Selfie filters and the war on our self-esteem

July 17, 2018

I was mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed when I came across a photo of an acquaintance that was unrecognizable.  Her face was so airbrushed, had so much of that glowing hue that we’ve all come to recognize as a selfie filter, that she literally looked like she had no nose.

That’s right. Noseless.  In place of her nose were two small, shadowy circles I suspect were nostrils before Instagram got a hold of her.

This certainly wasn’t my first run-in with an over-filtered selfie.  But seeing my newly-noseless Facebook friend got me thinking… what are these filters doing to our self-esteem?  Why are we using them?  Do they really make us feel better about ourselves, or are they actually wreaking more havoc on our self-esteem?

What are we hiding?

And here’s a rhetorical no-brainer for you, my mid-thirties and older friends – what are we hiding with these filters?

Wrinkles. Acne. Scars… mostly… age.

Age. I think we’re mostly trying to hide our age.  We’re trying to fake everyone out into believing we’re flawless or that we still look 21.  And photo filters are just one of the most recent tactics in a long history of strategies offered up to women (for purchase, of course) to make us look younger or prettier, according to societal standards.

I am FED UP!

Ladies, I’m fed up.  I’m sick up the war against our self-esteem.  I’m sick of it all.  Selfie filters.  Fake tans.  Plastic surgery.  Botox, fillers, anti-wrinkle creams, fad diets, fashion magazines.  I’m sick of women being told they aren’t enough (pretty enough, thin enough, young enough, successful enough, smart enough, sexy enough).  We’re all targets of marketers aiming to make a buck off of our insecurities.  Since the government loves to regulate everything, how about they start monitoring the war that commercialism is waging on our sense of self-worth?

To be clear, I’m not some granola-munching, bra-burner who’s never bought into any of society’s beauty-brainwashing.  And I certainly am far from free of it.  Here are just a few of the things I’ve done in the past to “look good”:

  1. Starvation diets, saunas, 3-hour cardio sessions at the gym
  2. Getting up at 3 in the morning, feeling fat, and going for a run. This turned into a 3am ritual for months when I was in college.  I weighed about 115 pounds but liked running in the dark because I felt too fat to be seen running during the daytime (do you see how freaking insane this is?!?!!)
  3. Spray tans, weekly.  This was only after several years of staining sheets and clothes with self-tanner and looking like a streaky mess from an application strategy I never mastered.  I felt like tans made me look sexier, thinner, healthier.
  4. Tanning beds – fortunately, this was only in my late teens…  I just had a melanoma removed from my arm at the age of 35 to show for it.
  5.  DIETS, DIETS, DIETS.  Did I mention, DIETS??????????????????????? Atkins, SouthBeach, Zone, Keto… name it! I’ve done it!
  6. Diet pills! I started taking dexatrim when I was 16.  Sixteen, y’all.  In college, I graduated to ephedra-based diet pills that gave me palpitations.  But hey – skinny.  Once, I even called 911 after taking Xenadrine EFX (you guys remember that stuff?) because I was convinced I was having a heart attack.
  7. Laxatives – this strategy was especially heinous. No details needed.
  8.  Botox, retin-a
  9.  And of course, strategically cropping and filtering perfectly angled pictures to try to make myself look as good as possible.

Here comes the Botox

A few years ago, I finally got away from much of the body obsession (it’s still there to a degree) and began to view my body more as a tool for experiencing life, something I wanted to appreciate and take care of instead of incessantly punishing it through deprivation or over-training.  This was a big deal for me… but guess what?  Right as I stopped obsessing over my weight or leanness…. I started noticing the first signs of aging on my face.

So then I started obsessing over looking old, which really just meant anything older than 21.  Like, looking <gasp!> my age.

I journeyed down the road of “facial tune-ups” for the first time about three years ago.  I went to my dermatologist for an annual skin cancer screening and saw a sign on the wall advertising a special on Dysport (an injectable similar to Botox).  I had just started to notice lines developing on my face – particularly around my eyes and my forehead.  So I asked about Dysport… and left the office that day with my first dose.

I loved the results.  My little crows feet disappeared.  My forehead became perfectly line-free.  I couldn’t furrow my brow if I tried.  Three months later, the stuff had completely worn off and suddenly, I couldn’t stand how I looked without it.  So I went back and got more.  Last winter, I was in Arizona and it had been about 7 or 8 months since my last dose of Dysport.  I was traveling, camping, working on freeing myself from obsessing over silly things like smile lines.  I was doing pretty good until I met up with a friend and we took a selfie together (unfiltered).  She put it on Facebook and tagged me and I was… well, horrified.

