I stare, perplexed and amazed. Her skin is clear and poreless, her forehead and hairline both perfectly symmetrical to the rest of her face. Her full lips are artificially enhanced — but not so much that they appear fake, or plastic. Her eyebrows are thinner and more arched, the eyes more slanted, and their normal deep brown tinted with gorgeous honey highlights. Her nose is slim and feminine, almost delicately proportional. In sum, the woman is beautiful yet unfamiliar — “is that me?” I think to myself for the first time that a selfie turned out better than my reflection in the mirror. But as I continue to stare at the selfie I took with an Instagram filter, I grow more and more uncomfortable with the subtle enhancements done to my face. I take a selfie without any filters and flip back and forth between the two pictures, trying to reassure myself that the heavy feeling in my stomach is an overreaction. It’s possible that I’m actually just as gorgeous as the Instagram baddies, right?
I am well-aware of how toxic social media is; I did a whole research paper on its addictive qualities when I was in community college. During quarantine, I made sure to limit my time on the most popular social media platforms for the sake of maintaining my mental health and keeping up my grades. However, it appeared I had missed one negative impact that social media has in my research report —the hit to self-esteem that filters, especially Instagram filters, have on people, specifically women and girls. Unsurprisingly enough, it is highly possible that Instagram knew of the negative impact that it had on the self-image of young women and girls. There is evidence to suggest that Instagram knew about the negative correlation between body image and Instagram consumption. Rest assured to the women and girls out there struggling with your self-esteem as I was when I first came into contact with similar filters on Snapchat — you are not alone. An intentionally toxic byproduct of you selling your attention to these social media companies is the festering feeling of loneliness and depression that push you to partake in the destruction of your body image even more.
For me personally, I struggled especially with my “Facetuned” selfie because I also couldn’t recognize the race of the person in the camera anymore. Being a Somali woman living in a nearly all-white suburb and going to a majority white school, most people cannot identify what race I am, let alone where Somalia is on a map. Unfortunately, I was still exposed to anti-Blackness while growing up, even though I was never around Black people. I internalized this anti-Blackness and as I learned to live around almost all white people, I sometimes accepted it as a compliment that someone thought I was Moroccan, or that a South Asian person mistook me for Indian. My sparse experiences with Islamophobia also didn’t help, so I generally accepted whichever race the newest white person I met assigned to me. I figured it didn’t matter.
Now that I am an adult, my issues of self-identity and questions of representation have, for the most part, been laid to rest. I take pride in my distinctly East African five-head, my larger-than-white-people nose, my giant brown eyes. But for the first time in several years, the unfamiliar eyes I saw staring back at me on my iPhone also challenged my Somali pride and rendered me speechless. She was beautiful, but she wasn’t me. She looked racially ambiguous in a way that only Instagram models can pull off. The uncomfortable feeling of inadequacy regarding my Somaliniimo was as acute as ever. I contemplated the fact that if I made my account public and posted this selfie on my story, lots of attention from both men and women would be sent my way. I was hyper conscious of the way the Instagram filter had somehow picked up on all of my insecurities and fixed them, as if the algorithm could automatically determine which aspects of the human face “under-performed” relative to all the others. After all, she was more beautiful than who I saw in the mirror. I had indeed achieved the “Insta-baddie” face that I commonly see while scrolling through my For You Page, but at what cost? I had erased my ethnic features and corrupted my self-esteem. Without too much conscious effort on my part, I became the unattainable beauty standard and lost my priceless racial identity.
I deleted both selfies and the Instagram app on my phone and decided that it would be a while before Instagram saw me again. It has been three weeks since that selfie was taken, and those honey brown eyes still stare up at me every time I open up my camera. I wonder how long it will take before they completely disappear from my memory. To all the women and girls out there, I strongly suggest you do the same. I can absolutely say my quarantine was not as bad as it could have been had I decided to return to normally using the app.
Image courtesy of Saida Hassan, UCSD Guardian Design Editor.