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Photoillustration of a woman’s unsmiling face with insets of a smiling mouth, cheek, and eye. Javier Zarracina/Vox, Photos: Getty Images

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Facetune and the internet’s endless pursuit of physical perfection

A face-perfecting app only widens the gap between our digital and real selves.

Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

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There’s a tool in Facetune, the popular selfie-editing app, that Zoe Schuver uses to make her earrings look shinier. There are others that smooth her skin, whiten the insides of her eyes, and adjust the lighting. But that’s the extent of her Facetune use.

Says the 21-year-old college senior in St. Louis: “If [you’re editing] little things it’s fine, but you can tell when someone’s done a lot to their pictures.”

Zoe says that neither she nor her friends really use Facetune much, but they see evidence of it constantly, on the Instagram accounts of influencers and celebrities. If an acquaintance from school or someone in their social circle used it too heavily though? That’d be weird, she explains. Everyone would probably talk about it. It’d be a whole thing.

Zoe is part of a generation that has never known a world that isn’t filled with digitally manipulated images. They have had access to modern technology and social media for much of their lives, and they’ve also had the power to digitally manipulate those images themselves. Facetune is the ultimate culmination of those two forces: A cheap, easy-to-use Photoshop alternative in the pocket of anyone with a smartphone, allowing them to smooth, slim, or skew any part of their face or body in an instant.

It’s hard to talk critically about this stuff — girls and young women, manipulated images, and the implicit assumption of what those images are doing to their self-esteem — without coming off as a little bit hokey, or at the very least tiresome. We’ve been discussing the evils of Photoshop for decades, and airbrushing before that, because of their negative effect on body image, with the general, agreed-upon takeaway being that yes, it is bad to narrow already-thin models’ waists or misrepresent their skin tones. Media-savvy young people are all too aware that many, if not most, of the advertisements and fashion shoots they see are altered.

Things get more complicated, though, when the bogeyman is not an anonymous evil fashion editor at a glossy magazine or the Hollywood machine. It’s women like Zoe touching up tiny flaws, and influencers plumping their lips. Facetune has allowed virtually anyone to participate in that same manipulation. It has given them the power to create a digital persona that has little to do with their actual selves.

There have been ripple effects, too: In the more than five years that Facetune has existed, it has helped give rise to an aesthetic sameness known as “Instagram Face” and produced an entire cottage industry devoted to exposing the differences between our constructed faces and our real ones. The democratization of beauty has meant that the latest, coolest filters are less about looking like pretty humans and more about looking like weird experimental cyborgs. More than any of that, Facetune has been at the center of conversations around the discrepancies between our crafted online selves and the messy realities of life inside of a body.

In 2013, five Israeli friends, four of whom were computer science PhD students, released an app that would let regular people edit photos of their faces. Within two years, their company, called Lightricks, had generated about $18 million in revenue from the 4.5 million downloads of Facetune, which in 2015 cost between $3 and $4, according to estimates by Business Insider.

Since its founding, Lightricks has received at least $70 million in funding: $10 million in 2015 and $60 million in November 2018. The company has said it is “growing profitably” and plans to double its size by recruiting 300 more employees.

At the end of 2016, Lightricks launched Facetune 2, which is free to download but requires users to pay a monthly fee of $5.99 to unlock all its features. According to the Guardian, by spring 2018 it had been downloaded more than 20 million times and had nearly half a million subscribers paying an average of $40 a year. In 2017, Facetune was Apple’s most popular paid app.

Facetune owes its huge popularity to its simplicity. Unlike Adobe Photoshop, with its endless array of confusing symbols that can require a full course to understand, Facetune offers just a handful of the most relevant tools for skin-smoothing and reshaping. On Facetune 2, those features are even easier to use: There are tools that can instantly contort the subject’s expression into one that is “fierce” (i.e. squintier-eyed) or “cute,” which creates a more crooked smile. One of the options is also “seduce,” which plumps up the lips.

Lightricks CEO Zeev Farbman has said that he didn’t intend for users to manipulate their bodies on the app, but that’s exactly what many of them do. “I’m not sure it’s our place to decide how people use the app,” he told the Guardian. (Lightricks did not reply to a request for comment.)

David Foster Wallace all but predicted Facetune in his epic novel Infinite Jest. The novel, which was published roughly 200 years ago, in 1996, is set in a far more surreal and dystopian North America than the one that exists today, but, well, a fair number of the details have started to line up. Technology’s ability to exacerbate human vanity remains, then and now and in fictional universes, unchanging.

