I was late to the Snapchat party: I didn’t "get" the dumb filters and the dog faces. It all seemed a little pointless.
But suddenly – I don't remember when exactly – I was into it, Bitmoji and all. Next thing I knew I was only taking selfies using the Snapchat camera. When I’d use the iPhone camera, with no flowers or goggly eyes obscuring my actual face, I’d think to myself, 'You look hideous.' So I just stopped using it altogether.
A couple weeks ago I took part in my first proper photoshoot – an hour or so of awkward posing that the photographer coached me through. Afterwards, I changed and we went through the portraits together. I was genuinely mortified. What I saw wasn’t at all what I expected. I hated them all: every single picture. I cried on my way home and wondered why nobody in my family, or any of my friends, had ever told me I was ugly.
I’ve had a complex about taking photos for years; all Tyra Banks' training via America’s Next Top Model has taught me nothing – I can’t smize and I definitely don’t know my angles. I've always told myself that I was just one of those people who looked better in person. But Snapchat changed that. It made me feel like I looked good, and it’s all thanks to its reverse camera.
While regular cameras and the one on your smartphone show you more or less what you really look like, the Snapchat camera shows you what you see in the mirror, i.e. a flipped version of your face. Turn a filter on and your flipped face gets thinner, your lips get plumper and your eyes get bigger – three characteristics of a generally more "appealing" face, according to the beauty ideals of various cultures across the world.
"I do think Snapchat filters change your facial features," says 26-year-old Dayo. "It’s like the perfection app." Over time, it’s difficult to forget that’s not what you really look like.
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This disparity between the real and staged is nothing new: anyone in their twenties can remember, after years spent honing their selfie skills with early digital cameras, how uncomfortable it was to see their first tagged photos on Facebook – catching a glimpse of what everyone else sees. But now, with the level of alteration Snapchat and selfie editors like Facetune provide, combined with using the apps to document ourselves multiple times a day, it isn’t a stretch to presume some of us are at risk of developing an unhealthy self-perception.
JME tweeted last year, "Snapchat 'filters' will be linked to body dysmorphic disorder in the near future. Making everybody look like MJ, with a wreath as well. Mad."
"Snapchat filters are the devil," agreed YouTuber Reed from the sexual advice duo Come Curious, over WhatsApp. "We are in the age of inadequacy with social media, and it’s just not fair or addressed enough."
Writer Arushi feels similarly, and has written about the way Snapchat has started to make people view themselves. "I’ve found myself becoming dependent on filters to validate my appearance in selfies on more occasions than one, and honestly it scares me, because that’s so screwed up," she said through Twitter DMs. "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."
"This behaviour supports the vision that a social body – self objectified – is more relevant than the real felt body."
Some, of course, won't relate to any of this. Mary from south London, for instance, believes the Snapchat camera is essentially just digital cosmetics. "Snapchat works the same way makeup does," she told me. "But, to be honest, I can’t remember the last time I took a picture without using Snapchat. The camera quality is better."
You can see whether you're more Arushi or more Mary by seeing how you feel when your control is taken away. "I was a bit more than displeased when I got sent a picture of myself from a rave I attended on Facebook. I was literally disgusted," said Josephine, an avid Snapchat user. "My pose was horrid – I was smiling way too much. Everyone that knows me knows I avoid people taking my picture like the plague. I hate it. Most of my pictures are selfies."
Ever since the creation of chat-rooms, forums and early social media sites like Myspace, we’ve wanted to control the way we’re viewed using technology, forging our own version of reality. But what happens when our forged avatars are what we believe is real?
"Some guys I speak to say stuff like, 'You don’t look like your Snaps.' It’s like, 'Mate, I’m not walking around with a headband of sparkly stars around my head.'"
Dr Giuseppe Riva, a professor of Communication Psychology at the Catholic University of Milan, told VICE that social media activity promotes self-objectification. "This is particularly true for Snapchat and Instagram, which provide a mirror-like vision of young women’s selves which is also altered and shared," he said. "This behaviour supports the vision that a social body – self objectified – is more relevant than the real felt body."
It’s not just those taking Snapchat selfies who are experiencing the real-world effects. Talullah, from Kent, described how men were starting to believe that Snapchat-filtered photos were accurate portrayals of the people in them. "Some guys I speak to say stuff like, 'You don’t look like your Snaps,'" she explained. "It’s like, 'Mate, I’m not walking around with a headband of sparkly stars around my head.'"
These apps are too new for any proper scientific studies to have been carried out on the potential long-term consequences for some users. But Professor Riva has flagged eating disorders, alongside Body Dysmorphic Disorder, as possible knock-on effects. "Self-objectification – thinking about and monitoring the body’s appearance from an external observer’s perspective – is the largest contributor to both the onset of eating disorders and its maintenance. This is what we discovered in our research," he told me.
Whether all heavy Snapchat users have forgotten what they truly look like is hard to say. I clearly had. But the question of whether this issue matters has an obvious and easy answer: yes.