At first glance, an article in the journal JAMA Plastic Surgery on “Snapchat dysmorphia” seemed to lend legitimacy to the contested condition, where selfie cameras and filtered photos purportedly cause people to obsess over their appearance and even pursue plastic surgery to alter it.
On closer inspection, however, the article was hardly deserving of the attention it received in the press. Published in the journal’s “viewpoint” or opinion section, it omitted any observational or experimental data. Instead, the piece relied primarily on the firsthand experience of its three physician authors—and fuzzy notions of cause and effect.
Snapchat, the popular photo-sharing app, was first conceived in 2011 as a way to send self-destructing images. As the platform evolved, developers rolled out cutting-edge augmented reality tools that allowed users to alter their own faces with the press of a button. Roughly 188 million Snapchat users, many of them teens, turn themselves into floppy-eared puppy dogs and flower-crowned waifs every day.
Concern about the dark side of these technicolor features is as old as the filters themselves, and some survey data suggests there is reason to be concerned. The American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery’s annual survey, for example, concluded that 55 percent of plastic surgeons saw at least one patient in 2016 whose stated goal was to look better in selfies, up from 42 percent in 2015.
But this desire doesn’t appear to correlate with an uptick in the number of people pursuing plastic surgery over all. Rather, looking good in selfies seems to be replacing old priorities. “Prior to the popularity of selfies, the most common complaint… was the hump of the dorsum of the nose,” the JAMA Plastic Surgery paper reports. “Today, nasal and facial asymmetry is the more common presenting concern.” Similarly, the authors write, whereas people used to bring in photos of celebrities ripped from the pages of magazines, today they bring in filtered photos of themselves.
What’s more, the proponents of “Snapchat dysmorphia” appear to be mistaking the chicken for the egg. On a recent romp through the app, I tried on filters that smoothed and lightened my skin, shrunk my head, and widened and brightened my eyes. In other words, I tried on filters that made me look like I’d recently returned from a South Korean medical vacation. There, in the cosmetic surgery capital of the world, epicanthic fold removal has been popular since the 1950s. Doctors have been perfecting procedures to give patients the smaller faces they desired, mostly by sanding down cheekbones and breaking and reshaping jaws, since the 1990s. And, as in so many other countries, rates of skin bleaching—both in the clinic and over-the-counter—continue to rise.
Snapchat has almost certainly provided users an easy way to envision alternative (and theoretically improved) versions of themselves. It may have even aided in the exportation of South Korean aesthetics to the American masses. But contrary to the opinion stated by the authors of the JAMA Plastic Surgery article, apps like Snapchat didn’t invent these values, and they’re hardly alone in perpetuating them. To reduce such complex phenomena to something as manageable as the selfie is to see the world through the oldest filter: rose-colored glasses.