It sounds harmless at first. We take a picture of ourselves, and we find easy-to-use tools to tweak and change our perceived imperfections. It’s an enormous trend. The photo retouching app FaceTune 2 has over 30 million downloads across Google and Apple. Instagram, the social media platform based entirely on pictures, has easy to use filters to change our appearance with a few taps of the finger.

With so many people retouching their selfies, more and more pressure is put on those who do not. The physical expectations are raised, pushing influencers and average users to edit their photos. It’s becoming the norm.

The Harm

Okay, so it is prevalent, but what is the harm? A 2016 study found that adolescent girls exposed to retouched photos of themselves had measurable, negative effects on body images. It’s easy to see why: these images present an idealized, unrealistic vision of ourselves. These are photos that we can’t live up to.

The long term risks aren’t known, but short terms effects over a long enough time often create lasting issues. Social media use itself is linked to depression, and photo retouching likely adds to the stress that these platforms cause.

As we continue to see images of others that look too good to be true, it seems that we take those expectations to the mirror. It then becomes tempting to download a photo retouching app and join in on the face tuning.

How and Why We Got Here

What caused this in the first place? When Lightricks developed FaceTune in 2013, photo retouching was mostly locked away in the realm of magazine covers. There were endless discussions of how Photoshopping models and celebrities created unattainable beauty standards, particularly for young women and adolescent girls.

But the rise of smartphones brought those methods into everyone’s hands. The drive to appear more beautiful on social media is obvious, but it had never been so easy.

And as we talked about before, even if someone wasn’t interested in retouching their photos, once it became common, the pressure mounted. When most of the people in your feed look like they’re on the cover of Vogue, it’s hard to resist joining in.

What we see going on, then, is a downward spiral. And while we used to be able to blame the magazine publishers, new technologies have made the victims of impossible beauty standards into its participants. We would expect fashion companies to objectify and Photoshop their models — but now we are the ones expected to do the same thing to ourselves.

We have entered a time where we digitally manipulate our own bodies. We label parts of ourselves undesirable and use technology to remove them. And all the while we damage our self image, making us more likely to edit our photos in the future. Where it leads we don’t know, but it will not be as pretty as the photos will make it seem.