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Is Facetune an empowering friend or a toxic foe?

Fashion designer Anthon Raimund and journalist Marie Southard Ospina make the case for and against the divisive photo-editing app

Never has the phrase ‘fake it ’til you make it’ rung truer than in our Instagram age. Online, you can be whoever you want to be visually, with the tap of an app, although the sentiment has been pushed to the extreme and hijacked by the arrival of Facetune.

Even if you haven’t got it downloaded on your phone, and 20 million people had in 2018, you’ll be familiar with the app’s photo-editing capabilities. There’s a spectrum: flick through the feed of a Kardashian or many an online influencer and you’ll spot the same empty eyes, impossibly smooth/poreless skin with an artificial sheen, full lips, and neat noses that inflate and shrink depending on they think looks good that day, and the physically impossible proportions of their snatched silhouette of their #selfies. They all look eerily the same, slightly off, not real, tweaking themselves in pursuit of perfection. That’s one end. 

Of course, that is exactly the point – not looking real or human – for the app’s more adventurous users on the other, who are more creative when manipulating their images. Somewhere in the middle are the users who simply want to correct bad lighting or swipe away a spot or two instantly.

Facetune 2 has arrived since, minus the initial fee (although the certain elements are behind a paywall), upgraded, pulling devotees in even deeper. Here, two creatives debate the pros and cons of Facetune, based on their experiences, and the app’s ongoing impact on our collective body image.


Text Anthon Raimund

I’ve scoured the internet trying to find some scientific research in favour of retouching and found only countless critics. Since my search failed catastrophically, you’re going to have to put up with my own feeble defence. Facetune, essentially Photoshop for dummies, has made drastic retouching into common practice that many young people use daily on their own pictures. Previously, photo editing required high tech software that was usually reserved for magazines and photographers due to its price and complexity. Now, any influencer with an iPhone can look like Naomi Campbell (a supermodel).

In 2017, Facetune was the most profitable paid application on the Apple App Store, advertised as a way to get rid of acne and other physical imperfections. “Very bad acne days? Facetune is going to be your next best friend.” Since then, Facetune and I have indeed become good friends, we are basically family. As a fashion victim myself, I adore any kind of bodily manipulation or decoration. From shapewear and make-up to full-on photoshop, we all use tools to enhance our appearance. I’ve had a few injections myself and I know a lot of people who have gone under the knife in the name of beauty. 

“I use Facetune to warp selfies to unrealistic proportions, emulating the chiselled features of the women I admire... I don’t find the result particularly believable or reflective of what I want to look like – I find it visually appealing and that’s what matters to me”

My own experience with photo editing has been somewhat unusual. I’ve edited my selfies since I was 12, using Microsoft Paint to change my hair and eye colour, and super-imposing myself onto the body of an oiled Adonis. Back then, photo editing was creative and amusing to me. To be quite honest not much has changed. I’m now 23 and using Facetune to warp selfies to unrealistic proportions, emulating the chiselled features of the women I admire. This began with selfies and party shots absurdly long legs, high cheekbones and explosive lips became my look, and after a while, I even mastered adding on fake breasts. My posts quickly provoked a reaction from concerned friends and family who thought I had had drastic plastic surgery overnight. This was a shock to me as I don’t find the result particularly believable or reflective of what I want to look like – I find it visually appealing and that’s what matters to me.

In the meantime, I have started to bring the edited faces into editorial work and fashion prints. My Facetuning has also made it into a collaborative portrait of myself which was recently shown in the Royal Academy of Art. I think the difference between my editing and traditional retouching is that it’s meant to be quite unrealistic and surreal. I’m not suggesting that my aesthetic should be a goal for the average person IRL. 

Personally, I’ve never struggled with major self-confidence issues, a privilege I am very thankful for.  Seeing retouched pictures of myself has inspired me to go to the gym. After the initial culture shock, (I didn’t even know what a treadmill was) the experience became incredibly rewarding. I won’t deny, I feel my best when I’m in a flattering outfit, make-up and have been slightly photoshopped. A photograph is instant and unforgiving, I’ve often been caught in an unflattering pose, whether it’s the lighting on my face or a wrinkle in my clothing. I don’t see the harm in tweaking these things to show the best version of myself or my work. 

The obvious criticism of photo editing is one that we have all heard countless times. Fashion magazines have long been accused of perpetuating unrealistic body standards. But there is a crucial difference between editors and photographers dictating how people should look and individuals presenting themselves as they want to be seen on their own social media accounts. Since Facetune is now so accessible, how is it any different to make-up or flattering clothing? Whether that’s smoothing out imperfections in Facetune or plastering on an equally deceptive layer of Giorgio Armani Luminous Silk Foundation, it's all fake but I don’t think fakery is always bad. What is so wrong with a little bit of glamour and artificiality?

