The year is 2154. The population has reached over 20 billion people, putting resource-hungry humans in conflict with the Indigenous Na’vi population, who are determined to preserve the planet’s natural beauty. This is the premise of Avatar: The Way of Water, which came out on Friday. When the original Avatar was released in 2009, we marvelled at James Cameron’s ability to transform actors into beautiful, other-worldly humanoids. Today, the Avatar aliens appear not only less impressive, but also more like us, because in the 13 years since their debut, we’ve developed the technology to instantly transform ourselves into fantastical avatars online.
The latest example of such technology is Lensa, a photo editing app that generates digital avatars from selfies. While Lensa has been around since 2016, the app has surged in popularity this month, reaching over 25 million downloads and making the company half of its total $16.2 million annual profit—$8 million—in December alone. The app’s rise to fame hasn’t come without controversy—Lensa has faced accusations that their avatars are based off of stolen artwork and there is concern that user’s uploaded selfies are used for AI training by Lensa’s parent company, Prisma.
The less obvious—but perhaps equally as concerning—impact of these seemingly harmless “magic avatars” is how they are contributing to an increasingly optimized and digitally-inspired beauty ideal, one that beauty culture critic Jessica DeFino says is, “as detached from humanity as possible.” A patient of Kim Anderson, a licensed clinical psychologist and executive director of the Eating Recovery Center, describes it aptly in her experience of using an AI filter app, “it’s like I’m trying to look like something that isn’t even human.”
In an increasingly online world, DeFino says the unrealistic AI avatars are a predictable advancement from ‘Instagram Face’ and the Metaverse, where faces are smooth and almost cartoonish in nature, with no deviation in tone or texture. The ideal has become, according to DeFino, to achieve the filtered, face-tuned and photoshopped version of ourselves in real life, using beauty products and surgeries to do so. “What we’re seeing is a colonization of the face,” DeFino tells Forbes. “It’s the same drive to conquer and control nature, but we are nature; our bodies and our faces are nature.”
While we might be seeing magical renderings of ourselves for the first time, the desire to control our appearance is nothing new. Since the industrial revolution, DeFino says the body has been increasingly treated like a machine and a site of commodification. Highlighting and contouring, for example, are not techniques that accentuate human features, but are rather used to recreate light design; a natural progression from a western beauty standard that DeFino says originates in the flawless, ethereal glow of woman in Hollywood films that was created by low quality cameras.
DeFino also points to the common use of terms like “optimize” and “efficiency” in the beauty industry, and the rise of treatments like radiofrequency facials, LED light masks and the use of NASA technology in serums, as examples. “We view ourselves as machines that can be tinkered with and made better, rather than accepting our raw humanity,” the beauty reporter tells Forbes.
The proliferation of perfected faces online is pulling us further and further away from that raw humanity. “In previous years, we compared ourselves to models, celebrities, and athletes. Although they seemed perfect, they were real people,” says psychologist Anderson. “Today, we compare ourselves to the perfectly filtered and flawless online images of friends, neighbors, and even ourselves. With recent advances in editing, everyone has the ability to be airbrushed—not just celebrities. We can all create our own perfect self-image using the latest filters and apps.”
“What’s dangerous about Instagram face, Facetune and the AI portraits is that we’re getting a visual of what is possible,” says DeFino. In assessing her patients, Anderson has observed that many are spending hours each day sharing photos that have been manipulated to improve their looks. “It’s kind of fun and makes them feel good about themselves at first, they feel excited about designing their own version of the perfect face,” Anderson tells Forbes. “But it actually creates a complicated situation where we are not just comparing ourselves to others, but we are comparing ourselves to a picture of what we think we ‘should’ look like.”
As the discrepancy between the idealized online image and real self grows, so too, does the potential negative effects on our physical and mental health. “Depression, anxiety, body and facial dysmorphia, disordered eating, self-harm—these are all sky-rocketing right now and a part of that has to do with the disconnect between ourselves and our ideals,” says DeFino.
Anderson has observed the correlation in her own work with patients feeling less confident and having more appearance-related anxiety when looking at themselves in the mirror or taking photos without edits. “As a clinician, it is clear to me that participation in an online culture that perpetuates unrealistic appearance ideals may create an increased risk for vulnerabilities that could lead to serious emotional and behavioral problems,” the psychologist tells Forbes.
Beauty ideals have always made people feel disappointed with their own appearance, but what’s different today is that by having the tools to visually imagine the perfect self, the fantasy feels more attainable. “It becomes this hope and possibility, it gives you a concrete goal to strive for,” says DeFino.
Believing happiness can only be attained upon achieving the ideal self-image, Anderson says her patients begin to consider ways to make the edited version of themselves a reality. As a result, the psychologist says she is seeing “significant increases in younger patients getting cosmetic injectables like dermal fillers and Botox, as well as cosmetic surgery.”
