“Snapchat dysmorphia” is taking hold — at least in the offices of plastic surgeons across the United States.
More patients seeking plastic surgery are bringing in heavily edited or filtered photos of themselves, according to an article recently published in JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery by researchers from Boston University School of Medicine’s Department of Dermatology.
The phenomenon is causing widespread concern among experts who are worried about its negative effect on people’s self-esteem and its potential to trigger body dysmorphic disorder, a mental illness classified on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.
What is ‘Snapchat dysmorphia’?
The term “Snapchat dysmorphia” was coined this year by British cosmetic doctor Tijion Esho.
“Today’s generation can’t escape ‘the Truman effect’ because from birth they are born into an age of social platforms where their feelings of self-worth can be based purely on the number of likes and followers that they have, which is linked to how good they look or how great these images are,” Esho told the Independent.
According to the JAMA article, “Snapchat dysmorphia” is a form of body dysmorphic disorder. Also known as body dysmorphia or BDD, the condition is a mental disorder that causes people to be “extremely preoccupied with a perceived flaw in appearance that to others can’t be seen or appears minor,” according to the Mayo Clinic. People who have BDD tend to obsess over their appearance and body image, often checking the mirror, grooming or seeking reassurance for many hours a day, the clinic said. Treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy and medication.
Body dysmorphic disorder can have extremely dangerous effects. A 2007 study published in Primary Psychiatry found that about 80 percent of people suffering from BDD “experience lifetime suicidal ideation and 24% to 28% have attempted suicide.”
‘Perfect’ extends beyond images of celebrities
Until recently, only models and celebrities could take flawless, envy-inducing photos, the JAMA article said. However, given the accessibility of editing applications, once seemingly unattainable beauty standards now flood social media feeds daily, and the “perfect” people in the photos are your friends, classmates and family members, the article’s authors wrote.
Snapchat, for example, is free for anyone to use. The picture messaging application features upward of 20 filters that users can toggle through by simply swiping across their phone screens. Filters can give a person freckles, longer eyelashes, wider eyes and flawless skin, among other augmentations. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter also allow people to edit their photos in the application before uploading.
Other applications, such as Facetune, take things a step further. For $3.99, users have access to a host of editing tools such as teeth whitening and making a person’s forehead, nose or waist smaller.
Neelam Vashi, an assistant professor of dermatology at the Boston University School of Medicine and one of the article’s authors, told The Washington Post that some of her patients want results as quickly as the apps provide them.
While people most often use filters or editing software for minor fixes such as clearing blemishes or plumping lips, Vashi said traditional cosmetic procedures largely can’t reproduce the “instant fix” people see in their edited photos.
“Sometimes I have patients who say, ‘I want every single spot gone, and I want it gone by this week or I want it gone tomorrow,’ because that’s what this filtered photograph gave them,” she said. “They check off one thing, and it’s gone. That’s not realistic. I can’t do that. I can make people a lot better, but it will take me a lot more time than a week, and it won’t be 100 percent.”
Why are patients so intent on looking like their filtered selves? It’s often because they want to look good in selfies, Vashi said.
According to the annual American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery survey, selfies continue to be a driving force behind why people wish to get plastic surgery done.
In 2017, the survey found that 55 percent of surgeons reported seeing patients who requested surgery to look better in selfies — a 13 percent increase from the previous year’s results.
Being inundated by these edited images on a regular basis can take a toll on people, Vashi said, adding that looking at a photo of yourself and not seeing the same thing reflected in the mirror or an unedited photo can make people unhappy. In some cases, it can even lead to developing body dysmorphic disorder, she said.
“It can bring feelings of sadness, and then if one really develops this disorder, that sadness clearly progresses to something that can be dangerous and alarming,” she said.