When taken to an extreme, all beauty aids can become unhealthy but in small doses, they can make us feel good. Similarly, an over-saturation of polished Instagram models isn’t great but I also don’t believe that we need to censor society to make people feel better. Jealousy and low self-esteem have been around long before Facetune. I would love to see more advanced features such as the ability to paste in other objects and change backgrounds. This would encourage people to be creative with the app rather than obsessing over their flaws. The real problem is in young people’s warped expectations of themselves and not my warped hips on Instagram.


Text Marie Southard Ospina

I’ll preface this by saying that I’m just as big a fan of Instagram just like any other ageing millennial. I live for the outfit photos, the food porn, and the advocacy. Social media is the whole damn reason I found #fatpositivity and #bopo – hashtags, and movements, that wholly changed my relationship to my fat body. Hell, seeing people of all ages, sizes, races, sexualities, and abilities carving out space for themselves in a world that would have so many of them hide away changed the trajectory of my entire life.

This is why I can’t get behind Facetune and the hyper-editing of photographs that it facilitates. Anyone can transform themselves into an almost-new person in a matter of seconds (actual editing skills are not required). For the purposes of research, I recently had a go at editing my own visage (note: I have zero actual skills with photography or editing).

Within seconds, my suspicions about the app taking things too far down a road of fabrication and unrealistic beauty standards were confirmed. I was able to shrink my jawline, slim down my cheeks, and plump up my lips. I added glow to my cheekbones and airbrushed the shit out of my moles, spots, and fat deposits. I was able to widen my eyes to Bratz doll proportions, get a little facelift, and give myself a bonafide nose job. I wasn’t smiling in the selfies I uploaded, but had I been doing so, I could’ve whitened my teeth as well. Although I was also able to mess with lighting, backdrop, and filters, these parts of the app felt like afterthoughts in comparison to the tremendous amount of “beautification” tools.

“We can know, rationally, that everything we’re looking at online is probably edited in some way – but if the bulk of what we’re looking at still presents us with images of perfect Instagram faces and Barbie and Ken doll-like bodies, then how are we ever going to deconstruct the standards of beauty that harm us?”

When using the app, I got the distinct feeling that it exists to make people more “beautiful.” Facetune literally promises that you will “wow your friends with every selfie” by using it, because your regular face obviously isn’t enough to wow anyone. Through the editing options available, we can deduce that the app’s idea of what “beauty” actually is reflects what Western culture tells us every day. Beauty is young-looking, glowing, blemish-free, with fair skin. Beauty is having minimal, if any, fat. Beauty is kissable lips that you can edit with a “cute” or “seduce” tool depending on which side of the Madonna/whore complex you feel like dabbling with on any given day.

The photos I edited didn’t exactly look “right” or “real” – in my opinion, I was more android than human by the end of the editing process – but that sort of seemed to be the point. As Jia Tolentino wrote for The New Yorker, we are in the age of a “single, cyborgian face… it suggests a National Geographic composite illustrating what Americans will look like in 2050, if every American of the future were to be a direct descendant of Kim Kardashian West, Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and Kendall Jenner (who looks exactly like Emily Ratajkowski).”

Manipulating our bodies to align with the beauty standards of the moment is nothing new, but through the user-friendly nature of app culture, we are bombarded with these ideals (and with the notion that living up to them will make us successful) at every moment of every day. It’s hardly surprising that the age of the ‘Instagram Face’ coincides with the age of accessible plastic surgery. As Tolentino explained, “Americans spent $16.5 billion on cosmetic surgery (in 2018); 92 per cent of these procedures were performed on women. Thanks to injectables, cosmetic procedures are no longer just for people who want huge changes, or who are deep in battle with the ageing process – they’re for millennials, or even, in rarefied cases, members of Gen Z.” Of course, even if one doesn’t have a budget for actual injectables, however, there’s always Facetune. 

Although I can get behind bodily autonomy, there are still macro consequences to living in a touched-up world, whether it’s a digital one or not. When you consider the fact that 2019 saw the highest rates of hospital admissions for eating disorders, across ages, in the UK in eight years, and that we know social media (particularly if one follows trends like #fitspo or #thinspo, versus ones like #bodypositive or #selflove) has been proven to spike negative body image, utilising Facetune feels like a step in the wrong direction.

We can know, rationally, that everything we’re looking at online is probably edited in some way – but if the bulk of what we’re looking at still presents us with images of perfect Instagram faces and Barbie and Ken doll-like bodies, then how are we ever going to deconstruct the standards of beauty that harm us? If we don’t show acne, or wrinkles, or double chins, or moles, or teeth that aren’t blindingly white, how will we ever normalise these perfectly normal parts of being a human being with a body? Honestly, I don’t know that we ever can if we’ve got an instant way to shrink, zap, and soften it all away.