We Need To Talk About Snapchat Dysmorphia
Social media is having a major impact on appearance anxiety and leading to an uptick in plastic surgery. Psychologist Jamie Chiu explains how pernicious this modern phenomenon really is
Social media has changed the way we live, work, date and socialise—that much we know. But it has also radically transformed the relationship we have with the mirror, shaping our concepts of beauty and highlighting our flaws as we attempt to attain Instagram-approved heights of physical perfection.
Young people have always been more susceptible than most to appearance anxiety. Teenagers in particular have to come to grips with their new role as sexual creatures as their bodies and faces transform in front of their eyes. But whereas in the past, largely unobtainable beauty standards were shown through magazines or films, today teenagers are being bombarded with images of perfection on a constant basis on their phones.
“I work predominantly with teenagers as a therapist, and there is definitely a narrowing of what it means to be beautiful, not just for girls but also for boys,” says Jamie Chiu, a Gen.T honouree and psychotherapist in Hong Kong, who is also the co-founder of The Brightly Project, which harnesses the power of technology to help troubled teens and prevent bullying and suicide.
“In the past, teenagers would read magazines or see billboards covered with these thin, beautiful women— or muscular men—but it always felt distant," she continues. "But the problem with social media is that you feel like you are getting to know the influencers on your phone, all of whom seem far more ‘authentic’ than a far-away celebrity. This makes users feel inferior for not being as slim or as tanned as these girls and guys they follow online.”
As a result of social media’s infiltration into every aspect of our lives, the average age of plastic surgery users has dropped. A recent study conducted in London showed that in the last two years there has been a three year drop in the average age of those seeking facial surgery. The average age is now 37 for women and 43 for men. And according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 66,347 cosmetic surgical procedures were performed on people between the ages of 13 and 19 in 2016, a nearly 3 percent increase from 2015.
“I’m not surprised by this,” says Chiu. “My clients often talk about plastic surgery. When I was a teenager I had an eating disorder and I would go on Tumblr and look at photos to motivate myself to not eat. And it’s a lot more visible now and everywhere. On YouTube, bloggers are showing what they’ve had done to their face, and the more people talk about it, the more normal it becomes. I often hear about teenage girls discussing exactly what they want to get done when they turn 18.”
It is well documented that teenagers in parts of Asia are drowning in unrealistic beauty standards that call for them to spend two hours each morning applying makeup, and another hour before bed on 10-step skincare routines. For ‘problems’ that products can’t solve, sleek plastic surgery clinics sit on most street corners in Seoul, Taipei and Bangkok, promising women the face and body of a teenage television star.
Double eyelid surgery has become so ubiquitous that girls receive it as an 18th birthday present, and as a result, a third of all South Korean women have gone under the knife. Last year, K-pop girl group Six Bomb released a single called, ‘Becoming Prettier’, an uninhibited celebration of plastic surgery, specifically the US$90,000 makeover the band members underwent.
Globally, Instagram has more than 393 million #selfie posts. With 18-34-year-olds accounting for 61 percent of Instagram’s users and 18-24 year-olds making up 77 percent Snapchat users, it is no surprise that young people are most susceptible to the damaging effects selfie culture has on self-perception.
The impact of selfie culture is only heightened by the use of filtered images. The term ‘Snapchat dysmorphia’ gained traction when a report published by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery explained that over half of all facial plastic surgeons have patients who have requested cosmetic procedures to look better on social media—an increase of 13 percent from the year before—with many of them asking to look like their Snapchat filter (which Disney-fies the face, making eyes bigger, lips fuller and jaws narrower).
“I think it’s causing real problems,” says Chiu. “Filters in particular are leading to a dangerous trend where people feel insecure about not being as beautiful as their own filtered selves. I have a client who tells me all the photos she saves are edited and filtered so she can get rid of blemishes and make herself look longer and leaner. Then she scrolls through these photos and thinks how much better she looked last month than now—even though in reality, she never looked like that, her brain just got tricked.”
Hating yourself for being inferior to the filtered version of you that never actually existed is a very damaging narrative to live with. Even more so is the fact so many resort to plastic surgery to fix the gap between what they see on screen and what they see in the mirror. So what is the solution in situations such as these?
“When I‘m faced with a teenager who wants plastic surgery, I try to tease out what their motivation is, in the same way as if you’re shopping for an outfit, you need to ask what exactly you’re buying it for,” says Chui. “It’s important to know if it’s truly for yourself or if you are doing it because you feel you aren’t good enough. I don’t want to pass judgement on plastic surgery, in my opinion, it’s neither good nor bad—it’s the motivation that needs to be analysed. If you’re doing it because you don’t like yourself, then one operation won’t change anything.”
Ultimately, as social media’s role in society continues to increase, so does our willingness to change our real lives to benefit our virtual ones. As adults, we generally know that our unfiltered, imperfect IRL selves are much more interesting than any doe-eyed Snapchat filter—but teaching that to teenagers who have grown up online is far more difficult. Although, as any fairy tale will tell you, allowing too much fantasy to seep into real life is rarely a good move.