The Complicated Ethics of Facetuning Your Friends

Is using the free app to retouch photos doing your mates a favour or sending them an upsetting message?
A group of friends of varying genders laughing over drinks (2)
Photo: Gender Spectrum Collection 

After tapping on the Instagram notification illuminating her phone screen, 25-year-old Molly Payne landed on the profile of one of her closest friends. She’d been tagged in a group photo, but something was off. “Immediately I said to myself, ‘Those aren’t my lips’,” Payne says. “Mine are naturally thin, but I look like a wide-mouthed frog in this photo.”


Upon further inspection, and after comparing the post to the original in her camera roll, Molly noticed that it wasn’t just her lips or her face that looked sus. Her friend had edited everyone’s appearance: Eyes had been enlarged, cheeks rosied, and even jawlines appeared enhanced. “I just thought, ‘Why have you done that? It’s weird…’ We’re close enough that she could’ve at least asked me first.”

Selfie-editing apps like Facetune, Perfect365 and FaceApp (AKA the home of yassification) aren’t exactly new phenomena. Launched by app developer Lighticks in 2014, the former, together with its horror film-sounding sequel, Facetune 2, was reportedly downloaded over 30 million times in 2021.

With the images they create characterised by textureless skin, blindingly white teeth and bent door frames, apps like Facetune have received criticism over the years for capitalising on the insecurities of young people whilst deflating their self-esteem. Last year, research by Dove found that 85 percent of girls surveyed had applied filters or used an app to alter the way they look in photos by the age of 13, and in some extreme cases, young people are even undergoing cosmetic surgery to try and resemble their digitally altered selves


But the conversations we have about selfie-editing apps tend to revolve around the young people using them to edit their own appearance. What about those like Payne’s friend, who edit their mates’ faces without their permission, and share the resulting photos on social media? What motivates them to mask what they may see as their friends’ imperfections without asking?

California-based psychology major George Cano has been using Facetune since high school to achieve “better quality” photos for social media. “In a way, Facetune is kind of like going to art school,” the 23-year-old says. “You have no idea what you’re doing when you start using it, but you get better with experience.” Initially, he used the app to enhance his features, shape his face and conceal his own blemishes. Then Cano quickly began Facetuning his friends in group photos, too. “I don’t go super hardcore with it, but you kind of feel bad for them if you’re Facetuned and they’re not,” he tells me. “Plus, if you only edit yourself you’re gonna give it away… Like why are you so airbrushed and your friend isn’t?”

Cano insists that his friendship group uses the app too, so he takes editing into his own hands to save time, often without asking first. “I have felt bad sometimes, but at the same time, I don’t,” he says, pausing: “I know my friends and I know they’d appreciate it; I’m just doing it to make sure they look good too.”


Aside from a few occasions, including one where he manipulated a friend’s chin too severely, Cano alleges that most of his friends don’t notice when they’ve been Facetuned — although he acknowledges that by doing it, he’s likely projecting his own insecurities onto their looks. “Essentially, I’m fixing something on their face that I’d fix on my own, and I assume that they feel the same way as me, which isn’t always going to be true.”

As an influencer and OnlyFans creator, Ellie Scales feels pressured to use selfie-editing apps. “You see influencers and even the Kardashians on social media, and you just know they’re using them,” she tells me on her way to a shoot in London. “You notice how many likes and shares they get and you think to yourself, ‘If I use these apps, I’ll get my name out there and get noticed’.” The 22-year-old explains that she’ll only use apps like FaceApp on friends who care about how they present themselves online. “If we’re at an event, we don’t even need to ask each other to FaceApp the photos afterwards, we’ll just do it ourselves… Everyone wants that perfect picture.”

Although she understands her edits might send harmful messages to her friends, Scales, like Cano, persists in order to ensure everyone in an image looks similar, as inconsistencies can impact a photo’s Instagram-ability. “My friends don’t really care, to be honest, because they know that having the effect on their face means they look better than they do in the original photo.” Both maintain that they’d delete a photo from social media if their friend wasn’t happy with it, and would at least give them the opportunity to edit themselves before reposting. 


But by that point, has the damage already been done? These aren’t professional retouchers editing a spread for a magazine, after all. They’re our friends – you know, the same people we share our precious free time with, tell our deepest darkest secrets to, and who buy us shots when we pay for the Uber on a night out. Does that make it worse?

Professor Phillippa Diedrichs works at the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of West England, the world’s largest group of researchers looking at the role of appearance and body image in our lives. “There’s this idea of other people surveilling our appearance, and making judgments about what should be edited about it which is quite peculiar,” she says.

While research into selfie-editing apps is sparse, Diedrichs highlights that it’s important to look at the intentions behind why someone might edit their friends in a photo. “We know social media as a space where we present our best selves,” Diedrichs says. “It reinforces this cultural focus and pressure on looking a certain way and conforming to beauty standards, but the lines of what we consider appropriate and normal are getting increasingly blurred.” 


Diedrichs stresses that editing a friend without their consent risks triggering and exacerbating any underlying body image issues they may have, and remarks that most of us are unaware of the relationships our friends have with their bodies. But as selfie-editing apps continue to evolve and young people increasingly use them, is there an etiquette we should follow if we want to Facetune our friends? One which avoids rubbing salt – or an unwanted blemish wand – into the crevices of their insecurities?

Content creator and avid selfie-editor Faye Kingston believes so. Last year, she created Filter v Reality, an Instagram filter that highlights the disparity between our natural appearance and our digitally filtered selves, which has since received over 4 billion impressions.  

Like many on Twitter, Kingston believes that it’s common decency to offer a friend a touch-up if you’re already doing it to yourself. “It’s selfish when someone edits themselves without offering the same to everyone else in the picture,” she argues. “You don’t want to leave your friends hanging or feeling like shit.”

But Kingston is quick to stress that it should be an offer, and that transparency and consent are key. “You should always ask if you’re not sure. Everyone is different, so you have to respect someone else’s wishes if they’re opposed to it.” If they say yes, she recommends going back and forward with a friend after each round of editing to guarantee they’re happy with a photo before sharing it online. “That way everyone’s happy.” 

But Diedrichs suggests a step is taken earlier in the process. “Have a think about whether you actually need to edit their appearance in the first place, and what the implications of asking might be,” she says. “Because what you’re basically suggesting is that you don't think their face or body is good enough for your photo.” Meanwhile, Cano tells me that he’s not going to stop airbrushing his friends any time soon. “People are always going to judge… but I know my friends wouldn’t want a photo posted online with a spot on their face.”