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What is 'selfie dysmorphia' and why are people talking about it again?

Are Instagram filters starting to blur our perception of reality?

shutterstock_707505565 Source: Shutterstock/VectorKnight

MANY CHILDREN TODAY have been living with the internet since day one. 

We’ve all seen videos of babies giggling uncontrollably at the sight of themselves under a Snapchat or Instagram filter, and while it’s cute, I can’t help but think about how freaked out that baby is going to be when they grow up a little bit and realise that they do not, in fact, have a pair of dog’s ears and a huge tongue that falls out of their mouth every time they laugh. What would Lacan have to say about the mirror stage in 2019? 

Since the dawn of social media, people have been using filters to look “better” in photographs. They weren’t always as convincing as they are today, but by God, did those preset Blingee filters help a lot of us out back in 2007. Or so we believed. 

It turns out that our fondness for filters might be doing us more bad than good. Back in August 2018, plastic surgeons began to raise some concerns they had about ‘selfie dysmorphia’ – a phrase coined by Dr Tijion Esho, founder of the Esho clinics in London and Newcastle.

Surgeons began to notice that people considering plastic surgery were no longer bringing in photographs of celebrities with the perfect nose, jawline, or lips. Instead, they were bringing in photographs of themselves with certain Snapchat and Instagram filters applied, and telling doctors, “I want to look like this.” 

It might be the fact that we can now make filtered videos of ourselves and see ourselves in motion with filters applied that people believe that there’s a realistic chance that they might be able to recreate how they look with a filter slapped on when they’re feeling themselves. Because these are essentially just distorted photographs and not actually anatomically accurate images of human beings (who may or may not have had work done already), well, it’s impossible to recreate them.  It’s just not possible to look like something that is not real.

US Medical Journal JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery suggested that filtered images are beginning to “blur the line of reality and fantasy” for some individuals, to the point where it is even triggering body dysmorphic disorder for some people.

shutterstock_736998280 Source: Shutterstock/Dean Drobot

If you’re not familiar with the symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder, or what people who suffer with this condition experience, it’s a mental disorder in which you can’t stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance (often, a flaw that is completely unnoticeable or minor to others).

People with BDD obsess over their appearance and engage in repetitive behaviours like repeatedly checking how they look in mirrors and asking for reassurance. They sometimes avoid social situations, and go out of their way to hide their perceived flaw with clothes, makeup or cosmetic surgery. The way that they see themselves has a very negative impact on their quality of life, and coincide with (or cause) numerous other mental illnesses. 

Suddenly, the idea of babies using cute filters and laughing in disbelief of their appearance isn’t so funny anymore. It’s hard enough struggling with your appearance in front of a physical mirror (or the precisely lit changing room mirrors that many clothes shops seem to install to purposely make you feel a certain way about your appearance), but now there are more people than ever growing up looking at themselves through a completely unrealistic lens. 

Of course there’s nothing wrong with taking a load of photos of yourself. It’s not vain, it’s not vapid and it’s not any kind of indication of what type of person you are. Most of the time, it’s a really harmless way to keep yourself entertained.

The fact that a lot of us enjoy documenting our lives, our outfits, days when we feel confident, etc. and keeping record of these things isn’t evidence that our generation is doomed, as plenty of older people were eager to lead you to believe when front cameras became a thing. How many old boxes of photographs do your parents have knocking around the house? There’d probably be a lot more photos in that collection if they hadn’t face the obstacle of having to go out of their way to pay for film, too.

As with basically every other good thing we can enjoy on this planet, we have to be mindful to do so in moderation. Sometimes you’ll know when enough is enough. Sometimes you need to consciously make the decision to stop as soon as it stops making you feel good. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to people with BDD, because it’s not that simple. 

shutterstock_1274811565 Source: Shutterstock/Ridha Adelia

The reason that this conversation has made it back into the newspapers again this week, is because UK pharmacy Superdrug made an announcement last year that they’d begin to offer dermal fillers and botox in their flagship London store, with prices starting at around €115. Before the service was even introduced, Superdrug made it clear that the treatments were only available to clients over the age of 25 and that every customer needed to attend an hour-long consultation and take a mandatory mental health assessment.

The NHS were, with good reason, concerned about this. So, Medical Director of NHS England, Professor Stephen Powis, decided to get in contact with Superdrug to point out that offering these services to any person over a certain age who can afford to pay for it can be irresponsible under some circumstances, particularly because “pressures on young people’s mental health are greater than they ever have been”. The NHS did not believe that the questions were “rigorous enough” as they did not put enough focus on the symptoms of BDD.

So, Superdrug announced that they were going to introduce a new assessment, which will ask questions about anxiety levels, “particularly in relation to the way they look and how much they want to change their appearance”. 

If you or a friend have any concerns about body dysmorphic disorder, you can access resources on BodyWhys.ie, email alex@bodywhys.ie or call their helpline on 1890 200 444.

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About the author:

Kelly Earley

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