More than just a pretty face: ‘Snapchat dysmorphia’

August 9, 2018

Selfies are the “feature films” we take of ourselves. If we are happy with the original shot, that’s fine. But many of us have taken to “erasing” any imperfections—by using apps and filters such as Facetune to smooth out skin; and to give our eyes, nose, and lips a little tweak. We might even use Snapchat to produce an idealized version of our visage (as well as to add rainbows or puppy ears).

It’s all in good fun, right? Not so much. In fact, according to a study published on August 2 by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network, the demand for a certain type of plastic surgery has increased, due to a new disorder dubbed “Snapchat dysmorphia.”

The study—conducted by researchers at Boston University School of Medicine’s Department of Dermatology—notes a growing trend: People are bringing in their own selfies to plastic surgeons, usually edited with a smartphone application, and asking to look more like these glorified photos.

The phenomenon is causing widespread concern among experts, who are worried about its negative effect on people’s self-esteem and its potential to trigger body dysmorphic disorder, a mental illness classified on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum, The Washington Post reported on August 8.

“This is an alarming trend because those filtered selfies often present an unattainable look and are blurring the line of reality and fantasy for these patients,” the research has found.

The condition is a mental disorder that causes people to be “extremely preoccupied with a perceived flaw in appearance that to others can’t be seen or appears minor,” according to the Mayo Clinic. People who have body dysmorphic disorder tend to obsess over their appearance and body image—often checking the mirror, grooming or seeking reassurance for many hours a day, the clinic said. Treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy and medication

Neelam Vashi, M.D. ,an assistant professor of Dermatology at the school and one of the article’s authors, told the Post in an interview that Snapchat dysmorphia is a result of people now being able to edit away any imperfections with ease.

“It’s remarkable,” said Vashi, who is also a board-certified dermatologist. “What used to lie in the hands of … celebrities … people who were innately beautiful made to look more beautiful … now it’s in the hands of anyone.”

On Snapchat, for example, the picture messaging application features upward of 20 filters that users can toggle through by simply swiping across their phone screens. Aside from adding flower crowns or puppy ears, filters can give a person freckles, longer eyelashes, wider eyes and flawless skin, among other augmentations. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter also allow people to edit their photos in the application before uploading.

Other applications such as Facetune take things a step further. For $3.99, users have access to a host of editing tools such as teeth whitening and making a person’s forehead, nose or waist smaller. While people most often use filters or editing software for minor fixes such as clearing blemishes or plumping lips, Vashi said traditional cosmetic procedures largely can’t reproduce the “instant fix” people see in their edited photos.

Based on findings of an annual survey conducted by the  American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, selfies continue to be a driving force behind why people wish to get plastic surgery done. In 2017, the survey found that 55% of surgeons reported seeing patients who requested surgery to look better in selfies—a 13% increase from the previous year’s results.

Vashi told the Post that it is unlikely that people will change their behavior in the near future. “It sounds like people are still going to do it because they like it. They like the way they look,” she said. “I’m just one small person in a big world, I can’t change everything, but I can make people aware and recognize and know that it’s not the real world. It’s like living in a fantasy.”

Research contact: @NeelamVashi

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