In Wallace’s world, the rise of the video phone has the effect of making users so self-conscious about their appearance that they begin using image configuration equipment (which had been invented by the cosmetics industry and law enforcement) to take everyday calls. Those digital masks, which erase eye bags and airbrush wrinkles and make people look like perfect versions of themselves, start leading people to feel worse about their actual physical appearance relative to their masked selves. Corporations, naturally, exploit this for profit.

It’s easy to make the argument that Facetune and apps like it are poisoning our brains in precisely the same way. Inspired by digital retouching and filters, more people are undergoing surgery or requesting dermatological procedures to permanently alter their faces. And just like in Infinite Jest, there’s even a name for this phenomenon: “Video-Physiognomic Dysphoria.”

Something similar happened when I tried Facetune for myself. I downloaded the original version for $3.99 and was immediately terrible at it: The smoothing tool made my skin look waxen and blurry; widening my eyes and lips didn’t make me look like a sexy Bratz doll the way it did for other girls on Instagram, but more like a Bratz doll that maybe had to be recalled due to some kind of unfortunate accident.

Reporter Rebecca Jennings before Facetune, left, and after.
Rebecca Jennings/Vox

Things predictably got worse when I treaded into more dangerous waters: slimming down my body parts. If I were to compare the resulting image to a toy, it would be Forky, the plaything haphazardly made from trash by a kindergartener in Toy Story 4. And of course, there’s the dead giveaway to anyone trained in catching FaceTune offenses: The conspicuous curves in the vertical lines of the fence behind me, betraying the fact that I had committed the cardinal sin of falsely narrowing my body. The idea of actually posting the photo felt unthinkable — like Zoe and her friends, I’d be far too embarrassed about what friends who knew me in real life would say.

This is all to say that being good at FaceTune takes a lot of work and practice, and even those with the most to lose by being bad at it (i.e. celebrities, whose followers will pounce on any whisper of sloppy editing) still leave traces from time to time, as many “Photoshop fail” roundups will tell you. Easy tells: lines that should be straight appearing curvy, blurriness at the edges of the body, pointy elbows and long hands, and mysteriously distorted features, like having two thumbs, for instance.

While many major celebrities have been “caught” editing their Instagram photos, from Beyoncé to Lady Gaga to Victoria’s Secret models, others on the receiving end of a different kind of ridicule are figures who we’d probably like to think of as above such activities: People like Callista Gingrich, US ambassador to the Holy See, who has a habit of posting photos of herself and her husband Newt with faces as smooth as Renaissance-painting babies. There is also Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, who have been outed for their overuse of Facetune (neither the Trump-Guilfoyles nor the Gingriches responded to requests for comment).

The most fascinating examples, however, are the stars of the messiest, most theatrical television shows in the world: Vanderpump Rules, The Bachelor, and your choice of any Real Housewives franchise. It isn’t their celebrity that makes their excessive Facetune habits surprising — reality stars are among the most traditionally shameless when it comes to activities like posting sponsored content for teeth whitening products and arguing with each other in the comments section.

It’s the fact that these are the same people willing to show the worst moments of their lives on national television, many of whom have been naked, drunk, and/or arrested in full view of cameras. Unlike influencers who built their followings online with heavily curated images, reality stars have no control over how they’re portrayed on TV — they sign away all of those rights before filming, and have no idea whether they’ll get the “villain edit” or the “goofy edit,” reality-fan slang for the producers’ influence on the stars’ reputations.

Yet a scroll through many reality stars’ Instagram pages will reveal many perfectly posed and heavily Facetuned images, as if the melodrama of their televised lives were but a distant memory. Reality stars are, whether they know it or not, the prime examples of what’s becoming an increasingly prominent conversation among those with a social media account, which is to say, most people: the chasm between one’s online persona and their actual life.

Last summer, podcaster Tracy Clayton asked people on Twitter to share photos of themselves in which they looked happy but were in reality going through a difficult time. More than 700 people responded, including a woman who revealed that she’d spent her entire wedding day vomiting from chronic illness to a Tony nominee who went home after the awards and cried herself to sleep because of a breakup.

Clayton told Quartz that she tweeted the thread to feel a little less alone. Celebrities and Instagram influencers have shared similar sentiments, posting captions that make it clear that their lives aren’t as perfect as they seem on social media. Some, like O.G. mommy blogger Heather Armstrong of Dooce, have quit their careers because of the pressure to fake it.

