Influencers: Instagram’s bread and butter and apparently the most sought-after career for tweens, second only to becoming a doctor.
These social media moguls who rose to fame by virtue of being pretty and photogenic make most of their millions by posting sponsored content. Their talent? They can sell anything they claim to use, purely because young girls will grasp at any opportunity to become one of these women who seem to have it all.
I used to be one of those girls. I was about 14 years old when I created my first Instagram account. It was also the same age that I first started showing signs of an eating disorder. I no longer needed to flick through a magazine to be sold the unrealistic standards of beauty touted by celebrities and models because I was exposed to it every time I scrolled through my Instagram feed. Perfect bodies, flawless skin, enviable lifestyles, all flaunted by women who appeared to be just like me, making me feel all the more worthless.
If only someone told me back then that it was all one big illusion.
“95% of influencers do it,” estimates Regina Quintero, the admin of the account @fakegirlsfvckya that now has over 75,000 followers after calling out big names from Kim Kardashian to influencer royalty Tammy Hembrow. “I just wanted to show reality. Perfection does not exist.”
From digitally-smoothed skin to pinched-in waists and painted-on abs, what is the impact of this constant exposure to doctored images, especially on young girls? How does having easy access to high-tech airbrushing software affect our own self-perception? Do accounts like Quintero’s do more harm than good when calling out influencers? I chatted with Quintero and Jasmine Fardouly, a psychology researcher specialising in social media and body image to figure it all out.
The FaceTune Fib
“Professional photographers and graphic designers constantly photoshop models to perfection, and now so can you!” – this is the tagline you’ll find in FaceTune’s description on the app store. For $5.99, anyone from high-profile celebrities to schoolkids can airbrush their photos to perfection with a few swipes and pinches.
The app has become a staple for influencers, whose brand is to look perfect 24/7. “It’s deceptive advertising,” says Quintero. “They earn money because they cheat everyone.” They don’t always get it right though, and this is where accounts like Quintero come in. A photo where she points out the shoddy FaceTune job to influencer Abigail Ratchford’s inner thigh has nearly 2000 likes.
Although Ratchford didn’t respond, many influencers have kicked up a fuss over Quintero’s detective work. “I had a problem with an influencer – I can’t say her name,” she says. “She literally did everything she could to try to delete my account. Apparently, she calmed down because I don’t talk about her anymore.”
But the issue with FaceTune goes beyond editing fails and false advertising.
A 2017 study found that Instagram usage was directly associated with greater self-objectification and body image concerns among young women, especially when they internalised beauty ideals purported by “fitspiration” pages.
“People will often post images of themselves [using] filters which allow you to enhance your appearance,” says Fardouly. “This may lead to people presenting an unrealistic version of themselves on social media, which can then lead to body dissatisfaction if people compare their own appearance to the person in the image and judge themselves to be less attractive”.
Issues with body image are a huge problem in Australia, with 1 million people suffering from an eating disorder at any given time. But Fardouly suggests that influencers are themselves victims to the unrealistic beauty ideals they perpetuate. “It’s a cycle,” she says. “People who aren’t happy with or who focus more on their appearance are more likely to edit their images”.
Quintero worries about the impact long-term use of FaceTune might have on someone’s psyche. “Once someone starts using [FaceTune], they can’t stop,” she says. “People can go into depression, look in the mirror and see a totally different person from their photos. [It] must be very painful for someone obsessed with perfection.”
When discussing the app in a Guardian article, creator and Lightricks CEO Zeev Farbman seemed surprised at how it had evolved. “We did not create FaceTune for body manipulations, but I’m not sure it’s our place to decide how people use the app,” he said. Since 2013, 50 million people have downloaded the app, with women aged between 21-34 making up 70% of its users.
Changing the rules: call-outs vs. disclaimers
From Instagram accounts, to Reddit threads, to Youtube videos, nearly every facet of the internet has taken it upon themselves to hold filter-happy influencers to account. But just how effective is putting someone on blast for airbrushing their photos when they’re probably just as insecure as the rest of us?
