How Snapchat paved the way for Tiktok’s plastic surgery movement
From using the dog filter at the age of 10 to founding first-year halls’ group chats, Snapchat has been a major player in the online social life of our generation. This isn’t a coincidence. Snapchat was founded by a group of students, so naturally, we’re the perfect group of people to become obsessed with it. However, when I look at my time using Snapchat, I don’t see a happy collection of memories. In fact, I don’t really see myself. All I can see are the eye-catching filters that defined my 2010s.
To be clear, I’m not anti-social media. In fact, I post almost daily content on my public Instagram, and I’ll happily get into a debate with a boomer about why social media isn’t the reason their kid is on SSRIs. But I can’t deny the effect that Snapchat and its successors have had on the mental and physical health of my peers and me.
Snapchat was the first social media app to have realistic filters. Despite their colourful, often extreme look, the base of all of the classic Snapchat filters is a face-altering, “perfecting” effect—an effect that took the world by storm. Snapchat created a new kind of insecurity for its users. Until Snapchat, people could only compare themselves to others. But Snapchat standardised beauty in a new way. It allowed us to see what we would look like with flawless skin, bigger, brighter eyes, and a skinnier face. Where other media could only project beauty standards onto its consumers, Snapchat had curated a list of things wrong with YOU.
When I first started using Snapchat, one of the first things I noticed was how different I looked in filters and how ‘normal’ the filtered look was. My jaw was too wide and lacked definition, my skin wasn’t smooth enough, my eyes were too small and dark, and my cheeks were too chubby. In fact, I couldn’t find a single photo that I had taken of myself between the ages of 11 and 14 without a filter or some form of editing in my iCloud storage. And I’m not alone. Almost every student I talked to felt Snapchat had affected their body image. One told me, “I remember being little and not really having an opinion on how I looked. I was satisfied and didn’t really care. I feel like my self-image has changed a lot, very negatively. I compare [my] real self with my filtered version and get frustrated and it makes me sad, always unsatisfied.”
This sense of a lack of self-worth and beauty is so common it has its own medical label. The American Medical Association of Facial Plastic Surgery Journal calls it ‘Snapchat Dysphoria’. In the 2010s, many plastic surgeons found themselves in a peculiar position. Clients would come to them asking for surgery to make them look more like they do in Snapchat filters. Filters encouraged people to set unattainable appearance goals in the name of seeing what could be. Surgeons also saw a rise in clients of colour asking for surgeries to make them fit into white, European beauty standards. Requests for double eyelid surgery, nasal rhinoplasty, and skin lightening procedures all increased as Snapchat gained more users.
A UoA student I spoke to recalled seeing a popular Asian influencer posting about getting double eyelid surgery after years of advocating that Asian features are beautiful: “I felt betrayed, and it wasn’t her fault… I just felt like if she saw herself as more beautiful when she didn’t look like me, then I wasn’t beautiful.”
This change in self-image comes from a change in mental health and is more damaging than one might think. Psychiatrists have found direct links between Snapchat filters and Body Dysmorphic Disorder (a type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that affects body image). This is especially concerning as OCD is a form of neurodivergency, meaning that people who develop it incur physical changes in their neural pathways. Snapchat is literally changing its users’ brain chemistry.
We know that Snapchat has adverse effects. However, its user base is declining. So, does this really impact current social media users? In short, yes, and it’s worse than it seems. Snapchat embedded filters into their platform, but the effect didn’t stop with them. Filters, and more recently AR, are a staple in all major social media platforms, from Facebook to Tiktok. Technological advances make it easier than ever to create an incredibly realistic filter.
Tiktok and Instagram Reels have both normalised the use of filters to the point where it is weird to not use one. One UoA student shared, “It can definitely mess up the way you see yourself, since the filters change your face so much. They also create so much dissatisfaction about the way your natural face looks […] filters destroy the way a lot of users see themselves and set many standards that are completely unattainable, both regarding beauty and productivity, where everyone seems to be always happy, always flawless and productive, living a perfect life.” For a lot of social media users, it isn’t just about how one looks. To not look like the filtered version of yourself is to be an outsider in the world of social media. If you don’t look good enough, you’re not good enough.
This is especially concerning when considering how personalised Tiktok and Instagram algorithms are. With a hint of insecurity, these apps can give you personalised content on where to get lip fillers and BBLs (Brazilian Butt Lifts). In fact, the BBL hashtag has 6.3 BILLION views on Tiktok. Because why stress about what you look like when you can have the perfect body with a little botox and silicone?
According to the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, in the last few years, searches for cosmetic procedures have gone up by 138% and are continuing to increase. This isn’t isolated to Britain or the US. Many of the students I talked to expressed that they have considered or received cosmetic procedures because they view themselves physically unworthy compared to those they followed on social media. One student said, “I obsess a lot about the way I look, compare too much, think too much about the way I ‘should’ be and I don’t even know how to start accepting myself for who I am.”
Social media has created an environment where we move away from true self-love and acceptance and toward seeing ourselves as a commodity. When we derive our worth from looking good enough, being conventionally beautiful, and having an aesthetically pleasing life, happiness is no longer a value, no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise. Instead, the goal becomes to create a life that others believe is worthy, important, and beautiful. We start to sell this image of ourselves in which we are unattainably perfect, and then we have to keep up with that image, never letting the mask slip.
Looking perfect becomes a crucial part of our identity. So much so that we start to sacrifice our happiness, relationships, financial security, and health. Snapchat and society tell us that if we become a little bit prettier, a little bit thinner, a little bit more conventional, we will finally be happy.