Our Obsession with Altered Versions of Ourselves


This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Better Photography.

There’s a lot of pressure to look a certain way on the internet, and you don’t have to be a celebrity or a known figure to experience it. A lot of the burden comes from the people we choose to be friends with or follow on social media. I feel like I belong to both sides of the problem – that of a perpetrator and a victim.

All my life I have struggled with my skin, and to a certain extent, even my body. Any photograph (of myself) that could be a ‘potential’ upload on Facebook or Instagram, would be thoroughly scrutinised first. “Are the scars on my face too visible?” “Is my face looking too patchy?” “Am I appearing too brown or too dark?” Is my nose looking fat?” “Maybe I should suck in my tummy a little more.”

On the rare occasion when I’d feel remotely good about myself, I would celebrate it with an Instagram story – A 15 second video of my face, while in a rickshaw, with the wind in my hair. I felt beautiful and liberated. But I realised a certain problematic pattern that arose every time that I recorded a video. Unknowingly, I had created ‘rules’ for how I wanted the video to look like, when it was supposed to be freewheeling. I would only shoot if the sun was shinning directly on my face, thus obliterating all my scars. And the night sky allowed me to hide in the shadows of its darkness. If this didn’t work, I’d use Instagram filters to soften my scars. When people responded positively, it made me feel like a fraud.

When Instagram was first launched, its filters were supposed to mimic certain retro aesthetics that became popular. Cellphone manufacturers took the hint and rolled out devices that incorporated a wide variety of filters. But along the way, we forgot the original intent of the filters. Not that there were any rules around its usage, but as selfies gained momentum and trickled down to the masses, many of us loved the way it made us look – cleaner, smoother and more importantly, brighter. In a country where beauty is synonymous with fairness, companies were gearing towards bringing out a more radical change, this time, in the phone’s front camera.

As part of my job at Better Photography, I get to review phones. Over the last 2-3 years, I’ve received devices whose USPs were built around its front camera. They sported megapixel counts that was the equivalent of the rear camera, as well as features that brightened or elongated the face. The ‘Beautify’ filter is one example. I remember trying it for the first time and being appalled by how the skin on my face wasn’t brown anymore.

For any kind of technological innovation or advancement to gain momentum, it has got to appeal to the masses. Now that we’re in 2019, and if cellphone manufacturers continue to launch phones that emphasise on certain beauty standards, they’re not in the wrong in doing so. They’re simply catering to what their customers want. So what does this say about us? Have we become so incredulous that we’re unable to fathom the consequences of our superficiality? It’s one thing to love yourself and flaunt that to empower others on the internet, and quite another, when what you project yourself as does not come from a place of acceptance and love. It’s easy to build a wall of these photographs around you, and bathe in its validation. But walls like these are the most susceptible to cracks. The camera was never meant to deceive, but it seems like it’s being made to do just that.

Do we love these filtered or altered versions of ourselves because for the briefest moment it allows us to be what we’re not? Why do we crave it so much? Or is it just a compulsion birthed out of the simple fact that everyone’s doing it? Alex Katz, the renowned American figurative artist called it (selfies) something else… “I use the iPhone for information. But with selfies, I don’t know what people are doing. It’s like they believe what they see is real, even with the filters. And god bless them! But to me, it’s not a self-portrait, it’s a reality project.”

Having said all of this, I also understand the hesitance in ‘revealing’ your true self to the internet. We all have our own insecurities and flaws, and battles to fight. I am still fighting mine. What I hope for the new year is that we find at least little ways to celebrate ourselves, and that we choose to find acceptance in the person we see reflected in the mirror, and not the one on our phone’s screen.

Tags: self portrait, better photography, facebook, Conchita Fernandes, cellphone, filters, selfie, instagram, Perspectives, Opinions, January 2019