In October 2021, Facebook announced a massive pivot, changing its name to Meta and going all in on augmented and virtual reality through a futuristic vision of the internet called the metaverse. In fact, the strategy had been taking shape gradually for years, with help from a seemingly frivolous product feature on Instagram. Face filters that add puppy ears to your hairline or make your lips appear bigger sit on a sophisticated technical infrastructure for AR and VR that the company, which owns Instagram as well as WhatsApp, has built to support such effects. Thousands of creators have contributed filters free of charge, and the millions of people around the world who use the feature each day have provided Meta with troves of data.
The little research that exists about digital beauty culture has found that visual platforms like Instagram, which rely on AI recommendation algorithms, are narrowing beauty standards at a stunningly rapid pace. Through filters, they’re also helping users achieve those ideals—though only in the digital world. There is evidence that excessive use of these filters online has harmful effects on mental health, especially for young girls. “Instagram face” is a recognized aesthetic template: ethnically ambiguous and featuring the flawless skin, big eyes, full lips, small nose, and perfectly contoured curves made accessible in large part by filters.
But behind every filter is a person dragging lines and shifting shapes on a computer screen to achieve the desired look. Beauty may be subjective, and yet society continues to promote stringent, unattainable ideals that—for women and girls—are disproportionately white, slender, and feminine.
Instagram publishes very little data about filters, especially beauty filters. In September of 2020, Meta announced that over 600 million people had tried at least one of its AR features. The metaverse is a concept much bigger than Meta and other companies investing in AR and VR products. Snap and TikTok capture huge numbers of filter users, though Snap is also investing in place-based AR. Meta’s product suite includes the Oculus headset and Ray-Ban smart glasses, but it’s focused on what made Facebook popular—the face.
Beauty filters, especially those that dramatically alter the shape of a face and its features, are particularly popular—and contested. Instagram banned these so-called deformation effects from October 2019 until August 2020 because of concerns about the impact they have on mental health. The policy has since been updated to outlaw only filters that encourage plastic surgery. The policy states that “content must not promote the use or depict the sale of a potentially dangerous cosmetic procedure, as per the Facebook Community Standards. This includes effects that depict such procedures through surgery lines.” According to a statement to MIT Technology Review in April 2021, this policy is enforced by “a combination of human and automated systems to review effects as they are submitted for publishing.” Creators told me, however, that deformation filters often get flagged inconsistently, and it’s not clear what exactly encourages the use of cosmetic surgery.
“It became sensational”
Though many people use beauty filters merely for fun and entertainment, those puppy ears are actually a big technical feat. First they require face detection, in which an algorithm interprets the various shades of pixels picked up by a camera to identify a face and its features. A digital mask of some standard face is then applied to the image of the real face and adjusts to its shape, aligning the mask’s virtual jawline and nose to the person’s. On that mask, graphics developed by coders create the effects seen on the screen. Computer vision technology of just the past few years has allowed this to happen in real time and in motion.
Spark AR is Instagram’s software developer kit, or SDK, and it allows creators of augmented-reality effects to more easily make and share the face filters that cover the Instagram feed. It is in this deep rabbit hole of filter demonstration videos on YouTube that I first came across Florencia Solari, a creative AR technologist and a well-known creator of filters on Instagram. She showed me how to make a face filter that promised to plump and lift my cheeks and fill out my lips for that Kardashianesque, surgically enhanced face shape.
“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”
“I have this inflate tool that I am going to apply with symmetry,” Solari said, “because any modifications that I do to this face, I want to be symmetrical.” I tried to keep up by dragging the outline of my digital mannequin’s cheekbone up and out with my cursor. Next, I right-clicked on the map of her bottom lip and selected “Increase” several times, playing God. Soon, with Solari as my guide, I had a filter that, while sloppy and simple, I could upload to Instagram and unleash to the world.
Solari is part of a new class of AR and VR creators who have made a career by mastering this technology. She started coding when she was around nine years old and was drawn to the creativity of virtual-world development. Making her own filters on Instagram was a hobby at first. But in 2020, Solari left a full-time job as an AR developer at Ulta Beauty to pursue online AR full time as an independent consultant. She’s recently worked with Meta and several other big brands (which she says she can’t disclose) to create branded AR web experiences, including filters.
Solari’s very first filter, called “vedette++,” went viral back in September 2019. “I tried to make an interpretation of what the superstar of the future would be,” Solari says. The filter applies an iridescent, slightly green shine to the skin, which is smoothed all over and inflated under each eye to the point that it looks as if half a clementine has been shoved inside each cheek. Lips double in size, and face shape is adjusted so that a distinct jawline tapers into a small chin. “It was kind of a mix of an alien, but with a face that looked like it was full of Botox,” says Solari. “It really became, like, sensational.”
