Skip to Content
Humans and technology

Social media filters are helping people explore their gender identity

On TikTok, Instagram and elsewhere, facial filters can mean a lot.

app outputs image of opposite gender appearance
app outputs image of opposite gender appearance
GAVIN LEE LEWIS

Every few months, a social media giant drops a new beauty filter with gender-tuning capabilities. TikTok’s “Bearded Cutie” gives you heavy brows and scruffy facial hair; the feminizing version of Snapchat’s “My Twin” lens smooths skin to porcelain and adds subtle glam makeup. For many, these filters are a lark, quickly forgotten once they stop trending. But others find themselves drifting back to the apps again and again, staring at their gender-bended reflection. Something, they feel, has suddenly crystallized. 

Oliver Haimson, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who studies transgender identity and experiences online, says that for trans, gender-nonconforming, or gender-curious folk, filters can be a way to play with gender expression without the investment and skill that makeup requires or the time, hormones, and luck it takes to grow facial hair. He explains that filters are an important and widely used tool for identity exploration.  

Some trans people credit filters with finally “cracking their egg”—a rite of passage in the trans community when someone admits to themself that their gender identity is different from what was assigned at birth. “The Snapchat girl filter was the final straw in dropping a decade’s worth of repression,” says Josie, a trans woman in her early 30s from Cincinnati. “[I] saw something that looked more ‘me’ than anything in a mirror, and I couldn’t go back.”

Filters can also provide a much-needed dose of gender euphoria, the rush of joy a trans person feels when their external appearance aligns with their gender identity. Others use filters to help map potential physical transitions. “The filters on FaceApp showed me how little my face needed to change in order to present more feminine,” says Etta Lanum, a 32-year-old from the Seattle area. “It demonstrated how a change in eyebrows and facial hair alone could get me where I needed to be.” 

Using these filters has its pitfalls as well. Some trans people feel that the technology sets them up for disappointment and dysphoria, showing “results” that are physically impossible to achieve even with plastic surgery, artful makeup, or hormone therapy. But given that an ever increasing percentage of our lives is lived online, who’s to say the filtered version isn’t the “real” you?

Elizabeth Anne Brown is a science journalist based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Deep Dive

Humans and technology

windows desktop with anime image from Wallpaper Engine
windows desktop with anime image from Wallpaper Engine

Chinese gamers are using a Steam wallpaper app to get porn past the censors

Wallpaper Engine has become a haven for ingenious Chinese users who use it to smuggle adult content as desktop wallpaper. But how long can it last?

psychedlic experience via VR headset concept
psychedlic experience via VR headset concept

VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence

On key metrics, a VR experience elicited a response indistinguishable from subjects who took medium doses of LSD or magic mushrooms.

image of library due date card on fire over black background
image of library due date card on fire over black background

The book ban movement has a chilling new tactic: harassing teachers on social media

Educators who stand up to conservative activists are being harassed and called “groomers” online, turning them into potential targets for real-world violence.

animal crossing concepts
animal crossing concepts

Inside the experimental world of animal infrastructure

Wildlife crossings cut down on roadkill. But are they really a boon for conservation?

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.