Body image researcher and clinician Roberta Honigman describes the new selfie-centric marketplace, its distortion of reality and its effect on cosmetic surgery.
Appearance, presentation and popularity have been promoted as the core 
to identity, self-esteem and self-worth. Glossy fashion magazines filled with airbrushed unrealistic representations of both women and men have constantly bombarded us, changing the goal posts on what is considered beauty and style.

In many instances, these magazines and the advertising dollars behind them have been held responsible for the increasing incidence of body image concern, eating disorders and the growing demand for cosmetic procedures, especially in the young.

But over the past couple of years, we have entered a new era where technological advancement and
the rise of social media have been added to the mix. Social media, the relatively new kid on the block, has amplified and accelerated the trend of visual awareness and has possibly given the world its newest social disruptor – the selfie.

Yes, the simple photo you take
 of yourself using the high resolution camera on your smartphone has created an accidental revolution to such a degree that the term ‘selfie’ became the Oxford dictionary word of the year in 2013. Let’s face it – it seems harmless enough. You take a picture with your phone and share it with close friends, family and sometimes unwittingly the rest of the world on social networking sites such as Instagram and Snapchat and then eagerly sit back for 10 seconds and wait for comments.

Selfie-taking and posting is now one of the most popular activities, especially for young females aged between 16 and 25 years who spend on average 48 minutes a day (up to 5.5 hours a week) taking and uploading selfies. It has been estimated that at least 16 images are taken before one photo is posted, while some young women had an average of 150 selfies stored on their phones and laptops.

New technological options added to phones have launched selfie-taking and posting into a different stratosphere. Filters and photo editing apps such as Facetune, Line Camera and Photoshop enable users to edit their own photos, actually morphing and distorting their real bodies to make themselves appear better looking, and often managing to achieve a level of physical “perfection” previously seen only in airbrushed photos in celebrity or beauty magazines. Facetune can smooth out skin colour, make teeth look whiter and eyes and lips bigger, make faces look thinner, more symmetrical and blemish-free.

A new normal

Not only are people comparing themselves to perfected images of models and celebrities and even friends, but there is now a daily comparison of the real self to an intentional or unintentional fake self posted on social media. How can anyone win, especially adolescents who may be grappling with their identity and body image issues?

We are fast approaching a new normal, where there is a danger
of losing touch with our real appearance and are surprised when we look in the mirror. This constant focus, forced attention to detail and public scrutiny has the potential to fuel excessive pre-occupation with appearance, and it is no surprise that users have become much more analytical of their faces, nding aws they hadn’t previously seen, and become highly anxious.

There is now a daily comparison of The real self To an intentional or unintentional fake self posted on social media.

Doctors, surgeons and mental health professionals are pointing to the ‘selfie-led’ social media culture as a driving force of aesthetic surgery among young people while also heavily influencing plastic surgery trends and cosmetic treatments. International media reports note the rise in the number of cosmetic procedures requested, especially amongst those in the early 20s age group, but also the kinds of facial surgery being requested has also changed. Nose jobs were the most common request, but now,
the authors say, procedures that will have effects similar to selfie filters, such as nasal and facial symmetry, hair transplants and eyelid surgical procedures are in favour.

Where in the past patients used to bring in photos of actors and celebrities, they now bring in selfies with heavily filtered versions of themselves in order to point out what they don’t like about their appearance. But what sort of 
image are they actually capturing in these photos? By its very design, the fisheye lens on a camera
phone distorts appearance as it is designed to get a panoramic view, often of scenery, for example, in travel photos or of groups of people together. A selfie taken with that particular camera lens will distort appearance, (exaggerating a chin 
if we’re looking down or widening our nose if we’re too close to the camera), creating an illusion that wouldn’t necessarily be noticed—or even exist—in real life. The danger is that patients build their beliefs 
in a need for cosmetic change on these App-altered appearances 
and are rarely dissuaded from their goal even if it is pointed out how the fisheye lens on the camera phone distorts appearance.

In the old, pre-smartphone days, people with body image issues might typically slip away from class or work to check their appearance in the bathroom mirror. Now a lot of patients are replacing some of that behaviour with repeatedly taking selfies, sometimes for hours on end throughout the day, to check their appearance at different angles and in different lighting. It’s starting to shape their expectations of what ‘normal’ should now look like.

Snapchat Dysmorphia

The term ‘snapchat dysmorphia’ was coined to describe people who bring their own heavily doctored
or filtered selfies to surgeons, requesting to look more like their photos. They have been known to trawl through endless selfies on their phones, trying to nd how they liked the way their lips or cheeks looked on a particular day in certain lighting.

The danger here is that these behaviours are becoming more integrated into the rituals of people suffering Body Dysmorphic Disorder, and the blurring of fantasy and reality could trigger unrealistic requests for cosmetic procedures. Selfie dysmorphia is described as

a category of this condition but involves people becoming obsessed with how they look in selfies and wanting to look like a filtered version of themselves.

BDD is a serious psychiatric condition on the OCD spectrum, defined as imagined ugliness where the sufferer sees an imagined
or very slight defect in physical appearance which causes them significant distress. Sufferers believe they are truly hideous while to others they seem ne, even quite attractive, and have no idea why the sufferer has such an extreme reaction.

For people with BDD their concerns are real, severe and very distressing and it impacts on their ability to function on a daily basis. They believe that if they can see a defect, it must be there. They can’t be convinced otherwise or talked out of their beliefs and continually seek reassurance especially from family members, creating stress and anxiety.

We are fast approaching a new normal, where there is a danger of losing touch with our real appearance and are surprised when we look in the mirror.

With the degree of self-reflection and self-examination that comes with selfies and social media, it is no longer just the mirror we have to deal with. There is a new,
more pernicious twist where the lines of fantasy and reality are being blurred and the perception of appearance altered to the degree that there is potential to lose sight of actual appearance, creating anxiety about what is truly normal. AMP

Instagram Stats

  • Instagram is the second-most downloaded free App in the Apple store
  • It is expected Instagram will account for 30% of Facebook’s ad revenue in 2020
  • Used by 25% of Smartphone users
  • More than 40 billion photos have been shared (79.1% of posts are photos)
  • Approximately 100 million photos are uploaded every 24 hours
  • The ‘like’ button is hit 4.2 billion times a day
  • On Instagram, 52% of users are female and 48% are men
  • There are 9.5 million Instagram users in Australia
  • 3.1 million Australian users are aged between 25 and 34
  • Majority of Australian users are female – 57.1%
  • 62% of users log into their account every day
  • 42% of users check their account multiple times each day
  • The average Instagram user will spend 28 minutes on the App
  • Nearly two-thirds of users are aged between 18 – 29