Snapchat was launched in 2011, and with it the first widespread, mainstream use of AR filters. Suddenly teenagers all across the globe were posing with dog ears and swapping their faces with their friends: the first time in history that we as humans were given such a quick and simple interface with which to change the construct of our own reflection. The popularity of these filters has since exploded. Instagram and TikTok now rival Snapchat for their array of different face-warping technologies, and, since 2019, even Facebook (now Meta), contains AR features on their site.

From the time of their conception, such filters have been the subject of intense scrutiny. Their rapid shift from silly and cute animal morphing technologies, to incredibly realistic ‘beautifiers,’ which slim the subject’s nose, enlarge their eyes and smooth their skin has been strongly linked to the recent explosion in cosmetic procedures now being sought out by ever- younger patients. According to a recent survey conducted by Harvard, participants with high self esteem reported a forty-four percent larger gap between their ideal appearance and what they saw in the mirror after using an AR filter. Furthermore, a report conducted into Meta’s interior statistics base, revealed that they are very much aware of the negative effects that such filters have on young women. It just wouldn’t pay to get rid of them.

This is because, despite their quantifiably detrimental impact on our self-esteem, we still seem to be obsessed with using them. Over 200 million people apply Snapchat’s AR filters every day and Instagram, with a worldwide userbase of over one billion, boasts the largest platform with access to this kind of software. Beauty filters consistently crop up across reels and stories, often promulgated by young women excited by how the technology makes them look. Currently, the hashtag “FilterMakeup” is trending on TikTok, with over 130 million views, where, in a seemingly harmless display, participants recreate artificial makeup looks randomly generated in-app.

And that is the crux of it. Filters are, undeniably, entertaining. Perhaps all the more so because the source of the fun stems from ourselves. In today’s world, a hyperawareness of our own image is encouraged – if not necessitated – by social media. The effects of this have been explored but arguably not deeply enough. How exactly have these filters changed our relationship with ourselves? Was there ever a time when our genetic expression didn’t concern us at all?

We could go back to the middle ages. Then, only the elite and ruling classes had access to mirrors by which to view their own appearance, while the majority had to make do with seeing their faces reflected back in pools of water. One can only imagine this to be more flattering than seeing your pallid face in the front camera of an iPhone under hard fluorescent lighting. Nobody was taking unflattering pictures of the milkmaid on her early morning commute to the stable, or inebriated videos of her singing ballads in the alehouse. There are angles that she may never have seen herself from. Expressions she didn’t know herself to make. Flaws – if we are to label them so – that she was probably never made aware of. At least not by her own observation.

So, how did she see herself? How did our horde of non-elite ancestors pre the modern mirror (1825) view their own image? You could imagine that people glimpsed themselves in various polished surfaces – metal, glass, still bowls of water. Or that they assumed an amalgamated visage based on their irregular interactions with their appearance and features others told them they had. This is a heavy supposition, but it is very plausible that this hypothetical milkmaid was perhaps much happier with the way that she looked. After all, how many of us have felt ourselves to be beautiful and contented in a moment, only to be confronted with a photo or mirror and discover our makeup is smudged, our hair is a greasy mess, or that we do not in fact have a charmingly attractive laugh? Nowadays, we are constantly being reminded of the aesthetic aspect of our existence.

Of course, beauty has always been an attribute emphasised in women. It would be wrong to suppose that the milkmaid didn’t care about her appearance at all. And, to an extent, I think most can agree that there is a sense of comfort in being able to briefly check that your hair is in place, or that you are applying your eyeliner correctly. The real problem now links back to our new evolution in our access to our appearance; and that is being able to alter it upon a whim.

It is difficult to appreciate your own features when we are constantly exposed to scientific algorithms that can measure them up against an alleged objective ideal. We naturally want to see ourselves in the most flattering light possible. Therefore it can be very difficult to accept – for some, even impossible – the unfiltered image residing behind the altered one. We think with just the right makeup, a different hairstyle, and maybe a surgical procedure or two, that we might become these beautiful mirages reflected back by our phone screen.

Overall, it doesn’t look like filters are going anywhere anytime soon, the same way that our own incessant fascination with our bodies isn’t either. It is also clear that they do not impact our self-image in a positive way. Perhaps the only real solution is to harken back to our milkmaid days. Live a little – without constantly making yourself aware of what you look like doing so.