Though Meta doesn’t make its filter data public, it does provide creators with some metrics, and I asked Solari and others to share the data with me. The numbers are stunning; vedette++ was viewed 130 million times and used over 1.2 million times in 3.5 months. Solari says the filter was one of the first ever to go viral. It helped that vedette++ was used by model and influencer Bella Hadid. “Influencers have a huge impact on how this spreads … You will get an influencer or a celebrity to use them, and then it will go more viral organically,” she says. According to Solari’s statistics from Meta, vedette++’s impressions spiked exponentially in the days after Hadid used the filter.
Creators say that deformation effects and influencer shares are the keys to virality where filters are concerned. Several creators said the demand for deformation beauty filters is so consistent that they can essentially gamify virality by making a certain kind of effect that fits the “Instagram face” aesthetic.
“This is something we don’t speak about—that deformation can make your filter go viral. If you don’t use deformation, your filter won’t succeed as much as the other ones, even if the others are more technically complicated,” says Lucie Bouchet, a popular filter creator. Bouchet notes that there are exceptions to this pattern, and filters that are especially fun, trendy, or unique also see massive success.
Bouchet has stopped using deformation effects in many of her filters and now builds in a feature that enables the deformation effects only if users choose.
But the statistics are hard to ignore. Bouchet’s most popular deformation filter, called “Golden Hair,” amassed almost 300 million impressions, while a similar one without deformation effects garnered a measly 7.2 million. Around 70% of the people using her filters are between 13 and 24.
“Society is like this”
Bouchet’s concerns about the harmful effects of deformation filters, especially on girls, are shared by many creators who make them. I spoke with researcher Claire Pescott in the spring of 2021, when I first wrote about the effects of beauty filters on social media. Pescott studies the behavior of preteens on social media and has observed gender differences in filter use. She found that boys use filters primarily for fun and experimentation, and girls use them to enhance their appearance.
Though Meta declined to speak with me on the record for this story, the company has taken some steps to address recent criticism surrounding the negative impact that Instagram can have on the mental health of users, particularly teenage girls. When whistleblower Frances Haugen came forward with internal company documents, some showed that its leaders had known about these problems for years. According to reporting by the Wall Street Journal, a March 2020 slide presentation by Facebook researchers read, “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Another slide said, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” and acknowledged that “comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”
Filters on platforms like Meta, TikTok, and Snapchat are not the only technology working to narrow beauty standards. Photo-editing tools have also exploded over the past 10 years with the rise of social media, and the results can have similar effects on aesthetics and mental health online. Recommendation algorithms and social preferences for certain looks can also create harm on visual platforms.
But Solari thinks technology itself is not to blame in the first place. “It is not the filters that are making this [problem], but society is like this,” she says. “These are the values that society has and sees as beautiful. And that’s why it goes viral.” Creators observe a consistent and shockingly high demand for deformation beauty filters that fit a particular aesthetic.
Authenticity and freedom
In December 2019, Instagram banned vedette++ as part of its clampdown on deformation effects. Solari says she wasn’t trying to encourage plastic surgery and believes that most people using her filter wanted to “perform with a face that just looked kind of out of this world.”
She responded to the deformation ban with a scathing Medium post that was widely shared among filter creator communities. It reads: “This isn’t about plastic surgery. This is about FREEDOM. It’s about preserving the most valuable and unique thing we own: Who we are. Our individuality … The internet was our free space. It was a mask, yes, indeed. A mask that served us to be able to BE TRUE to ourselves. Express ourselves beyond our bodies, beyond our physical realities, explore the trans-human and the fantasy.”
It’s this fantasy—this opportunity for escapism and expression—that many creators point to when they defend filters, saying that AR and VR offer the ability to test out certain personas and play. Pescott, the researcher, told me that trying on different identities and demonstrating them socially is an essential and healthy part of adolescence. For many people, filters offer a new way to do that.
Solari has thought a lot about the tension between censorship and safety since vedette++’s viral success and subsequent ban. “I don’t believe in censorship of that kind of content, because I believe that people should be able to choose what they want to adopt or not,” she says. But Solari also believes that strict beauty standards do make it hard for people to accept themselves fully. “If we actually want to address this,” she says, “we have to look for a way to help people to really build the strength to say ‘I like myself as I am. I want to show myself as I am.’”
“I find beauty in authenticity, in freedom, and in what I find to be the perfect balance between order and chaos,” she says.
Humans and technology
10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023
I just watched Biggie Smalls perform ‘live’ in the metaverse
An avatar of the singer, who died in 1997, performed with live rappers on Meta’s Horizon Worlds.
How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information
In his own words, the Chinese painter shares how he became a one-person newsroom during a week of intense protests against China's zero-covid policy.
People are already using ChatGPT to create workout plans
Fitness advice from OpenAI’s large language model is impressively presented—but don’t take it too seriously.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.