“It’s not just celebrities that are utilizing this technology, average people are getting Botox, fillers and surgical procedures in record numbers,” says DeFino. “They’ll either take in photos of the celebrities who are extremely modified or photoshopped photos of themselves to show the plastic surgeon what the ideal version of them looks like.” Research affirms this, with plastic surgeons increasingly reporting that their patients’ surgeries are motivated by a desire to look better in selfies.
The latest Lensa avatars are already driving interest in plastic surgery, with Botched surgeon Dr. Terry Dubrow telling TMZ two people have asked him to transform their faces into their AI self-portraits.
“We actually have a great example of how these avatars are influencing real life beauty standards,” says DeFino. The beauty critic points to the latest fad: buccal fat removal surgery, in which cheek fat is removed to create a sculpted cheekbone look. “The extreme hollowing of the cheeks is not a human feature,” says DeFino. “This is like the shading on an AI portrait or the pinching feature of Facetune, it’s not reflecting anything human or real.” Even those who can’t afford the surgery are encouraged to achieve the look, with makeup tutorials on TikTok providing contouring tips under the guise of “celebrating your natural features.”
From something as seemingly innocent as contouring to as major as seeking plastic surgery, with more tools at our disposal than ever before, it can be tempting to try to attain the idealized self-image. The problem, says DeFino, is “once you start you don’t really stop.” Ironically, the desire or attempt to manipulate ourselves in pursuit of beauty can leave us feeling even more discontent. “The more we attempt to control our bodies, the more out of control we feel mentally and physically,” says DeFino.
Anderson has observed this among her own patients who have body dysmorphia disorder—a mental illness that affects one in 50 people in the United States. “They spend significant time and energy trying to ‘fix’ minor or imagined flaws in their appearance, using makeup, surgery, exercise, cosmetic procedures and so on. However, they too are not likely to be satisfied with the changes they make,” the psychologist tells Forbes. “While using the photo filtering apps may lead to a short-term boost in confidence, it doesn’t last and perpetuates their cycle of distress and compulsive checking and fixing.”
As more people manipulate both their face—both online and in real life—DeFino worries the baseline for what counts as beautiful will continue to rise, and so too will the consequences for those who don’t conform to it. Now, you don’t have to have BDD to feel the discrepancy between your idealized face and what you see in the mirror affect your confidence.
Anderson says her patients, “worry a lot about being embarrassed when others see them in real life and notice their actual appearance doesn’t look like their online photos. For some, this can be very distressing. Some patients describe it as devastating.” Similarly, DeFino shares insights from plastic surgeon Dr. Guanche, “One of the biggest things I tell my patients is, ‘You want to look more like your filtered photos—what can we do to make you look more like them, so people don’t see you in real life and go, what?’”
It’s this widening gap between the online self and reality, and how it affects people’s ability to engage with the real world, that makes the increasingly unattainable beauty ideal a concern for everybody.
“This isn’t just a problem for the subset of woman who are going to buy these surgeries, this is a collective issue,” DeFino stresses. “Even if you don’t care about beauty personally, it’s potentially affecting your mental and emotional well-being, and it is surely affecting how society views you and treats you.”
With so much of daily life—from work to dating to friendships—moving online, and loneliness on the rise, there is concern that the proliferation of unrealistic images of ourselves might isolate us further.
“When the majority of the images we’re absorbing online are modified—whether it’s through the obvious use of a face-tuning app or the subtle glossing over of the screen when you take a picture of anything—your inputs are all modified,” says DeFino. “It’s easy to lose touch with reality when the majority of your inputs are digital, machine-like and a few steps removed from humanity.”
So what can we do? Artificial intelligence, social media and the beauty industry are not going anywhere. Still, DeFino is optimistic, “when you go back to the beginning, beauty was a form of authentic self-expression and served to connect the community, the capacity for beauty to do these things is still there.”
The beauty critic encourages people—particularly those who claim they use beauty as a form self-expression and liberation—to interrogate the beauty industry and be honest with themselves when using products or seeking treatments. “It’s much easier to alter your body to fit society’s ideal than to alter society to reflect real human bodies,” DeFino says.
Anderson encourages people to apply this same practice of mindfulness towards social media, limiting the use of editing apps and filters as much as possible. She’s also countering the forces of perfection by helping her clients embrace their natural beauty, by practicing exposure therapy.
“It’s a gradual process that begins with limiting their use of the filters and apps, then posting and sharing selfies without manipulation at all, sharing candid photos and ultimately attending in person social events,” the psychologist tells Forbes. “One patient told me that she knew she was improving when she was able to attend a friend’s party without make-up!”
Some interview responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Denial of responsibility! galaxyconcerns is an automatic aggregator around the global media. All the content are available free on Internet. We have just arranged it in one platform for educational purpose only. In each content, the hyperlink to the primary source is specified. All trademarks belong to their rightful owners, all materials to their authors. If you are the owner of the content and do not want us to publish your materials on our website, please contact us by email – [email protected]. The content will be deleted within 24 hours.