I thought I looked so old. Haggard. Wrinkled. Awful.  Here’s the pic:

It’s a bad pic. Bad lighting. Dry skin from the desert.  But I didn’t consider any of that.  I literally called the next day and made an appointment to get more Dysport.  And within a couple of weeks, voila:

Really, probably most of the difference you see here is from a little moisturizer, mascara, blush, and lip stain.  But I felt better about myself… and that’s the crux of the problem I’m trying to dig into here.  I had to inject my face with shit to feel good about myself.

Also, for giggles, here’s a picture from about two weeks after the above picture, to show what happens when you go a little overboard with your dose of Botox or Dysport:

This was in New Orleans and I was definitely hungover (Dysport doesn’t cause bloodshot eyes), but check out the droop in my right eyelid.

I haven’t had a “tune-up” again in several months now, and my wrinkles are back.  I’ve spent some time thinking about this.  I’ve avoided taking pictures of myself (I’m not much of a selfie person to begin with), but maybe part of my reticence is because I think I look older now.  I don’t want to use selfie filters that make me look unrecognizable.  I really don’t want to keep feeling this impulse to have Dysport injected into my face to help me look younger.  And here’s the real quandary…

The quandary of aging

I like my age.  I truly do.  You couldn’t pay me to go back to my teens or 20s. I’m in a sweet-ass spot in life, cozying up to my identity as a woman, a professional, a human being.  People in their mid-thirties get wrinkles.  It’s a part of the process.  So how can I be so loving and accepting of being 35… yet detest the my smile lines?  It’s kind of ridiculous.

We don’t want to age, but aging is inevitable. In fact, the only way we can truly avoid aging is to die. If you stop aging, it’s because you’re dead.  Following that line of thought then, aging is actually an indication of life.  It’s a sign we’re alive.  If we’re aging, it’s because we’ve not yet kicked the damn bucket and have been blessed with another glorious trip around the sun.  Aging = life.  Wrinkles = living.

When I think of it that way, it feels really goofy and shallow for me to have gotten so cranky about some crows feet.  I’m 35. I have some wrinkles.  Universe willing, I’ll live to have many, many more.  I can adopt a habit of using selfie filters… I can go back to the dermatologist for another round of botulism-to-the-face… I can kick and scream and fight aging with all the alpha-hydroxy and Retin-a I can afford.  Or, I suppose, I can welcome a normal, healthy, and graceful aging process and recognize it not as the loss of beauty, but as the acquisition of experience, life, and wisdom.

Back to the selfie filters

None of us would feel the need to filter any pictures of ourselves, or take repeated shots to get just the right angle and lighting to camouflage the things we’re most self-critical about if we really felt great about ourselves, at the core.  That’s all we really have, anyways.  None of us are getting any younger.  I was chatting with my friend Bethany last week about this and I asked her how she felt when she looked back at pictures of herself when she was younger.  Bethany is my age, and I wanted to know if she had the same reaction that I’ve found myself having when I look back at old pictures (that is, “wow, I looked so good,” followed by “damn, I look like shit now”).  She made a fabulous point: all we have is now.  Of course, when we look back on pictures of ourselves as teens, we will naturally think about how much younger we looked then.  We were younger!  And 20 years from now, I’m going to look back on these pictures of myself at 35 (these pics that make me cringe now) and think, “wow, I looked so good.”

So instead of chasing some elusive youth potion, or living in the past, or trying to look an age we aren’t, or beating up on ourselves because the reflection in the mirror is not as glamorous as the image an Instagram filter portrays… maybe we can all just take a breath and try appreciating ourselves as we are, in this moment. Now.

I think that’s what I’m trying to get at.  That’s what I am aiming to do.  I don’t want the fading of my youth to be this internal battle, but a beautiful leap into the next chapter.  I don’t want to chastise myself as I age, but to appreciate the life I’ve been blessed with.  I don’t want to look at pictures of myself from the summit of a mountain I just biked to the top of and cringe at my imperfections, but be thankful that I had the opportunity and the physical strength to accomplish that feat.

This is a process, and I’m a work in progress.  But I see this as an opportunity to grow and become more accepting of myself.  I think this is a conversation we need to have, as women.  A line needs to be drawn in the sand.  We have to decide we’ve had enough of our own self-criticism and step out as bold, confident ladies who respect ourselves and appreciate the lives we’ve been given… as women who are grounded enough to not buy into the social messages that tell us we’re anything other than exceptional.  As wives, mothers, sisters, daughters… who don’t have to filter our selfies, pile on makeup, or consult with plastic surgeons to feel like worthwhile human beings.  At the end of the day, none of that – none of that – really matters.

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