Yesterday I came across an online video that made my jaw drop. A young woman, with a fresh, unadorned face, is looking straight at her smartphone’s camera. Her face looks serious, a bit forlorn. A few seconds in, she tilts her head on one side and moves her smartphone: a split screen appears, and as if by magic, one side of her face is now transformed – her skin looks whiter, her eyes become bigger, like an anime character… blemishes disappear, her eyes are now featuring eyeliner and long lashes and her lips are a darker shade of pink. As the phone pans around, this young woman’s face is now fully transformed. She smiles and winks at the camera. The next scene shows another young woman with big eyes, long lashes, porcelain white skin, pink cheeks and red lipstick. She’s on the left side of the frame and as her head tilts to the right, the screen splits in two. We discover that this woman’s real appearance is significantly different: she is not wearing any makeup and her eyes are a normal size, not cartoon-like. She looks like a completely different person.

I first spotted the video on Reddit, in the “Instagram Reality” discussion group, whose focus is on calling out the unrealistic beauty standards promoted by social media. The post, titled “the ‘power’ of filters?”, featured interesting comments and opinions regarding which smartphone app may have been used to create these powerful effects. All signs pointed to the app “Snow” by Camp Mobile, a subsidiary of South Korean search giant Naver Corporation. Since I am making a feature-length documentary about the impact of new technology on society and people’s self-esteem, I was curious to try out this app and report back.

The results positively haunted me.

THE REALISTS Snow app change face
THE REALISTS Snow-app-marketing

The images used to market Snow make it look like an innocuous, fun app that allows young women to share photos with stickers and filters with their friends. Yet, this app can have a powerful impact on the way users see themselves.

When I opened Snow, I was asked to log in with Facebook or LINE. I deleted my Facebook account over a year ago and I didn’t feel comfortable using the messaging app LINE as login for Snow: the privacy policy seemed too intrusive, asking for access to one’s address book, profile information of contacts and the ability to read messages. So I declined. A warning appeared: I would only be able to use “basic features” of Snow without a Facebook or LINE login. I proceeded anyway.

My live image, captured by the front-facing camera of my iPhone, filled up the entire screen. A menu item on the bottom of the screen read “Beauty”. I clicked on it. I then clicked on “Makeup” and I was given the option to add blush, lipstick, fake eyelashes, and eye shadow to my face. I could even change my eye color and make my eyebrows appear fuller.

I tinkered with the various options for a couple of minutes and I saw, staring back at me, the live video of a better looking, younger, more glamorous woman. It was eerie how realistic it looked. I decided to record a video of my phone’s screen, to see what my face looked like, with and without these effects. I was positively shocked. When the effect was off, my face looked significantly older, as if I had aged 10 years in the blink of an eye. “Do I really look like this in real life?” was the thought triggered every time I would click on the button that removed all the effects.

THEREALISTS-video snow app

I spent a decade working on The Illusionists, a documentary about the toxic, unrealistic beauty ideals promoted by mass media and advertising. I am conscious of the saturation of images of unattainable bodies all around us and I have done more than a hundred presentations at high schools, universities, corporations, and non-profits around the world to raise awareness about these issues. Ultimately, I encourage people to avoid the illusory media messages and accept and be grateful for their bodies. Along the way, I have learned how to dismiss moments of insecurity about my own appearance and to become immune to commercial pressures to look a certain way. I was convinced I was a pro at this. But nothing prepared me for the shock of the app Snow. The eerie, startling feeling of seeing a live video with a hyper-perfected, virtual version of me, who seemed to say: “You could look like this, but you’re not. Are you too lazy to put in the time, effort and money to achieve this look? WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?”

Oh, I know what I will do: delete the app. IMMEDIATELY.

The thing is, I am conscious that I am not the target demographic for this app: Snow is geared towards teenagers and young adults. And the negative impact it could have on their self-esteem worries me. Because it’s not just about Snow: there are countless beauty and social media apps used by millions of people around the world, that allow them to artificially alter their appearance – from Facetune to Meitu and Snapchat. Last year, a flurry of newspaper articles raised alarm bells about the negative effects of Snapchat filters on young people’s body image: “‘Snapchat Dysmorphia: Teenagers Are Getting Plastic Surgery to Look Like Selfie Filters“. What makes these apps significantly more dangerous than anything you may see on traditional media (movies, TV, magazines) is that they show an hyper-perfected idealized image of YOU, not a distant model or celebrity. And these images are a few clicks away, on a device you carry with you all day long in your pocket.

I don’t have an easy solution or eloquent words of wisdom to dispense, except this: when you are feeling self-conscious about your body, follow the money. Ask yourself who may be profiting from it. I, for one, refuse to feel self-conscious about my looks because of an app, developed by a team of software engineers, working for a multi-billion dollar company that has a vested interest in keeping me hooked, spending as much time as possible on the app. I also like to reflect upon the fact that we only have this one precious life, one precious body that has been with us every second of every day, since we were born. Gratitude towards it should surpass any fleeting moments of insecurity. And I’d repeat the same things I said at the end of The Illusionists: surround yourself with positive people who share your values. When given a choice, steer away from illusions and seek out what’s real. You’ll be much better off in the long run.