Javier Zarracina/Vox. Photo: Getty Images

But despite the thriving communities of self-acceptance and body positivity on the platform, for many, Instagram is still a place where only the most aspirational content makes it to the timeline. And Facetune heightens the requirements for what counts as aspirational: Users with the biggest eyes, lips, and butt, the smoothest skin, and the waspiest waists are rewarded with likes, which can then translate into cash. It’s given rise to an uncanny sameness in many influencers, a phenomenon known as “Instagram Face”: large, smoldering eyes and puffy, pouty lips, radiantly contoured skin and, when extended to the rest of the body, tiny waists that sit atop almost spherically perky butts. These features can be attained through surgery and other dermatological procedures, yes, but they can also be achieved almost instantly with Facetune.

These enhancements, digital or surgical, have to be subtle enough to pass as natural, or risk internet backlash. “Nobody wants to be called a fake,” Brooke Erin Duffy, an assistant professor at Cornell University who studies self-presentation on Instagram, told the Guardian. “Influencers very much feel they need to present themselves authentically while getting the best image possible.”

It’s this paradox — that we expect influencers and celebrities (and ourselves) to look perfect but at the same time come across as human and authentic — that’s given rise to a vast network of watchdog accounts. One of the most popular is @celebface, which welcomes its 1.1 million followers with the bio “Welcome to reality” in all caps. Its bread and butter is juxtaposing before-and-after images of celebrity Photoshops, implied surgical transformations, and red carpet close-ups that show evidence of stars’ pores and wrinkles. The founder, who was revealed in an Elle interview to be a 24-year-old named Anna, says she started the account to show how celebrity images perpetuated unrealistic beauty standards.

The r/Instagramreality subreddit is another example, and since its launch a year and a half ago, it has gained nearly half a million members. “[Facetune] has caused more harm than good in my opinion, and its popularity is scary,” says its founder, Zaza9000, who asked me to include only her username because she keeps her online and personal lives separate.

She says she launched the sub after learning Photoshop in a graphic design course at her high school. Learning what went into determining that an image was “magazine cover–ready” made her feel self-conscious about her own photos, and she wanted a space to talk about it with others who felt the same way.

“It can be severely toxic, especially for younger people who try to emulate influencers,” she says of Facetune. “It’s made editing accessible to everyone, and to the untrained eye, someone may not see the curvy walls or messed-up fence post. All they see is a body goal.”

Zaza9000 says she doesn’t Photoshop her own images anymore, and says that it has made her feel better about the way she looks at herself. Not everyone reacts the same way to seeing a side-by-side of a Photoshopped celebrity image, however. “For some people, it is relieving,” she says, “and others are angry because they feel lied to.”

And for more still, it can be a weapon of derision. One of the biggest moments on r/Instagramreality came in May, when Ethan Klein, of the extremely popular Youtube drama account h3h3Productions, made a video calling out other social media stars’ alterations. “She looks like a Twinkie!” he yells about one popular YouTuber.

It’s easy for people like Klein to retort that by exposing these women, they’re simply looking out for their “young, impressionable” followers (which Klein does, many times). But there is a different and far quieter backlash brewing, too. In a culture where virtually anyone can make themselves look like a Kardashian (or their influencer of choice) online, a pendulum swing is only logical.

The Instagram aesthetic — the perfectly posed lifestyle images so closely associated with the platform — is played out. A successful niche of influencers like Emma Chamberlain and Joana Ceddia now have forgone Facetune and top-down latte shots in favor of goofy lo-fi realness and “relatability.” The latest cool Instagram filters don’t give users doe eyes and cheekbones, they make them look like glossy robots and surrealist art. The future of online personas, it seems, is weirder and less beautiful, because being beautiful is a lot less interesting now that it’s available to everybody.

Of course, bizarre filters and intentionally ugly selfies are still examples of performance, as is everything people do online. What is interesting is how the evolution of those performances will continue to shape the way we live our lives and the way we feel about them. As odd as my poorly Facetuned photos turned out, they still made the original photos seem somehow lacking — that I was too big, that my skin wasn’t completely poreless, that I’d be so much better-looking if my eyes were a little bigger even if it made me look like an off-brand porcelain doll.

This very ennui also struck the people in the world of Infinite Jest, too. In the book, users of the beautiful video phone masks become so emotionally tied to the way they appear on calls that they slowly grow too anxious to interact with other people in real life. Technology then finds a way to solve this problem by all but removing the human face from the operation altogether — ironically, much like a regular telephone.

Wallace offers an ending to the cycle that could arguably be described as cheery: “Callers of course found that they were once again stresslessly invisible, unvainly makeup- and toupeeless and baggy-eyed,” he writes, “once again free.”

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