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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
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.

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