I first learned about FaceTune in Los Angeles in 2016 at a convention called BeautyCon. It’s an event that brings together beauty influencers, an ever-expanding throng of people who have become celebrities by documenting their make-up tutorials for social media. I was probably one of the last people at the conference to discover the app, which claims to “tune” your face as though it were an old piano. You can use it to smooth wrinkles, whiten teeth, remove blemishes or digitally apply make-up.
A beauty editor I went with was taking photos of herself with immaculately made-up influencers and retouching them on her phone before sharing them on social media. “Should I add a red lip?” she asked me as she was editing. I peered at her phone as she used the app to apply red lipstick to her lipstick-free mouth. After a few adjustments, I couldn’t even tell that her now bright-red lips were digitally enhanced.
People have been retouching images since the dawn of photography. Having worked in magazines I was well aware of the tortuous digital enhancement many cover shots endure before they hit the newsstands. But I had no idea that my mobile phone offered similar tools. So the beauty editor demonstrated how she could add more make-up, change the shape of her face and even the size of her features with a few finger strokes.
I’ve always felt self-conscious about posting photos of myself to Instagram. I thought this was because I wanted to be the kind of Instagram user who didn’t seem like a narcissist (if such a person even exists). But it’s equally likely that I don’t post many photos because I don’t like the way I look, particularly when I compare myself with the other glamorous people on the site.
One day soon after BeautyCon, I had almost decided against posting a photo of myself when I remembered my friend’s digital lipstick and realised I could use FaceTune on my own picture. After all, fashion journalists are now expected to have a face-forward social media presence. So I downloaded the app, cleared up my freckles and whitened my teeth. Then I felt good enough about my appearance to post it. Once I saw how easy and satisfying it was to polish my image – and that most of my friends were already doing so – I downloaded more apps. I now have five on my phone solely dedicated to photo editing.
I’m not the only one. FaceTune launched in 2013 and counts 40m daily active users, a majority of them female. Since the success of the first iteration it has launched a new, more sophisticated version, FaceTune 2, which encourages users to pay a monthly subscription for special tools such as simulated studio lighting. Retouching photos has become so commonplace that FaceTune isn’t just an app to millennials – it’s a verb. Other popular retouching apps include Kim Kardashian’s favourite, Perfect365, which like FaceTune is for brushing up selfies, and VSCO and Snapseed for photos of all kinds. The technology extends beyond apps too. The latest iPhone’s portrait mode automatically modifies images of people by blurring out the background.
Millennials aren’t shy to admit that they retouch their photos. Beauty influencer Marianna Hewitt, who has 800,000 Instagram followers, her own line of face masks and endorsement deals with brands such as Armani, recently shared a YouTube video about how she alters her photos using mobile-phone apps. So has the first male face of make-up brand Maybelline, Manny Gutierrez, who has 4.8m Instagram followers. One of fashion’s biggest influencers, BryanBoy, who was one of the first bloggers to be given a coveted front-row seat at a big fashion show and now endorses labels such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci, says he modifies almost all his photos: “I don’t believe in this ‘no filter’ nonsense.”
For my generation, editing your own image has become as routine as using social media. We grew up with airbrushing and Photoshop and saw the exposés of flawless magazine cover stars who weren’t flawless at all. Instead of rejecting the falsehoods we’ve made it part of our daily lives, crafting idealised digital versions of ourselves that feel like an essential corollary to real life. Technology has set a new standard for beauty that quite literally doesn’t exist in real life. Rather than reject that, we’ve embraced it.
Mobile apps mirror the type of editing that professional retouchers routinely employ. FaceTune says its most frequently used tools are teeth whitening, skin smoothing and reshaping the face or facial features, such as slimming a jawline or nose. On Perfect365, make-up application tools, especially for the eyes, have long been most in demand.
