Snapchat dysmorphia: Can I look like my selfie?

A decade or so ago, someone spoke the word selfie as the first reference to a self-made portrait. The selfie era was born. And with it came thousands of self-portraits being uploaded to social media each year.

Now, experts are showing concern about a disorder that involves an obsession with selfies—dubbed “Snapchat dysmorphia.”

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Recently, experts identified this Snapchat phenomenon in an article published in the JAMA network. The piece was written by researchers from the dermatology department at the Boston University School of Medicine.

According to the authors, more and more young people are turning to plastic surgery to transform into a better version of themselves. The motivation? You guessed it—photo-editing apps like Snapchat.

“I have to look like my selfie,” one young lady named Anika told The Guardian. Anika was talking about how she felt when her Snapchat followers wanted to meet up with her in real life.

The JAMA article relates how people like Anika have been looking into cosmetic procedures to achieve a look similar to their heavily filtered online photos.

According to the authors, the filters are changing how people think about beauty. And for some, that could mean an unrealistic view.

Neelam Vashi, co-author of the article, called the filters “remarkable” in The Washington Post.

According to Vashi, phone apps have now put the secret of celebrity beauty into the hands of, well, everyone. Vashi is an assistant professor of dermatology at Boston University School of Medicine. 

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To get an ideal picture, Snapchat features nearly two dozen filters people can use to transform themselves.

But Snapchat isn’t the only self-editing platform out there. People can use Instagram Stories to apply enhancing filters too. According to CNCB, the app now has over twice as many users on Stories as Snapchat does on its entire platform.

In addition, Apple’s popular FaceTune app allows users to smooth out their complexion, fix their noses and apply thinning filters.

Although these features certainly concern experts, the main worry is whether the unnatural self-editing could lead to body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), BDD affects around 2 percent of the population, or 1 in 50 people. Similar to an eating disorder, body dysmorphic disorder is a person’s preoccupation with specific features of the body.

Although many people dislike some parts of their bodies, those with BDD let it intrude their thoughts, causing anxiety and affecting daily life. Many people with the disorder avoid social situations for fear that others will notice their imperfections.

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Interestingly, the ADAA states that body dysmorphic disorder often affects teens and adolescents. This is the exact age group that Snapchat caters to.

In a recent survey by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS), 72 percent of plastic surgeons saw a rise in millennials getting cosmetic procedures. That number is a sharp 24 percent increase from 2017. The most popular procedures included rhinoplasty, Botox and other non-invasive procedures (6).

The numbers suggest that “Snapchat dysmorphia” concerns are valid. More young people today are seeking self-care and aging prevention, says the AAFPRS. Young people are acting now rather than waiting to turn back the clock surgically when they’re older.

Snapchat dysmorphia could put plastic surgeons in a hard place. Surgeons have to explain that the look patients want may be unachievable. According to WebMD, plastic surgeons often look for signs of body obsession when they’re screening patients as well.

Dr. Katharine Phillips, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, told WebMD that social media doesn’t help body dysmorphic disorder at all. In fact, Phillips says it just keeps the obsession alive.

The difficulty for patients and doctors will be knowing when that desire to change one’s own body, just to look like a selfie image, is going too far.