Why do I constantly keep editing my selfies?

Social media usage is at an all-time high. From old aunties reconnecting with the friends of their youth, to the youth of today- sharing anything and everything on websites, knowingly or unknowingly. It seems that the social media epidemic has everyone on their phones or laptops, staring at blue, red, or yellow screens. It isn’t difficult to understand why social media is so addictive. 

Each website offers a varied, yet niche, ecosystem- Facebook and Tumblr for keeping in touch with friends and family, LinkedIn and Twitter for networking and microblogging, and Youtube for consuming or sharing multimedia with the world. Research in 2015 has shown that young adults between the ages of 18 and29 tend to have a 90% social media adoption rate. This means that young adults seem to use almost all of the social media websites on a regular basis.

With such a large user base, it goes without saying that there are a lot of social changes that social media websites are bringing about in the world. One of the biggest of these changes brought about by social media is the “selfie culture.” The “selfie” is a self photograph, often uploaded and shared on social media. It has become a global phenomenon, with the Oxford Dictionary naming it the word of the year in 2013, the EDM-pop duo The Chainsmokers releasing a song titled SELFIE, and parents naming their kids “Selfie.” On an average, 18.1% of girls and 15.2% of boys click more than four selfies a day! Selfies are an easy way of showing others just how happy one is in their life- and it’s almost odd not to upload one every other day!

Social networking websites provide a plethora of uses, and in today’s day and age, the uses have become varied. It is not only about keeping in touch with family and friends anymore. Social networking websites have become a way to receive instant gratification for individuals. The “likes” and “hearts” that an individual receives serves as a positive reinforcement, making sure that they log back onto the website every day. Instagram users, in particular, place less emphasis on connecting with others, and more emphasis on personal identity and self-promotion, as well as displaying skills of creativity, such as photography. 

Psychologist Goffman, in his book “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” suggests that people put in a conscious effort to manage their self-image in a social context. With the widespread adoption of social media, there is an immense amount of pressure on each and every user to construct a near perfect image of themselves on these websites.

Social media also provides people with easy means to gain self evaluations about oneself. According to the social psychologist Leon Festinger, humans tend to evaluate their own opinions by comparing themselves to others. This helps reduce their uncertainties. Social media, with its god-like power to make everything public, provides a huge catalog of other people to make comparisons with. And with everyone putting out their best “face” forward, these comparisons are likely to bring about a sense of dissatisfaction in the majority of the users. 

However, while social media platforms began as a medium of expression, they have constantly become an extension of an individual’s life. Users of these websites have shown an increased interest in creating a “brand” for themselves, while also promoting other businesses, as a way to make money. The selfie culture creates an even larger pressure to adhere to societal norms of beauty, and for most individuals, maintaining this image is a stressful and often daunting process. The “cyber self” is constantly becoming distant from the real-world self, and as a result, it is getting more and more difficult for people to live up to the perfect images they portray online.

Communications on social media is not only affected by, but also affects what a person thinks about themselves. It is generally considered that the more friends an individual has on a social networking website, the more positively they look at themselves. The opinions of others on a persons’ cyber identity is also shown to have a huge impact on an individual’s confidence, and while negative criticism brings down the confidence of people, constructive input has the ability to build the confidence to an exceptionally high degree. A growing trend among individuals, especially adolescents, has been to use selective self-presentation strategies so that they are portrayed in an ideal manner. This increasing self-focus, as well as feedback seeking has been linked to lower life satisfaction, as well as rumination of thoughts and depressive symptoms in many users.

Selective self-presentational strategies include editing photographs and using filters to help individuals fit the standards of beauty set arbitrarily by different societies and cultures. The beauty standards and traditional notions of what is considered beautiful tends to vary across cultures and generations. However, both eastern and western cultures have shifted the trends from curvy, bodacious women, to thinner, more petite, yet tall frames in modern times. This concept of ideally slim female bodies is often called the “thin ideal.” The “thin ideal” communicates the way people believe they should look in order to be attractive and desirable, especially to others. One of the major propagators of this ideal has been media portrayals of women, which often directly correlate thinness to beauty, wealth, prosperity and happiness. Most protagonists of books, movies, and stories, are also shown to be skinny, exceptionally beautiful, desirable, and successful. 

Adolescent girls who regularly share self-images on social media report significantly higher overvaluation of their shapes and weight, body dissatisfaction, dietary restraint and also tend to internalize the “thin ideal” propagated by the media.

While airbrushing and photo-shopping is very regular in the media and advertising agencies, it  has been directly linked to lower self-esteem levels in the general population and people these images are targeted towards. Models, such as Chrissy Tiegen, have openly spoken about how their images have been edited without consent and showing great dissatisfaction about the lies that the media tends to propagate about women’s bodies. 

However, despite over two-thirds of women thinking that it is wrong for magazines to edit photos of models, over half of them admit to regularly editing their own social media images to enhance their own appearances. 

Viewing images that are edited and look “beautiful” leads to lower body image and an overall body dissatisfaction in women. This is due to the fact that the ideal of beauty is becoming extremely difficult to reach for women. Most corporate companies are cashing out on this dissatisfaction, having celebrities promote bizarre products such appetite suppressing lollipops or untested vitamin products. These have been met with a great deal of backlash, but unfortunately, have also affected body image views in many people. 

Editing photographs, especially to make models look attractive and increase sales, is not only confined to the online world. Brands constantly use mirrors in trial rooms that distort the person’s bodies slightly, making them look thinner and hence, conventionally attractive. This mirror is called “The Skinny Mirror,” and while the company producing it claims that it provides individuals with an instant gratification of looking beautiful, most customers go back home only to find themselves looking “not right” in the mirrors at home. 

Further, the filters on Snapchat have had a disastrous effect on a person’s self-esteem. Snapchat uses a special lens called “distort” in which they provide users with a range of artificially intelligent filters that immediately distort photos, making skin appear smoother, lashes look longer, and even making the face structure appear more angular. 

Many plastic surgeons have reported that unlike previous times, where people would bring in photos of media celebrities, they are now bringing in their own, edited selfies, and asking for the changes to be made so they look like the photo. This phenomenon has been termed the “Snapchat Dysmorphia” and is becoming increasingly common especially among adolescents. 

But is editing images all bad? Think of makeup- humans have used cosmetics such as foundation creams and lipsticks for centuries. Recent beauty products, such as the FENTY line by Rihanna has been widely acclaimed for being inclusive. Many women have also reported feeling “empowered” through using makeup. Most people consider make-up an art, hence the term “make-up artist”. There has also been proof that application of make-up does positively influence a person’s cognitive performance, and enhance their positive mood. 

However, there is no data about the long term effects of wearing makeup, or how it might affect a person’s ideas about themselves. Further, when one applies makeup, they are consciously choosing to look different- and often seeing the whole process. With photomanipulation, especially Snapchat’s distort lens, the changes are instantaneous and difficult to notice instantly. 

Social networking websites, while not really at fault, have unknowingly propagated an unhealthy and toxic ideal of beauty, while also making sure that people make conscious and elaborate efforts to adhere to the ideals should they want to be accepted by a global community. 

Considering that the majority of users on most social networking websites are adolescents, at the prime of their puberty and experiencing a rollercoaster of changes in not only their physical looks, but also their self-image, self-acceptance, and sense of worth- having to deal with two identities that are strikingly different could lead to a multitude of issues. While there is no data about the long term effects of social media usage on individuals, it is important to provide people with the knowledge of good digital hygiene to avoid them from falling prey to issues with their self-worth, body image, and even an overall low self-esteem. 

Harshi Shetty