Snapchat Lenses Elucidate Greater Societal Problems

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FILE – This Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017, file photo shows the Snapchat app. The Wall Street Journal reports Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, that Snap recently fired two executives after one allegedly had an inappropriate relationship with a contract worker. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Whether you are a college student, middle-aged adult, child, or grandparent, if you live in a “First World” country, your life has been affected by Snapchat. The unassuming ghost icon has left a tangible mark on society; according to statistics, approximately 3.5 billion snaps are sent per day (as of November 2017) and about 186 million people are considered daily active users (as of October 2018). An estimated 70 million of those individuals use Snapchat lenses (as of July 2018), which alter faces or the surroundings so users can show their friends what they would look like with teddy bear ears, a unicorn horn, or with a drastically different facial shape. While these filters may initially seem like harmless fun, many of the lenses change subtle aspects of a subject’s face to make a person seem “prettier,” revealing subliminal beauty standards that extend beyond one app to the current social landscape.

When I tried the 21 face-altering lenses available on January 22, 2019 (excluding games), 15 of them narrowed facial features such as my nose and chin, subtly implying that a smaller, slimmer facial shape is more beautiful. In addition, many of the lenses enlarge a person’s eyes and even change the skin color to appear more white and the eye color to be more sparkly and blue. There have been days where I have scrolled through Snapchat and over 75% of the “pretty” filters have lightened my dark brown eyes. Of course, the filter that alters my face to look like a mask from The Purge franchise leaves my eyes untouched; it is not trying to make me look pretty, so the brown eyes are there to stay. This is not just a silly coincidence; Snapchat filters propagate a blatantly racist message reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, where Pecola Breedlove, a young African-American girl growing up in Ohio, dreams of acquiring blue eyes and drives herself to the point of insanity to satisfy Caucasian standards of beauty. When I first saw one of my Indian friends with an adorable Snapchat flower crown—and digital blue eyes—I was taken aback, as if Snapchat had subtlety but surely removed my friend from the image entirely.

While a simple app can by no means explain the racism and discrimination plaguing society and politics, it is indicative of a larger issue and may harm minority groups’ self-image. As a whole, African-American and Asian people do not have blue eyes, narrow noses, rosy cheeks, or smaller lips, features which Snapchat holds up to users to be the epitome of beauty. These filters modify such users to look unlike themselves, which may cause members of racial minority groups to feel out of place and unwanted.

This is not the first time that photography has indirectly contributed to racist beauty standards. As early as the mid-1950s, Kodak, a prominent photography company, has used “Shirley” cards—named after a white, blue-eyed model who worked there—to calibrate skin tones, shadows, and light in photo labs during printing. While many models were used after the original Shirley, all were white and reflected what Western society considered “normal” and beautiful.

Photography is often seen as an unbiased method of communicating information about a scene. However, it is important to recognize that photos can still be laced with racist subliminal messages. While it is obvious that Snapchat lenses alter photos, it is important to recognize the extent to which this is done and the biases that may creep into the subconscious without proper vigilance and thought, especially considering Snapchat’s growing influence in communication and covering current events. I love seeing myself in bunny ears just as much as the next person. However, in the words of actress Kerry Washington on photoshopping, it is vital for all Snapchat users to remember that “…I’m enough. So don’t make me feel like I’m not enough by changing me to fit some idea of what you think I’m supposed to look like. What I look like is OK .”


Kate Lee is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at Katherine.h.lee@uconn.edu .

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