A couple decades ago, if you wanted to see how you would look with different colored eyes, shorter hair, or a completely different nose, you had to be some kind of Photoshop wizard. Now, we are unfortunately living in an era where trying out completely different looks is as simple as going onto Instagram or TikTok and slapping on a filter that can give you a drastically different face, or show your face in new ways, in real time. Want to look like a puffy, pillow-faced Kardashian? There’s a filter for that. Want to try lime green hair? There’s a filter for that! Want to see what your face looks like to other people? Well hey, there’s a filter for that, too.
A trend creeping across TikTok involves using the “inversion” filter to check out how symmetrical your own face is and what it “really looks like” to others. Another social media “challenge” involves turning camera mirroring off on Zoom, so you can see yourself the way others see you (in the olden days, we had to do this by bouncing our mirror reflection off a second mirror; a lot of effort to find out something you then feel way better off not knowing). The inversion posts on TikTok go something like this: A young person flips their own face back and forth a few times over a y-axis on their front-facing camera, then adds a caption about how asymmetrical they are or how “weird” they look to other people.
The reason the filters are freaking people out is that when we look in a mirror, the image of our faces is technically flipped, so what we are used to seeing is technically the opposite of what people see when they look at us; when that image of our own faces is un-flipped, it can feel like we are seeing a totally different version of our face. “Your features don’t line up, curve, or tilt the way you’re used to viewing them,” according to a 2014 piece from The Atlantic on selfies.
“The interesting thing is that people don’t really know what they look like,” Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, told The Atlantic. “The image you have of yourself in your mind is not quite the same as what actually exists.” Specifically, Epley said the image we have of ourselves in our mind is a more attractive version, which is why our selfies sometimes look weird, even to ourselves. A study published in 2008 in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that, when asked to choose themselves from a lineup, study participants were most likely to pick a photo that was enhanced to be slightly more attractive.
I gave the inversion filter a try myself and was initially gut-punched by the results. THAT is what I LOOK LIKE?! Since I am me, and am always occupying my own eyeballs, I’ve only ever seen my face mirrored, on the front facing camera of my phone or in… mirrors. So to see it “backwards,” from my POV, was a weird vibe.
But this is just not how I’m used to seeing my own face. Which is ultimately the problem with this trend: Critiquing the way we look backwards, so to speak, is a fruitless, self-demeaning exercise. We aren’t hotter one way versus the other, and we perhaps only look “weird” inverted because we hold a false vision of our own faces. We are just used to looking at our regular faces the regular way, and because we’re so familiar with that one way, it’s shocking, at first, to flip it.
A bad side effect of the pandemic has been a hyperfocus on appearances, despite that we’re seeing fewer people in person than ever before. Constant Zooms and FaceTimes and access to TikTok filters have led to a deep fascination with perception: What do we really look like, and can it be better? Clinicians and counselors recently told the New York Times that there’s a boom in eating disorders among teenagers, which they partially blame on the pandemic’s disruption of routine and a fixation on social media. What the Times neglects to mention are the readily available tools for manipulating and flipping your own face, which, based on the abundance of posts online, appear to be tools for self-denigration.
Of course, yeah, inverting your own face and looking at it “backwards” is a weird sensation, but there’s nothing uglier about it at all. It might feel wild, to you, but everyone you know is used to looking at you that way, and likes it (and the rest of social media world you don’t know and who has never seen you before, in all likelihood, doesn’t see much of a difference).
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