Staring into a face with overly puff lips, seductive fox eyes, and sharp cheekbones, the thought “I’m in a dream” glides around my head. For a minute, I let myself be indulged in this flawless virtual reality, where I look like the next top model. I don’t know whose face this is, but it takes one second to put it in my stories and make it mine. It’s the Instagram “dream” filter by alexandra__kisa.
Instagram first introduced AR filters in 2018. Later, in October of the same year, it allowed public users to create their own filters. Initially it was a thrilling experience to see myself in this augmented reality, where I became a mythical goddess with a flawless appearance. All of us would eagerly show off our virtually perfect face on social media and manifest the power of beauty we had at our fingertips.
It was fun until I realized that I no longer loved my unfiltered self. Looking close at myself in the mirror felt painful as the imperfections were too visible. My skin was no longer smooth and clean, my lips were no longer cherry red, and I did not look like a goddess. I looked like a human, and that was tough to accept.
“The underlying message of those filters is that you can never show your real self. It’s too scary, it’s too real. You have to show a manufactured identity that you’ve created and which can crumble at any minute. So, you seize hold of it as strongly as possible,” explains Liana Sahakyan, an Instagramer who advocates for body positivity.
Instagram filters, also known as masks, refer to digital masking. But, in recent years, they have become the social masks that most of us cannot take off. “When the world is masking their real appearance, you feel more vulnerable to expose your real face,” explains Liana.
Deep inside, Liana accepts her face the way it is. She loves all of her features, including her prominent Armenian nose, but she felt pressure from her family to change it.
There is a fine line between authentically wanting plastic surgery and being subconsciously forced to do it because of beauty standards. Aida Marukyan from the Women's Resources Center says that many people do not understand when they cross that line. “The question is whether doing plastic surgery is a conscious, well-thought decision, or not,” she notes.
Aida recalls how one student from the Center’s body positivity workshops confessed how Instagram filters made her more insecure about her natural appearance. But for Aida, the problem goes deeper.
“Of course the filters add to the overall problem, but there are different aspects that come into play. The influencer culture, the constant photoshopping and editing of the pictures, and beauty standards, in general, create an ideal image of the skin, face, and body, which most of the people don’t have in real life.”
But those standards become deeply rooted in our minds, making our filtered face seem more real than the unfiltered one, notes Laura Abrahamyan, an active Instagram user.
Laura recalls how irritated she used to get if someone posted an unfiltered picture of her on social media. There was an explicit dissonance between her imagined and real self, and any reminder of it would make her feel strange.
“I elongated my lashes, and I was also thinking about enlarging my lips a little bit. But I wouldn’t say that I was pressured by society, I just wanted to do it to feel at peace with myself,” she says.
Many Armenians have tried to reach their “imaginary face” through plastic interventions and other cosmetic procedures. Traditionally, the most demanded surgery was the nose operation. But while eagle noses were being avoided, fox eyes became more and more desired.
“ A 20-year-old girl with very tight skin came to me once and said she wanted her eyelids and brows lifted to get the so-called “fox eyes.” I refused to do it. If you do not have any issues, if your skin is not loose, why would you want to stretch it? What these young girls don’t understand is that trends come and go. But once you change your face, it stays with you forever. What is considered beautiful now will not be so in ten years,” notes Torgom Khachatryan, a plastic surgeon at Avanta Clinics in the Armenian capital Yerevan.
On average, his clients are between 20-30 years old. About one out of every four asks for a look from an Instagram-filtered picture, the doctor says.
“With digital technologies, you can try to get overly puffy lips. You might like it in a picture, but if you bring them to reality, it will never feel the same. Those lips are not only an ornament: you should talk, drink, eat and live with them, and that becomes a problem,” he says.
Ironically, though, if you push the border a little further, Instagram filters can turn into a means of self-expression.
Art student Tatev Azaryan mainly follows the 3D artists who use Instagram masks as another tool for creating their digital art. Their masks do not promote beauty standards but completely break the concept of beauty, creating a space where your face turns into a canvas and where you can endlessly experiment with your looks.
“Yes, I use Instagram filters, but I don’t really choose the beauty-related ones,” she says. “I love to go with more artistic and creative filters which make your face more abstract, turning it into an exhilarating experience.”
Aida, from the Women's Resources Center, noted that the new trend of using creative Instagram filters seems to be gaining popularity over the beauty filters.
“I think it is a fun and creative way to create intriguing characters out of your face, unless, of course, those characters imply violence,” she says. “Those filters certainly do not damage our body perception. I think they can even be considered an art form.”