Is Everyone Gaslighting Everyone?

girl holding flowers from her boyfriend

What is our obligation to each other? This is something I’ve been pondering of late, as altered appearance (both digitally and in real life) has become the norm. I’m talking Photoshop, filters, botox, breast implants, filler, auto-tune and more.

While these forms of alteration have been around forever, they are more prevalent thanks to social media. Ten years ago, edited images were typically restricted to the likes of editorial magazines. Cover girls might be doctored but you could rest assured that your neighbour’s family album was authentic. Now, not so much.

Of course, deception takes multiple forms, not just the digital. People strive for an Instagram face IRL – ready for a flawless selfie at a moment’s notice. Individuals use everything from dermal fillers to liposuction in the quest for a culturally deemed “perfection”. It’s so pervasive that you wouldn’t recognize it. Your vet? Your grandma? Surely not. We are now the country with the most cosmetic surgery operations per capita. Cosmetic enhancement has gone full mainstream.

 Bruised legs are the new string bikini
Bruised legs are the new string bikini

Deception takes multiple forms. It can be digital (filters, Photoshop, auto-tune), it can be physical (microblading, eyelash extensions, injectable fillers) and it can also be a curated lifestyle. A profile that consists exclusively of string bikinis and strawberry daiquiris gives a false impression of someone’s life. Their Feed is one big, glamorous holiday; the credit card debt, body dysmorphia and break ups never see the light of day.

This deceit – intentional or not – normalizes certain lifestyles and appearances. It creates a world where the average woman’s lip is about three inches plumper than is natural. This distortion of reality is dangerous. Humans want to belong. Ongoing exposure to plumped-up pouts makes people feel like their own lips might be deficient in some way. While studies have only tenuously linked eating disorders and body dysmorphia to social media, just glance around and you can see the impact.

This makes me wonder at what point we must disclose our alterations, so as not to create a false reality for impressionable individuals – arguably, everyone. Some Instagram models have a note in their caption to remind users that their images have been retouched. Some magazines include a reality check: This photo was one of two thousand takes and took a make up artist, hair dresser, stylist and professional lighting. Personally, I find these disclosures helpful, even if the moment of realisation is fleeting.

In an interview, Rachael Finch (former Miss Universe, model, business woman) was asked whether she ever takes multiple photos before sharing on social media. I’m grateful for her honesty – yes, she also clogs her phone with photo upon photo. Similarly, an influencer’s reminder that she does fight with her boyfriend tells me my own disagreements are just part of the human experience.

I love these bouts of authenticity but that’s what they are, bouts. Small interspersions of the nappy changes, the blackheads and the budgets, amongst hotel stays, couple selfies and high-profile black tie events. If the ratio of glitz to grime better reflected reality, perhaps people wouldn’t express so much dissatisfaction with their life after a few hours on YouTube or Facebook. But would an adjusted ratio be enough?

Perhaps a better approach would be for social media platforms to insist on reality checks. Just like the use of #collab and #ad to denote sponsored content, hash tags could be used to reflect when content is #filtered or #retouched. It’s within platforms’ power to make such disclaimers compulsory. And it would give users a clearer understanding of what is and isn’t real. Such regulations could certainly be a step in the right direction. But their efficacy would be limited. For where do we draw the line?

 Oscar was freakishly photogenic
Oscar was freakishly photogenic

A declaration of digital retouching ignores all of the aesthetic transformations occurring offline. Would blatant honesty about unnatural changes include hair dying, teeth bleaching, eye lash perms and laser hair removal? Would it extend into the lifestyles we project, consisting largely of wine-tasting trips, beach excursions and long bouts in Europe? Is an omission a lie? My life is endlessly fabulous.

As always, there’s an argument to be made for the individual’s responsibility. That is, we should all recognise that shit ain’t real and keep scrolling. But no one does. Image manipulation has gotten so sophisticated, that it isn’t always obvious. I’ve stared at a woman’s butt before and wondered – is that a product of a million lunges and being genetically #blessed? Or does she get injections in her tush?

At the end of the day, my curiosity isn’t well served. Stripped of all Photoshop, some people are more aligned with society’s vision of beauty. In this way, is digital enhancement the great equalizer? Or does it perpetuate a harmful obsession with appearance? If you can’t beat them, should you join them?

That’s what I’ve done. I contribute to the mirage. I use filters and photoshop. I alter my physical appearance. I cherry pick moments of my life. I know everyone else is doing it and I’m not missing out. FOMO is alive and well – check my account.

The only solution – save sudden transparency from the masses – is to engage critically with the content you consume. Know that it’s probably not real and if it is, it might not be a reality for you. The Kardashians are held up as beauty personified. They alter their images. Cindy Crawford famously said, “I want to wake up looking like Cindy Crawford.” Julia Roberts’ head was pasted onto a body double for the Pretty Woman poster. Our digital alter egos and our real life selves have converged. Homogenised “perfection” walks our streets, only attained through peels and lasers and scientific intervention.

Play the game but do not be fooled. Influencers do laundry, celebrities get anxiety and we are all very, very human.

Do you think retouching is a form of gaslighting? How do you think this situation would be best addressed?

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