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The iPhone Has Objectified Our Faces

Caroline Haskins

Caroline Haskins

How do we use the iPhone to create better versions of ourselves?

Pixabay/aks9215

Motherboard staff is exploring the cultural, political, and social influence of the iPhone for the 10th anniversary of its release. Follow along.

iPhones have fundamentally changed what we expect from a smartphone. But how have they changed the way that we think about ourselves—specifically, with respect to our faces?

One could argue that the design of the iPhone and its most popular apps spurred the popularization of what some—often Baby Boomers—like to call "selfie culture."

Several face-altering apps launched in 2010 alongside the iPhone 4, taking advantage of the iPhone's then-new front-facing camera. Fatbooth was one of the first popular face-altering apps.

Image: Pivi & Co.

Jenna Drenten, a professor of communications at Loyola University Chicago who has written about Fatbooth and social media, says that face-altering apps reflect the way that we want—and don't want—to be perceived by others. They promote the idea that features like wrinkles or pimples are inherently negative physical features.

"Apps like AgingBooth and FatBooth just perpetuate existing social stigmas that being old or being overweight are bad and should be laughed at," she told me in an email. "When we use face-altering apps to edit our images, we are often more concerned with how other people see us than with embracing who we truly are."

FatBooth has fallen into relative obscurity over the years, but Drenten doesn't think this is because we've become any less resistant to fat-shaming.

"Apps like Snapchat and now Facebook are integrating similar face-altering features into their platforms," she said. "Consumers already use Snapchat religiously, so using an additional app like Fatbooth is unnecessary. It has been pushed out of the market by competitors."

In 2013, facial retouching app Facetune launched alongside the iPhone 6. According to its description in the App Store, the app has features that "refine your smile," "remove temporary imperfections," and give your eyes a "penetrating gaze."

I spoke with Itai Tsiddon, one of the founders of Facetune, about the social impact of the app. He said that Facetune "democratizes" features normally available on professional editing softwares such as Photoshop and makes them available to any iPhone user.

"You could argue, 'Oh, now everyone feels the need to retouch their photos before they post them,'" he told me on the phone. "But think about photos of Jennifer Aniston or famous, pretty, rich people. They always get retouched anyway—unlike you and me—and their stuff gets posted."

James Charles, a makeup and beauty Youtuber with 1.2 million subscribers, is the creator of an instructional Facetune video called "HOW TO TAKE YOUR SELFIES FROM DRAB TO FAB! FACETUNE TUTORIAL," which has almost 700,000 views.

"I don't know why recently people have been getting so surprised and called out for [Facetuning], when it's been something that's been going on literally since the beginning of time," Charles said in the video. "Everybody edits their photos, and I guarantee, probably half of you watching have probably Facetuned yourselves on your phones as well."

There are growing concerns about the social impact of retouching apps such as Facetune. Bob Bendar, a media professor at Southwestern University, believes that Facetune indeed "democratizes" the ability to tune your face, but we can no longer assume that photographs reflect reality.

"In the larger visual culture, every one of us now is a person, but also has multiple visual selves circulating in different virtual environments," he said. "What does it mean to be in a world where there's hundreds and hundreds of images floating around of ourselves in the ether while our body is always in one place at one time? There's always all these other images of ourselves."

I asked him what the popularity of facial retouching apps such as Facetune says about how we use our iPhones.

"It implies that we see iPhones as both mirrors and as projection tools," he said. "We want to look at them and show ourselves to ourselves, but I think the whole point of it is that we have access to all these different platforms where we want to show the world something constantly. We can do it instantly with the same device that we took the picture on, just tune it quickly, and move on."

Facetune is just one of many popular facial retouching apps. Meitu is a face-editing and retouching app developed by a Chinese company of the same name. It was available to Chinese, Japanese, and Korean users as early as 2013.

When it became available to English speakers in January 2017, taking over social media feeds for a couple of days. You may have seen these oddly unsettling pictures of people like Hillary Clinton and Mark Zuckerberg grace us on Twitter:

Image: CraveOnline

The consensus seemed to be that the app makes you look like an anime or manga character. But the app doesn't enhance your eye size—the trademark feature of faces in anime/manga artistry. (Nevermind the fact that it was created by Chinese app developers, and anime/manga is a Japanese art form.)

However, Meitu does give faces the air-brushed appearance of being drawn by an artist. It also lightens your skin, and Motherboard has written about how this aesthetic reflects East Asian beauty norms.

Meitu spokesperson Vivi Zhou told me that "Meitu" has become verb in the same sense as "Photoshop."

"We strive to create value for our users through making the sharing of beauty more intelligent," she said to me in an email. "Meitu is not only used as a verb for 'enhancing images,' but it also represents beauty, trendiness and youthfulness."

According to Loyola's Drenten, Meitu reflects cultural stereotypes of beauty and pressures social media users to conform to these stereotypes.

"Our phones now offer mini-makeovers in the palms of our hands, but as we use them, we're creating and perpetuating unrealistic beauty ideals," she said. "Using apps to alter your appearance can offer opportunities for empowerment, creativity, and experimentation. However, they can also negatively affect consumer well-being."

Even if you have not used Facetune or Meitu, you have almost definitely used Snapchat's "Lenses" feature—or "filters," as most people call them. Lenses launched in September 2015 after Snapchat acquired Ukrainian facial tracking and modification app Looksery for $150 million. Clearly, Snapchat saw a market for people hoping to alter their appearance in real time.

Some of the Lenses—like the ones that engorge your eyes and lips to ridiculous sizes—are obviously meant to be used in jest. But many of the lenses incorporate airbrushing and real-time retouching that make us less shy about showing our faces to our friends. For instance, the infamous "dog/puppy" lens also airbrushes your face and covers your nose.

A spokesperson for Snap, Inc. told me that Lenses were meant to be a creative tool of self-expression. But according to actual Lens users on social media, using Lenses isn't just an act of self-expression, but one of insecurity, boredom, and generally beautifying one's reality.

Snap said that although Looksery describes itself as a "facial tracking" app, it's powered by object recognition, not facial recognition. In other words, it registers your face as an object, but it can't recognize you by your face.

This may comfort people who have heard the unfounded conspiracy theory that Snapchat is building a facial recognition database and selling that data to third parties.

Personally, I think that facial "object recognition" supports an idea that there is a virtual version of our faces that no one—not even our iPhones—can recognize.

According to Southwestern University's Bendar, the iPhone has not only created virtual versions of ourselves, but completely changed the way we visually communicate. As time goes on, he believes that the iPhone will continue to change our visual culture in different ways.

"When [the iPhone was originally released], it was, 'Well, anyone can be a filmmaker. Anyone can be a photographer,'" Bendar told me. "Now, it's 'How do you participate in the culture that surrounds you?' To be in this culture means not only that you photograph and share, but that you've gotta perfect the photographs before you share them or you might as well not take them."