Even the most deft users of the apps don’t go to anywhere near the extremes that professionals do for adverts or magazine covers. Lena Abujbara, a professional retoucher who has worked with brands such as Nike and Sephora, says she can easily spot amateur retouching. She notices instantly when people use the “liquefy” tool to morph certain parts of their body or face. “They think they can just push [away] the bump of their nose,” she says. When she edits a nose, she takes the nose out of the image entirely: “We’re clipping the nose out of the face and reshaping it and putting it back on.”
A magazine cover is sometimes a compilation of images rather than a single edited one (“an eight-hour edit, minimum”). It may include a woman’s eye from one photo and her arm from another. Abujbara says one model’s hair for a beauty ad may use parts of 15 different images. Even inanimate objects such as cereal bowls are retouched in this way. “No one knows that bowl is three different images,” says Abujbara. “It doesn’t actually exist.” She recently spent a month editing a mug for a hot-chocolate ad after the brand didn’t like the one that was photographed: she digitally illustrated a different mug using the bones of the original, then added hot chocolate, placed chunks of chocolate next to it and affixed the necessary shadows.
When retouching her subjects, Abujbara says she tries to make them look unblemished yet natural. Their clothing should be wrinkled just so. Their skin should retain the appearance of having pores, rather than look completely flat. Eyes are often made to look bigger by extending their outer corners.
The artificial beauty of retouched images has become so coveted that, in a case of life imitating art, there are celebrities who now have plastic surgery that mimics these photo-editing tropes. Some ask for procedures that make their eyes look bigger and wider. Botox injections in the forehead, for example, can mimic a cat-eye look. What celebs do eventually trickles down to everyone else: the American Society of Plastic Surgeons has recorded a rise in people using lip injections to plump up their lips since reality star Kylie Jenner became famous for doing so.
Often these procedures merely necessitate more digital manipulation. Lip injections, for instance, can create the appearance of a moustache-like shadow when the upper lip is so full it flips upward toward the nose, and this, in turn, has to be amended. That doesn’t mean that these procedures are going wrong – simply that trying to attain a retouched look creates a vicious cycle, as the artifice becomes ever more artificial.
An anonymously run Instagram account @CelebFace documents the modifications celebrities make to their own images by finding the original version and juxtaposing it with the retouched image the celeb has put on their own feed. @CelebFace has spotted that Victoria’s Secret models routinely take in their waists, enlarge their eyes, make their hair fuller and smooth thigh bulges – supposed flaws that most of us would never have noticed. The account called out supermodel Bella Hadid for refining an already heavily edited May 2018 cover of Japanese Vogue. When Hadid blocked the account, @CelebFace posted a retort: “Hi Bella! [mouth emoji]” it read. “You were chosen for the cover of Vogue (this is every girl’s dream), but you are using Photoshop again.”
And so the bar for perfection rises ever higher, even for the world’s most beautiful. One model who has millions of followers says she edits her photos as a form of self-preservation. Posting a photo of herself with a blemish would provoke a deluge of “awful comments”, she says. She concedes that in an ideal world she would feel able to disclose every alteration made to photos like hers, but for many women it would only open them up to even more criticism for not accepting themselves as they are. It’s why she didn’t want to be named in this story and thinks accounts like @CelebFace are “fucking bullshit”. “Demonising people for their choices is not productive,” she says: “I don’t think it’s up to another person to decide what makes people feel empowered.”
Unsurprisingly, a large body of research shows that viewing idealised or retouched images adds to the dissatisfaction that many people already feel towards their body. Research by Kristen Harrison, a media psychologist at the University of Michigan, shows that even disclosing that celebrity and advertising images are retouched makes many of us feel worse about ourselves. Becoming more aware of what others edit may heighten our awareness of our own supposed flaws. That may encourage us to spend longer using digital tools to repair them. And once you start it’s hard to stop. I felt better about posting my first FaceTuned photo than I would have if I hadn’t edited it. And since we’re more inclined to post images of ourselves that we like, says Harrison, “it’s self-sustaining because you want to do it again and again and again.” Beauty is attainable for all. Just don’t expect it to be more than a pixel deep.