Why do beautifying filters make skin whiter? We already know the answer

‘It’s as though technology – or the people behind the technology – are trying to tell me “This is what you should look like,”‘ says Medina Azaldin, 30, who lives in London after marrying a British citizen and moving from Malaysia.

Being of Asian heritage, the first thing she notices when using so-called beautifying filters on social media is her eye shape being distorted.

‘It’s weird to say, but I don’t think about my ethnicity very much – maybe that comes from growing up in a country where I’m not the minority,’ she says.

‘It’s just what I am and what I look like. So when a filter drastically changes my skin tone or eye shape, it’s rather confronting, as I’ve never thought these were things that needed changing.’

Though I’m white, technically, I can relate. Being Turkish puts me in an odd bracket of looking ‘other,’ but not quite falling under the term ‘woman of colour’. I noticeably tan after spending just 15 minutes in the sun, but am naturally very light skinned – and yet, almost every beautifying filter makes me even lighter.

When I recently tried the viral ‘Bold Glamour’ filter, the latest TikTok buzz, it took the yellow-olive tones out of my skin. Even my colleague, who is white but had used fake tan that day, noticed the filter paled her down.

In a world of skin bleaching, makeup inequality, and a lack of products catered to afro hair, it’s not surprising this is happening.

This filter really out here making people white 😳 #fyp #trending #DisneyPlusVoices

Kiran Bird, 28, is of Indian heritage and says beautifying filters tend to make her look ‘like a tanned white person’.

‘My first thought is “Well, a white person made this filter to mainly work on white skin tones,”‘ she says.

‘I don’t take it too seriously because they are just silly filters, but I do think if I was younger and more impressionable, and maybe when I struggled a bit with my identity, it would have enforced those feelings more.’

Kiran now doesn’t even bother to try any viral ones, and adds: ‘I don’t want to be whitewashed by a TikTok filter.’

When we asked her to use the ‘Bold Glamour’ filter, this was the result – of which she confirmed she was made to look whiter.

In 2016, Snapchat came under fire for ‘whitewashing’ people, with the ‘Flower Crown’ filter being one of the culprits. Seven years on, it doesn’t look like much has changed. Today on TikTok, there’s even such a thing as a ‘White Skin’ filter, which some app users have called ‘harmful’.

Medina, who feels these filters are also ‘fatphobic’ to boot, as they often ‘slim down’ her face, adds: ‘Filters used to just blur out my zits and leave me with a soft glow, but I think advancements in tech have made them so much more sophisticated and not in a great way.

‘It’s strange when a filter very obviously changes your features. I didn’t think my features needed changing.

‘It’s telling you you don’t fit the ideal, which is ridiculous, because who is deciding on these ideals and why is the ideal always Caucasian-leaning?’

Dr Roberta Babb, a psychologist specialising in racialised issues and founder of The Hanover Centre, says the answer lies in ‘structural racism’.

‘The filtering process is about creating an image in line with a Eurocentric definition of beauty, and it erases the beauty associated with individualism,’ she says, explaining how users morph into the same identikit face.

‘Frameworks for assessing beauty and attractiveness are built upon Caucasian beauty standards.’

At a time in which 80% of girls have applied a filter or used a retouching app on their photos by age 13, according to research by Dove, the impact on young minds really can not be overestimated.

this filter can be harmfull .. #whiteningskin #whitepeople #portuguesepeoplebelike

‘The psychological impact on people of colour who see “beauty” filters equating whiteness with being pretty is multifaced,’ says Dr Roberta.

‘It can be distressing in the moment, as you are confronted with what you are not.

‘Over time, the impact of regularly seeing images (both knowingly and unknowingly) modified by filters can be negative, far reaching and long-lasting.

‘Whenever we compare ourselves to someone or something, we usually come off less than or worse. It communicates to someone who is essentially different from the identified ideal that they are not beautiful or pretty, and that they need to do something about it.’

Naturally this comes with detrimental mental consequences for those who are whitified by filters – namely feelings of ‘shame, low self-worth and low confidence’.

It doesn’t end there – Dr Roberta adds: ‘Beautifying filters also have another unhelpful function in that they also give a person of colour a temporary false sense of hope.

