In a win for gender equality, men are becoming increasingly subjected to the same societal pressures women have always faced. Now, they too are free from the restrictive social norms which previously dictated they couldn't use makeup, wear Spanx or suffer from eating disorders.
One example of how this is playing out is the number of men now using photo-editing apps such as Facetune – despite the fact they were initially marketed to women – and the rise of similar apps aimed specifically at men, with names like "Manly", "Macho" and "Handsome". As those monikers suggest, the vision of manliness presented here is an old-fashioned one: the apps will give you a beard, muscles and tattoos, rather than whatever leather harness or chiffon scarf Harry Styles and Timothée Chalamet have most recently used to radically rewrite the rules of masculinity.
"These apps are all related to physicality and strength – they suggest the only kind of beautifying that men can do is really normative," says Dr Ysabel Gerrard, a lecturer in Digital Media and Society at Sheffield University. Unsurprisingly, the same can be said for the marketing of men's skincare brand Bulldog and the male makeup company Warpaint, which also uses an austere colour scheme and language that hints at aggression. Fellas, is it gay to wear blusher? Not if you're daubing it on before murdering an enemy tribesman with a pick-axe.
Men are using these photo-editing apps for all sorts of reasons: for some, it's just a laugh (it's hard to imagine anyone earnestly giving themselves a CGI beard); for others, it's a way to bolster their chances on dating apps or address physical insecurities. It would be patronising to suggest the users of these apps are being exploited, but they do seem to pray on people's insecurities, promising an easy solution that immediately dissolves as soon as they look in a mirror.
For decades, there's been discussion around how airbrushing in fashion and advertising creates unrealistic beauty standards. What's new is that now everyone has the means to manipulate their own appearance in the same way. You could argue this is empowering, but it's also had some disturbing effects – consider the phenomenon nicknamed "Snapchat Dysphoria", or "Instagram Face", of people taking edited photos of themselves to cosmetic surgeons in order to look more like an idealised social media avatar.
I spent £2.49 downloading the "Manly" app and set to work editing a photograph of myself. The app is not particularly user-friendly: I tried for a long time to make my torso look convincingly toned, but the abs looked absurdly fake, like there was a ghost haunting my stomach. I also plumped for tattoos of a sexy lady in a state of undress, and a skull with a rather unsavoury grin. Lastly, to increase my sexual capital in a society that venerates masculinity above all else, I knew I would need a beard – something I am incapable of growing in real life beyond the faintest trace of a Craig David-esque goatee. I added the bushiest one on offer, before gifting myself a broader jaw and narrowing my eyes to give myself a look that suggested I was thinking: 'Stay the HELL away from me.'
The resulting image isn't anything I'd take to a cosmetic surgeon. Mind you, I'd probably still suck this man off if I encountered him in the darkroom at Adonis.
My delusions that I made a convincing masc top were shattered, however, when I posted the picture on Twitter and posed the question: "Would you bottom for this man?" The results were a land-slide "no" (hardly anyone said they wanted to have sex with me at all, even though the poll was anonymous; it's sad to see people lying to themselves on such a grand scale).
My attempt at making myself hot, and masculine, was a resounding failure. But this was perhaps because I'd gone too hard on the outlandish features. Every user of these apps I speak to has subtler, and more sympathetic, purposes in mind.
"I use them, almost exclusively, to airbrush out acne," says Jack, 22. "If I've suffered from a particularly bad breakout, it does tend to damage my self esteem, so it's helpful when I have an otherwise good photo of myself. Acne isn't a permanent feature, so whenever I do it I don't feel weird or guilty about it, because I'm just removing temporary features."
Jack uses the app for a range of things, none of which involve fake beards or tattoos. "I don't tend to use it for every photo of myself, but I'll use it if there's a photo of me I want to put on Facebook or Instagram that is a decent picture, but there are noticeable flaws," he explains. "I've been off Tinder and the other apps for a while, but I did notice that, compared to when I last had dating apps a couple of years ago, I was getting a lot more matches and replies."
"It's great that these apps are out there," says Dr Gerrard. "There are lots of people who have, say, self-harm scars or some kind of disfigurement, which – for their self-esteem and confidence, or dealing with trauma – they want to be able to quickly edit out. It's great that people have the opportunity to do that."
"The problem, I suppose, a lot of people have," counters Jack, "is that they possibly rely on editing photos too much and don't focus on tackling the root cause of their low self esteem."
He has a point: if you're unhappy with your body, for instance, you could attempt to come to terms with that and tackle the thinking behind it, or you could go to the gym, or change your diet, and materially change it. The photo-editing option seems, in many ways, to be the worst of both worlds, leaving yourself beholden to the same insecurities, without doing anything substantive to change either the material or psychological reasons behind them.
Of all the uses for these apps, the one that seems the most self-defeating is the idea that they can boost your chances on dating apps. I'm sure it's true that you'll get more swipes right if you have a six pack, but aren't you setting yourself up for disappointment further down the line if you don't actually have one? When you take your clothes off before fucking someone for the first time, do you want their reaction to be bewilderment?
That said, while these apps are often thought of as a means of catfishing, every user I speak to is meticulous about not wanting to deceive anyone.
"I don't use dating apps, but when I did I was careful only to use unedited photos," says Declan, 29. "I use Facetune, mostly just to smooth out the edges, as it were. I have pretty bad dark circles under my eyes that I'm really self-conscious about, so I use the app to hide those on days on which I'm not wearing any makeup. It's mostly just for my own peace of mind, to be honest – I don't notice a big difference in the number of interactions my thirst traps get."
It’s one thing if you’ve signed up for this digital modification yourself, but when the decision is taken out of your hands, the results can be even more unsettling.
"My ex used to whiten my teeth using Facetune before she posted any pictures of me and her on social media," says John, 26. "For months and months, I thought it was the flash that was making them look whiter than they did in real life, or that they were actually whiter than I realised. She kept saying, 'Aye, it's the flash probably.' But then she came clean eventually and told me what she'd been doing. It was a very weird moment in my life."
Granted, this is a specific story, but it does suggest a normalisation of the idea that flaws can simply be edited away: that, in the Facetune age, you might yourself parsing the face of someone you love and searching for imperfections your followers might notice. Disdain, whether for yourself or others, becomes anticipatory, filtered through an imaginary focus group but backed up with real data.
Yes, we should seek to dismantle hierarchies of attractiveness based on height, weight and the presence or absence of facial hair (as Dr Gerrard says, "All the debates around editing and trickery, it pulls us right back to a discussion at how dating apps are being built and designed, and how much emphasis is placed on appearance"), but deception doesn't seem like the best way to go about doing this – for your own sake, if nothing else.
Seeing edited photos of yourself all the time, and actively participating in that process, can eventually make you hate what you see in the mirror; the you who is puffy, blotchy, flawed and real. Sooner or later, we have to reckon with what we actually look like.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.