Quintero says the reactions to her before-and-afters are “75% positive, 25% negative,” with most grievances coming from the subjects of her posts. While most of her followers thank her for bringing their attention to the trickery on Instagram, a few have accused her of body-shaming. Underneath a photo comparison of Khloe Kardashian, one commenter says, “well you guys keep saying she is ugly all the time, no wonder she photoshop [sic] her photos”.
Despite mixed reactions, Quintero’s intentions are pure. “At the beginning [my account] was just for ‘exposing’, but when I received a message where a person thanked me for ‘showing the truth,’ I knew that I had to give a positive message,” she says. “I always try not to be rude and to be neutral.”
Quintero’s account and others like it might be doing more good than they realise.
Earlier this year, Fardouly worked on a study that examined the effects of seeing an image of a model in full makeup compared to one where she was bare-faced. She found that seeing the more realistic image mitigated the negative impact of just viewing the glamorous image on participants’ self-perception. “If you show someone a person’s natural face without makeup and proper lighting, they can see the difference between what’s real and not real and judge for themselves,” says Fardouly.
These findings could translate to the ‘insta vs. reality’ trend, but Fardouly says more research needs to be done.
As the “call-out” trend has grown, some influencers have tried to take matters into their own hands. Beauty gurus like James Charles and Brookelle Mckenzie (below) are among a few who have started to add disclaimers in their captions when they upload edited photos.
Quintero is all for this burgeoning trend. “I think they should do it,” she says. “It shows people that Instagram is a falsehood and an illusion.”
But Fardouly doubts that these are making much of a difference. “We’ve done one study looking at disclaimer labels on social media, where influencers have re-captioned their images, saying ‘this isn’t real’,” she says. “We found that these disclaimers make no difference. It doesn’t matter if you tell people that the image isn’t real, being shown that glamorous image still makes people feel bad about the way they look.”
In the past, countries including France and Israel have implemented legislation requiring magazine advertisements to signpost any images that have been airbrushed. It turns out that this did more harm than good. “If you tell people what aspect of the image has been edited, it actually draws attention to that aspect of the person’s body and makes them feel worse,” Fardouly explains.
Making social media a safer place
How exactly do we navigate toxicity on social media when we’re all online, all the time?
You can’t just tell a teenage girl to put down her phone. As Fardouly puts it, having an Instagram presence and following certain accounts is how young girls define themselves and relate to one another.
It’s also difficult to expect influencers to change their uploading style, when maintaining a certain aesthetic is part of their career. “I feel like [photo editing is] almost a necessary step to continue your Instagram business,” influencer Catherine Lynn (@misscatherinelynn on Instagram) said in an interview with the New York Post. “People can call it fake all they want, but in traditional marketing, the ads, commercials and billboards are all Facetuned.”
Quintero believes the problem lies with the corporations that only work with women who promote an unrealistic beauty ideal. “[Brands] could try to promote more the natural influencers who love their body and give a real message of body positivity,” she suggests. “Showing reality: only that way they would make a real change.”
Brands like American lingerie retailer Aerie have laid the blueprints for this kind of shift, with its campaign #AerieREAL promoting body positivity, using a diverse group of models and refusing to airbrush their photos.
In the time it takes for companies to catch on, Fardouly suggests that the best thing to do right now is to create a more positive online environment. “Unfollow people that post very edited, unrealistic images of themselves,” she says. “Follow accounts that make [you] feel good, such as body positivity accounts, or accounts that post travel images or compassion posts.”
Fardouly predicts that it will be hard not just for influencers, but for all social media users to move away from these tools that allow us to easily augment our reality. “People always want to present the best versions of themselves and social media gives people the tools to really control how they’re presented,” she says. “If we encourage people to present a more realistic, balanced version of their lives, that would be helpful; people would be less likely to think that everyone else has a better and happier life than them.”