as the deeper problem isn’t addressed—which I would claim is rampant social media use.


1 Comment

  1. The “utility” of Snapchat deleting pictures after you send them is that teens can send naked selfies to their boyfriends with less fear of them being forwarded to the whole school or the police.

    I am not endorsing nor condemning the practice.

    Is there a reason you didn’t connect this to the apparent recent explosion in transgender cases? It seems like a rather similar phenomenon.


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