But Y Tho explores a plethora of funny, strange, and peculiar trends to provide long sought-after answers to questions that have been swimming in all our heads.
When Joanna Fay Schmid, a 16-year-old student in Singapore, first saw her face inverted through a TikTok filter, she was immediately reduced to a crying mess.
“Seeing people do the trend and still look as beautiful as they did before, but not feeling that way about myself when I did it, messed me up quite a bit,” Joanna told VICE. “It definitely did affect my self-image and self-esteem a lot.”
Hoping to provide some comfort to others who felt equally upset by the filter, she decided to post her raw reaction—tear streaks and all—on TikTok. That video immediately struck a chord with many other TikTokers and has since gotten over 28,000 likes.
Joanna is just one of the many Gen Z TikTokers jumping on the massive bandwagon that is the inverted filter, a trend that took off in April and has continued to wreak havoc on people’s self-esteem since.
It’s showing no signs of stopping, so I knew I had to get to the bottom of this very viral, very polarizing trend: Why does TikTok’s inverted filter make us feel so bad about ourselves?
For one, people are using the filter as a test for facial symmetry, a common indicator of conventional attractiveness.
Accompanied by instantly recognizable songs like Olivia Rodrigo's “Deja Vu” or Bruno Mars’ “Talking to the Moon,” these videos feature people looking straight at their phone cameras as their faces are rapidly and continuously flipped by the filter. The more symmetrical your face, the less it appears to be affected by the inversion rapid fire.
Liu Jingyi, a 19-year-old student in Singapore who experimented with the TikTok trend, said the filter brought attention to little asymmetries on her face that she had not noticed before.
“The fact that facial symmetry was basically the whole goal of the trend made me really self-conscious,” she confessed.
“The fact that facial symmetry was basically the whole goal of the trend made me really self-conscious.”
Comments on TikTok, both positive and negative, fan the flames of insecurity surrounding this filter. Liu pointed out that comments praising TikTokers with very symmetrical faces add to popularizing a “nearly impossible ideal” of beauty.
“I think the challenge has created a new insecurity for people who now believe that they have to be symmetrical to be beautiful, which is definitely not true,” Liu added.
“I think the challenge has created a new insecurity for people who now believe that they have to be symmetrical to be beautiful, which is definitely not true.”
Meanwhile, Joanna said that on top of the initial shock at seeing her inverted face, some of the comments she received were “super hurtful.” She has since disabled comments on the TikTok video featuring her reaction to the filter.
The truth is, we’re no strangers to this seemingly random beauty standard, much like how some have pitted themselves against one another by the problematic standards of trends like wrapping earphones around their waists and balancing lipsticks on their collarbones. Now, we’re just caught in a new competition of how little our heads can quiver as our phone screens flip-flop at lightning speed.
Experts say this tendency is natural.
“We’re psychologically driven to self-evaluate,” said Peace Amadi, a professor of psychology at Hope International University in California. “This drive helps us meet our desire for self-enhancement and self-improvement. Thus, we take advantage of any objective standard we can use to measure ourselves up against.”
“In this case, the inverted TikTok filter provides users an opportunity to measure themselves against a standard of facial symmetry.”
Besides using the filter to test facial symmetry, lots of people are also just rudely surprised by how different they look when inverted. Of course, critiquing our flipped faces is ultimately a futile exercise, but this doesn’t stop us from obsessing over the little details of our faces that we find super strange.
According to Jill Grose-Fifer, a neuroscientist who studies face perception, the reason why we’re poring over how alien our inverted faces look is rooted in brain development. Since birth, neurons in an area of the brain called the fusiform face area (FFA) are “tuned” to selectively respond to faces.
“Our FFA neurons get used to what we normally see… We mostly see ourselves when we look in the mirror and that becomes the facial configuration that we are most used to seeing,” she said.
And when we see our face as it really is—and as how everyone else sees us—our FFA neurons alert us that something’s a little off, and many of us don’t like that, she said.
“The more asymmetrical your face, the bigger the difference between the mirror and non-mirrored images.”
I decided to test the filter out myself.
I was certainly in for a surprise with the inverted filter. Did one side of my face always look so much puffier than the other? Has one of my eyes always been that much droopier? Blinking back on my phone screen was a strangely distorted version of myself. I don’t think the filter has torn my self-esteem to shreds, but the fresh perspective of my inverted face did make me feel extra self-conscious about my own asymmetry.
While the difference was obvious for me, I needed to validate my findings with friends who saw me regularly. When TikTok’s inverted filter is activated, the version of my face should be the one that my friends usually see in real life. I wanted to know if they could tell the difference.
After sending sets of my photos to group chats, the feedback didn’t bring much clarity.
For one, it was difficult to wring any useful comments out of my friends because most of them could barely tell the difference.
“Feels like [I’ve seen] both before,” said one friend. “At first glance [the selfie version] looks more natural to me, but on second glance [the inverted version] looks more natural.”
“OK, to be honest, I can’t tell at all. I’m just making wild guesses,” said another.
In the most sensitive observation of all, an astute friend commented that one version (not inverted) “seems more legit,” but that the other (inverted) version looked more like me in real life.
But it seemed like I had only dragged my friends into a whirlpool of confusion over facial inversion, as they started doubting how well they really recognized my face and of course, testing the filter out on themselves.
While most of my friends could point to a version of my face that appeared more attractive, their choices were evenly mixed. Some preferred the selfie version while others found the inverted version better-looking.
But for the most part, any differences in attractiveness seemed to be negligible. As I exchanged feedback with friends who started using the inverted filter and scrutinizing their own flipped faces, I realized that we are really each our own harshest critic.
Just like how they couldn’t point to any significant differences in the two versions of my face despite the dissimilarity being so painfully obvious to myself, I didn’t understand why they seemed to be overreacting to their own faces because I could barely tell the two versions apart.
So, I learned that no one really notices if your face is slightly puffier on the left or right. No one’s going to think, “Oh, their face is slanted,” when they meet you for the first time. Most importantly, the people who actually matter to you are definitely not going to care whether the two sides of your face are perfect replicas of each other.
Ultimately, the main reason why our own inverted faces make us feel so bad about ourselves—even scaring some of us to tears—might really just be a matter of familiarity.
“[They’re] not different enough to say that one is [prettier] than the other. [It’s] really just identified based on which looks more familiar,” one friend concluded.
Amadi, the psychology professor, agreed with this perspective. “We’re used to seeing our reflections in our own mirrors, in preferred angles, and in the comfort of our own home,” she said. “Our face looks strange to us when inverted simply because it’s unfamiliar.”
On the other hand, some point to a more optimistic outlook on TikTok’s new obsession with facial symmetry.
“I don’t think the inverted filter created a new beauty standard,” said Lauren Piontko, a 22-year-old TikTok user in Philadelphia. “If anything, it did the opposite because it shows that even if someone isn’t symmetrical, they are still beautiful and ‘imperfections’ are what make people unique.”
In any case, Amadi thinks that this trend is just a fad that may soon be replaced with more diverse notions of beauty.
“Beauty standards have changed significantly over time,” she said. “One decade celebrates thinness and small noses, while another celebrates curves and full lips. Beauty and attraction are culturally bound, which means that we have the power to redefine it.”
“We can individually and collectively call for a celebration of facial diversity and asymmetry and break up standards of beauty that no longer serve us well,” she added. “What if asymmetry is the new symmetry?”
Follow Koh Ewe on Instagram.