Meta's temporary filter ban in 2 states raises important question: What are face-altering app features doing to our perception of beauty?

·6 min read
Certain face-augmenting filters have been banned in Illinois and Texas. (Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Imagse)
Certain face-augmenting filters have been banned in Illinois and Texas. (Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Selfies started to look a little different for certain Texas and Illinois Instagram users in May.

Face-augmenting filters in the two states were disabled by Meta, the social media and tech company that owns Facebook, Instagram and other platforms, on May 11. A lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton alleged that the filters' technology violated state facial recognition laws, while attorneys in Illinois sued Facebook over its collection of biometric data in 2015 and reached a settlement last year.

Meta maintained that the filters, frequently used on Instagram, never infringed upon facial recognition technology laws in Illinois or Texas but disabled the filters to "prevent meritless and distracting litigation," a Meta spokesperson said in a statement to Yahoo Life.

Meta also included plans to implement an opt-in system that will explain how the effects work. While the company did not initially give an exact deadline for when the filters would be returned, some users have reported noticing the return of their previously disabled filters with an opt-in pop-up just one week after the filters were disabled.

An upgrade to the latest version of the Instagram app is required to see the opt-in experience.

Meta will allow users to opt-in to face augmenting filters, mask and avatars. (Photo: Meta/Instagram)
Meta will allow users to opt-in to face augmenting filters, masks and avatars. (Photo: Meta/Instagram)

Many of the banned filters included face slimming, contouring or other aesthetic enhancements such as virtual lashes and freckles. The filters have become quite popular among standard app users and influencers alike and their initial removal struck a chord.

"Texas taking away filters is an attack on content creation," tweeted Nandi Howard, the editor in chief of Houstonia magazine and former fashion editor at Essence.

Howard tells Yahoo Life that the ban would make it harder for content creators in Texas and Illinois to compete with peers who still had access to the filters.

"When you take away two [places] that are trying to grow, to be that L.A. or New York, that really creates an unfair disadvantage of how people can interact with social media influencers," she says.

But because many face-altering Instagram filters have "beautifying effects" that allow users to present a slightly altered version of themselves, some influencers view them as deceptive. Removing the filters, they say, will pave the way for more authenticity.

"If you have a master following, due to people liking you and people resonating with you, then I do believe that you owe your followers a level of transparency, which, unfortunately, they don't get when we use filters all the time," Texas influencer and social media manager Chrystal Saint-Clair tells Yahoo Life.

She adds that the removal of filters could have an overall positive impact on users' self-image, even if the initial shift may have been difficult at first.

"We've turned into a society where our filter is our face. Everybody has their go-to [filters], so I think it might seem like a negative transition. But in the grand scheme of things, it is really positive, just for the greater good of women," says Saint-Clair. "Maybe if anything, this produces a wave of body and facial positivity that we don't really get often."

Many social media users, including celebrities, have spoken out against these filters in the past, arguing that they present an idealized and unrealistic version of beauty standards.

"GOD HELP THE YOUTH," actress Jameela Jamil wrote in an Instagram post slamming the face-altering effects of filters last month.

While the ban only affected Meta-owned apps, users on other social media platforms have also shared their struggles with filter-based insecurities.

"You know what sucks about this filter? ... It looks like me when I was 24 and now that I am 41, this hurts my feelings and just makes me want fillers and Botox. Or bangs? A neck lift? F*** you, filter," said one TikTok user while using a beauty filter on the app.

Both Howard and Saint-Clair agree that changes such as these may not bode well for Instagram as a content creation platform.

"This doesn't help [Instagram] at all, because everybody's kind of irritated; it kind of stings a little bit," says Howard.

"This could be a big catalyst that pushes people away from the platform. I think if it does become more of a national thing, where other states are banning filters, it would completely deter people away from Instagram," says Saint-Clair.

The return of the filters casts that in doubt. Even as social media users cheered their ability to opt back into using filters, they acknowledged the problems the face-altering features pose.

Filters can aid in the development of negative self-image issues in a way that mirrors previous societal trends related to heightened beauty standards.

"It's very similar to a lot of the research that was done in the '80s and '90s, looking at slender women, particularly the heroin chic ideal in media, and the negative impacts that were happening with that, it works the same," University of Florida professor Robyn Goodman, who studies body image in media, tells Yahoo Life. "These are idealized versions of people. Unfortunately, we oftentimes can't figure out what's real and what's unreal, so we begin to think that's the way everyone looks."

Appearance alteration has been around for centuries, but Goodman says filters are an entirely different ball game.

"What you can do with a computer is much more than what you can do with makeup. You can actually increase the size of someone's eyes, change their lips, the nose and you can't do that with makeup," she explains.

It's unlikely that beauty filters will be permanently going away anytime soon and Goodman acknowledges this may seem daunting in a digital age where dangerous comparison levels are so accessible. Still, she champions increased education surrounding media and the ways it can be manipulated so users are better able to distinguish between what is real and fake.

"Not everyone understands everything that media can do and when you see those images ... Media literacy will help us better understand, navigate and negotiate the messages that we get from social media so that we have better coping mechanisms as well," Goodman says.

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