‘The “beauty” filter provides a temporary solution to their “problem”, such as not being attractive because of their skin.

‘It can contribute to them disliking, and even hating their skin complexion and tone and the way they look because it does not align which a beauty narrative which is centred in whiteness.’

Young people – who filters predominantly target – are especially vulnerable to this, she adds, as they’re often still finding and making peace with themselves – plus they’re underrepresented in the media and therefore don’t see mainstream beauty being equated with how they look.

Medina asks: ‘It begs the question of why these filters are the way they are – is it because of the lack of diversity in tech, the people behind the filters, the designers?

‘If the designers are from various ethnicities, body shape, abilities, would we still have these homogenised filters?’

It was reported that in 2021, ethnic minorities made up just 22% of the tech industry as a whole, and in 2020 another report highlighted that only 1-3% of the workforce at major tech companies are Black and Latinx.

Carly Siciliano, an AR (Augmented Reality) designer based in the US, works freelance across the globe and designs filters for well known brands. In her personal experience, the people she works with often are from diverse backgrounds (though that may speak to her ethics as a designer too).

Usually when designing filters, the target audience is ‘built into the brief’, she says, and the result is tested on a variety of races, genders and features.

Explaining how the process works as a creator, she says: ‘In SparkAR, the software for Instagram and Facebook, and in Effect House, the software for TikTok, there are demo videos of different genders and races you test your lens on.

‘When I do a makeup one for example, I’ll test it on say 10 different faces built into the software. I always find the medium to work the best on people.

‘SparkAR supplies a template you paint over in Photoshop, and it’s like a face grid or map.’

If the grid doesn’t specify the person is white and the companies setting the briefs are keeping diversity in mind, where is it going wrong?

In Carly’s opinion, there are ‘a few elements to it’, with ‘the world’s beauty standards being the place to start’.

‘Even as a white women, some of the changes I see on my face with a filter are not what I see as beauty or reflective of how I look.

‘The trends at the time influence things, but it’s never going to be a one thing fits-all, and because everyone’s face is a little bit different you can never cater to everyone completely.

‘In terms of filters making skin lighter, I think that’s to do with retouching, which can be added to a filter and removes shadows, creating a “brighter” overall look.’

On one occasion, a commercial filter she was briefed to create by a large brand showed up ashy on some skin tones, so going back to the brand, Carly worked to customise the filter for different users to fix the issue. It then was suitable for widespread public use.

This is key to note, as that accountability isn’t built into community filters, which can be designed and distributed by anyone without any financial risk attached.

‘Those community filters are often made by someone for “fun” to be used by themselves and their friends – they might not even think it’s going to go viral,’ she adds.

‘I could make anything on my personal TikTok unrelated to a brand, for example, and it could get picked up and used by anyone. The majority of these lenses are community ones.’

Regular people without the knowledge and experience of someone like Carly will often fall short on making the design adaptable enough to work across enough ethnicities. They also aren’t relying on accuracy of design for their livelihoods.

‘There’s little forethought that goes into those filters, and there’s no regulation on beauty standards – only on guns, violence, alcohol and other controversial areas are there restrictions. So you can create and post most things.’

A filter that doesn’t work on non-white skin isn’t right, but it isn’t overtly offensive within these regulatory systems – even if it’s offensive to the non-white naked eye.

So how do we move forward? It’s obvious the big players in this market need to introduce better restrictions and review these filters with race and diversity in mind, as this is the glaring issue Carly points out.

Before that day comes, Dr Roberta says for those using filters, it’s vital to ensure they are ‘valuing, embracing and celebrating their racial, ethnical and cultural heritage’, as well as ‘reconceptualising their ideas of beauty or success to centre themselves’.

She suggests creating a vision board of people who look similar, so they can see beauty that better mirrors who they are – and that goes against the grain.

Because let’s face it, the Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram filters probably aren’t going to provide us with beauty that deviates from the Western norm anytime soon.

Metro.co.uk reached out to TikTok and Instagram for comment – we will update this piece if they respond.

Snapchat replied: ‘To better create inclusive AR experiences, we work with a range of photography and cinematography experts recognised for their work in capturing diverse and darker skin tones. We know the technology isn’t always perfect, but it’s something we are focused on getting right for our community.’

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