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Snapchat Filters and Self-Love: Are They Helping or Hurting?

By:Ayanda Gigaba (@agigaba)

It’s no mystery why certain Snapchat filters are more popular than others. The humorous face warping filters, animal voice-converting filters and the neglected colour sketch filter all pale in comparison to Snapchat’s beautifying filters. Certain filters come and go but the fine technical engineers at Snapchat have offered us a longstanding staple of flower and butterfly crowns that make us irresistible to ourselves.

The common denominators of these filters raise my suspicion to the type of beauty that Snapchat is endorsing. That faux glimmer in the eyes, the subtle makeup that creates contoured cheekbones, the standardized lip thickness/thinness of add-on lipstick and a significantly lighter complexion in the pursuit blemish-free skin seems to accommodate only some.

When I first decided to don the Snapchat flower crown, I fell in love with the altered version of myself that flashed on my phone’s screen. I couldn’t wait to post my picture on Twitter and contribute to the self-celebration hash tags. I believe that ‘selfies’ are more than just a bit of candid fun because the process of self-documentation is a form of self-validation.

Snapchat filter selfies have been a tool in self-love movements for black people around the world. Hash tags like #BlackOut, #MelaninMonday and #CarefreeBlackGirl selfies serve as affirmations to black people who have been excluded from the dominant beauty aesthetic.

I started to prefer the altered images of myself and felt almost naked without a filter. My dark brown eyes felt like menacing voids—black holes that threatened to suck the life out of anyone unfortunate enough to stumble upon my unaltered image—without the dreamy film. My skin with it pimples, scars, oiliness and uneven tones was a tell-tale sign that my melanin didn’t pop in a specifically appealing way.

My unfiltered selfies made me uncomfortable. Instead of the butterflies that one expects to feel when learning to self-love, I felt a sinking heaviness in my stomach. Pride glowed on the surface of my digitally lightened skin while shame fluttered about on the inside. A subconscious desire, that I once denied, had been fulfilled in the snap of a finger.

It dawned on me that I had never taken the politics of colourism seriously. Colourism is something that happens over there in the U.S.  where they spell colour with no ‘u’. I was reluctant to think about how the implications of it manifested in my life. How could I, a black South African girl, experience this racially internal warring between light skin and dark skin while I live in a majority black country? Surely black is black is black, right? I dismissed colourism as a discourse that speaks more urgently to black people in the diaspora.

I was familiar with it from a formal, academic and distant perspective. According to the Oxford Dictionary, colourism is the prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. I think that dictionary definitions are served half-cooked when it comes to the nuances of racial discourse. So here is the other half: colourism is also the bias in favour of individuals with a lighter skin tone because of their suggested proximity to ‘whiteness’. This bias was achieved by colonialism and how the colonial project psychologically positioned the white race as ‘superior’ through centuries of violent subjugation.

Dark skin has had little to no social currency throughout history because of the negative stereotypes that were imposed on it. My beef with Snapchat is that the filters we praise for ‘giving us life’ covertly uphold whiteness as the standard of beauty.

We see this in the physical proportions and features that are catered to when the filters are digitally applied to the face. At first I excused the badly matched lip thinness and skin related effects but as the beautifying filters became more refined, the lip and skin standards didn’t follow suit.

As an educated young black woman, I thought that the ability to detect the sinister presence of the colourism hierarchy at work in popular media and culture would be enough to safeguard my mind. I mean I’ve read think pieces, academic journals, and watched countless documentaries and vlog posts about the subject.

But my critical eye worked from 9 to 5  and I underestimated the power of the residual messages of the day. Messages boldly proclaimed that someone with my hue of melanin in the wide colour spectrum was simply undesirable in comparison to the celebrated melanin hues. These messages have been whispered in the ears of black women since childhood.

However, Snapchat’s filters are not my central concern but it was my interactions with the app that brought it to my attention that my self-love practices were steeped in a warped perception of me. Of course I have the option to not participate in these filters because I feel they misrepresent my image but I’m caught in a trap between knowledge and feelings. I know I should love myself as I am but I can’t deny that I feel beautiful with the add-ons, touch-ups and lightening.

I’ll admit that I have an obscene number of flower crown selfies on my camera roll that fill me with pride but I need to balance out my self-love. There’s no doubt we all feel beautiful with these filters, but we should be critical about how much love and praise we give to different versions of ourselves.

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